Crowds filtered into the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) grounds in 1978, greeting old friends as they made their way to their grandstand boxes that had been passed down from their grandparents. Others squeezed in along the rail, filling every available space, all hoping to get the best view of the action.
For the first time in the show’s 82 years, a grand prix was the featured event on Thursday evening, and tickets had sold out the previous week. Frank Chapot designed the course that year, and though it was midnight before Melanie Smith Taylor and Val De Loire were named the winners, the crowd never thinned. Katie Monahan (now Prudent) took second, and Taylor also claimed third aboard Radnor II.
“The crowds were so close to the ring that you felt the crowd behind you; that to me made it special,” Taylor remembered. “I think horses try harder when they know. There’s such a feeling of greatness when you walk into that ring, and the crowd, it’s just thundering, and they’re just right there on the rail practically. So it was a tremendous thrill, and then the trophies are so beautiful there. It was very, very special to win there.”
Taylor had just gotten “Val” the year prior. She was showing in Europe that summer and saw the striking gelding competing in the Grand Prix of Aachen (Germany) with Spanish rider Luis Alvarez Cervera and was struck by his beautiful form. She tried him in La Baule, France, the following week, and Neil and Helen Eustace bought him for her.
“He was a wonderful horse, but he had a stopping problem, so the first year that I showed him, I jumped more fences without him then I jumped with him because I would go flying over his head,” Taylor recalled. “We really worked on that. The thing was, I was trying to ride him like he had been ridden before by a strong, wonderful rider—but a strong man had ridden him. And I realized he had to learn to go the way I rode. That took a little bit to change that up for him to go my way, but he ended up being a fabulous horse.
“[Alvarez] was a great rider and a wonderful man,” she continued. “He had done a great job with him, but he was a very strong rider, so Val had always been ridden a lot between the hand and the leg. That was not the American style, so he just had to learn to go in a lighter frame. Once we figured all that out, he was really a great horse.”
By 1978 Taylor had finally found the winning formula with the gelding.
“He won five or six that year, but being early in the year [Devon] really set the tone for that summer,” she said. “We went on to win a lot of big classes that year.
“It was a fun year because I remember Bernie Traurig and The Cardinal would be first and [we’d be] second and second and first; we would trade off all year, and I think Val ended up being horse of the year,” Taylor said. “He was a wonderful horse because he gave me a lot of confidence. He jumped in such beautiful form, and coming from Europe he jumped all the water and ditches and everything so easily.”
Missing the Devon Horse Show this week? We are too, so we’re traveling back in time to bring you some of the highlights from this 124-year-old horse show.