Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024

Remembering Charles Gordon “Champ” Hough Jr.

Whether racing over fences, competing in the Olympic Games, training a president, horses or riders, he was the ultimate horseman, eclipsed by only one role: father.
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Legendary multi-sport horseman Charles Gordon “Champ” Hough Jr. died on March 27  at the age of 88. In his memory, we’re republishing this article, which ran as a “Living Legend” feature in the Aug. 17, 2015, edition of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Seated on the couch at his ex-wife and friend Linda Hough’s home in Wellington, Florida, Champ Hough’s eyes twinkle, and he grins—he never lets a full-toothed smile sneak out—as he begins the story of how he ended up an Olympic medalist and a member of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame despite his father’s prophecy. 

When Champ was just a child, his father, Charles Hough Sr., told his mother, Charlotte Marie Hough, “You’re blowing all this money, and he’ll never see a horse when he leaves this house.” 

Thankfully for Champ and much of the equestrian community, that was a prophecy unfulfilled. He jumped his first fence at the age of 8 and, aside from a brief period away from riding to attend college, he never strayed from the presence of a horse again. 

Recalling the many championships he’s won, the jobs he’s held, and, most importantly, in his eyes, the clients he’s served, Champ pauses. 

“I’d say this life has been pretty good to me,” he says. 

“I think my favorite time was watching my daughters grow up,” said Champ Hough, shown here with a young Lauren Hough. Fallow Photo

Indeed it has, but he’s been pretty good to it as well, developing numerous top horses and educating countless riders and judges. 

And to think it all began with a tryout for the 1952 Olympic Games. 

Cassivellannus 

As a teen, Champ competed as a jump jockey, contesting steeplechases and point-to-point races in his home state of California. Winning races right and left, he didn’t know he was being scouted by the head of the U.S. Equestrian Team, who lived in the area and attended many of the competitions. 

Although Champ had no formal background in the sport, the official recommended he try out for the Olympic eventing team. At just 16 years old, Champ agreed and packed up for Fort Riley, Kansas, the team’s training base. He wouldn’t return home for more than a year—not until after the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. 

At Fort Riley, Champ trained under the tutelage of Col. John Wofford, the man charged with coaching the U.S. eventing team in Helsinki. Wofford’s wife Dorothea was raising several young horses at the military base, and Champ was drawn to one, a 3-year-old named Cassivellannus. Although he had his own horse, Craigwood Park, Champ saw the potential in “Cass.” He broke the horse himself, and, by 1952, “When it came to be tryout time, he was the best horse that we had,” says Champ, despite having never been to a horse show. 

“He wasn’t the prettiest horse in the world—in fact he was a bit common in the head—but he was a very well-built horse otherwise and a very sound horse,” Champ says. “He was a very nice horse, a very useful horse. He had a wonderful disposition and was easy to train. That’s how he took the dressage training so well.” 

That dressage instruction was handled by Major Robert Borg, whom Champ credits with much of his development during his time at Fort Riley. Major Borg, a World War II veteran, earned a team silver medal in dressage at the 1948 London Olympics for the United States. He not only rode on that team, but he also coached it—and the eventing team, which won gold that year. In 1952 and 1956 he again both coached and rode on the dressage team. 

“He was a master horseman,” Champ said. “He was one of the truly great horsemen that America has raised.” 

Champ and Cass passed the Olympic tryouts with flying colors; Walter Staley Jr. (riding Champ’s Craigwood Park) and Wofford’s son Jeb, with Benny Grimes, would complete the American contingent. When the team was finalized, the group set out for Europe, where they competed at three practice shows to tune up for the Games. 

“The Baby-Faced Kids” 

The Helsinki Olympics welcomed civilians to compete in equestrian events for the first time. In previous Games, only members of the military were eligible. Champ and his teammates were the minority in Helsinki, as only four nations sent civilian-only teams: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. 

The U.S. riders’ ages further set them apart from their competitors. At just 18, Champ was the youngest athlete competing in an equestrian event at the Games. Jeb wasn’t much older at 19, while Staley Jr. was 20.

“So many of the calvary people thought we were just kids,” Champ recalls. “ ‘What were babies doing trying out for the Olympics?’ Back when we shipped over to Europe, we were called ‘the baby-faced kids.’ All through when we competed in Europe, we were always referred to as the ‘baby-faced kids.’ Most riders in our event were in their late 30s, and the majority of them were military men. They were in their late 30s to 40s.” 

But the young guns weren’t daunted by the criticism. 

Champ Hough and Cassivellannus led the U.S. event team to the bronze medal in the 1952 Olympic Games. Photo Courtesy Of Champ Hough

“We weren’t intimidated. We just felt that we were very lucky. We were very lucky to be chosen so young,” Champ says. “We seemed to have handled it very well. None of us got very nervous. I got more nervous later on in life competing than I ever did at the Olympic Games.” 

Champ got off to a positive start in Helsinki, turning in a strong dressage test—Cass’ strength. However, the youngest Olympian felt less confident heading into the cross-country, a challenge believed to be much stiffer than the test presented at the 1948 Games in London. 

“When I walked the course the day before, I came back and said, ‘I’ll be lucky if I get by with three falls and half a dozen refusals,’ ” Champ says. 

One jump in particular stood out. 

“I just knew the certain jump that I’d probably fall at. It was a big ditch jump,” Champ explains. “It came down between two gullies, and at the bottom of the gullies was a 10-foot ditch. It was 10 feet deep and 10 feet across with a pole and 3’9″ across the middle of it. I figured Cass would try to stop and then fall into the ditch. That’s what I thought would happen. I was so surprised when I came to it. He just hopped right over it like it was an ordinary jump. He jumped the whole course that way.” 

Champ and Cass finished as the highest-placed American pair after cross-country, putting Champ in contention to finish in the top 10 individually. 

Never one to be overconfident—he is always quick to give credit to his horse or his clients before himself—Champ set a low benchmark for his performance in the show jumping phase. He estimated he would have three rails on the final day of competition. But, yet again, he outperformed his expectations. 

“I had one down, and it was my fault, not the horse’s fault,” Champ says. “It was a narrow vertical, and I had just jumped the water. You jumped the water to the narrow vertical, and you never keep running straight ahead when you have that kind of combination. You come back and get your horse back and more under control, but I just kept running at it. He chipped in—he really chipped in, too—and had the fence down. It was definitely pilot error.” 

Despite the mistake, Champ finished ninth individually, the highest-placed American. He also secured a place on the podium for Team USA. The “baby-faced kids” became bronze medalists. 

Sutton Place 

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When Champ returned home, he turned his focus in a new direction: school. He enrolled in classes at Long Beach State University and completely stepped away from riding—that is, until he was recruited yet again to a new equestrian endeavor. 

Otto Rousseau, a top horseman in California at the time, sought out Champ and asked him to come ride for him at his stable. In typical gung-ho fashion, Champ said, “Sure.” 

Champ spent five years riding for Rousseau, who kept him supplied with quality jumpers, “one right after the other,” but after his contract was up, Champ elected to go off on his own. He struggled for a few years—“I was young and smart and thought I could do better on my own,” he admits—but things changed drastically when he moved to the northern part of the state. 

It wasn’t just a change of scenery that made a difference. It was a horse. 

“When I moved to Northern California, my life took a very big turn,” Champ says. “My big thing in life was the horse, Sutton Place.” 

When Champ wanted something, he got it. He set after it and worked for it until it was his. Such was the case with Sutton Place, a talented Argentinian-bred show hunter who had been winning classes up and down the East Coast for Tom and Peggy Lavery. 

“I asked a friend of mine, Bobby Burke, ‘What’s the best horse in America right now?’ and he said, ‘Sutton Place.’ So I got on a plane and went to try to buy him,” Champ says. 

Crown Zellerbach purchased Sutton Place for Champ. He owned the flashy gray for three years before trading him to Delia Ehrlich for one of her world champion Saddlebred horses, a breed with which Zellerbach was very involved. Ehrlich owned Sutton Place until he retired at age 16, when she gave him to Champ. The gelding earned championships at all the major shows on the California circuit, including Indio, Del Mar, Santa Barbara and Monterrey; at one point, he won 64 straight classes. 

“He never lost a model in his life, showing both in California and on the East Coast,” Champ says. “I shipped back one year and rode in all the New York shows and then dropped down to Virginia, where my friends all were showing. They told me, ‘Don’t go to Virginia. They won’t know his name.’ But he won in Virginia.” 

Champ Hough and Sutton Place were nearly unbeatable in their day, once winning 64 classes in a row across the country in the 1960s. Fallow Photo

Sutton Place lived out his years at a farm named in his honor, as Champ and Linda Hough titled their Northern California show stable in honor of the gelding. He passed away in his mid-20s; he was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 1999.

“He was an absolutely beautiful, beautiful horse,” said Walter James “Jimmy” Lee, who worked for Tom Lavery and later became a close friend of Champ’s. “He was a pleasure to be around. He was a great horse and a great competitor, and lucky for the horse, he had Tom and Peggy Lavery to train him and ride him and present him. Then for him to go on from there to go to Champ; you couldn’t write a Hollywood movie any better than that.” 

A New Day, A New Discipline 

Champ has made a career out of changing careers. While always remaining in the horse industry, he was never opposed to trying his hand at a new challenge, whether that meant working with a new breed, in a new discipline, or in a new country. 

“I was never backed off. A horse is a horse, and if you understand horses and their likes and their dislikes, you get along training them,” he says. 

After Sutton Place, Champ spent varying amounts of time breeding horses, raising world champion Black Angus cows, working as a Thoroughbred yearling appraiser for Fasig-Tipton, and teaching judges’ clinics for the American Horse Shows Association, now the U.S. Equestrian Federation. 

The opportunity with Fasig-Tipton, North America’s oldest Thoroughbred auction company, arose, again, out of recruitment. John Finney, then the company’s president, approached Champ at a cattle show in Reno, Nev., and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. 

“He introduced himself to me and said, ‘We’d like you to come work for us. Will you come?’ ” Champ recalls. “He offered me a salary that I liked, and I went straight there after that cattle show.” 

Champ moved to New York to appraise Thoroughbred yearlings for the sale ring, examining and valuing the prospective race horses based on their breeding and conformation. Despite coming from a different background than the traditional racetracker, Champ was instantly respected in his new workplace. 

“It wasn’t that much different [from the horse show industry], because my job was to appraise the horses, to look at them and OK them for the sales and such,” he explains. “Of course, because of my experience in the show business, I was very much known for model horses and being a man that knew conformation and such, and they never questioned my judgment on a horse.” 

Champ had decades of experience working with young horses, and he learned what most stood out to him in a potential equine partner, even more than the pedigree, correctness and physical prowess one looks for in a pre-sale examination. 

“Intelligence and disposition. Without a good disposition, you’ll go nowhere with a horse, no matter what breed you’re training,” Champ says. “They have to be a horse that really wants to be a show horse or be a race horse or whatever activity you proceed with them in. If they don’t want to do it, they’re very, very difficult. And if you dislike the horse, you won’t train them well.” 

At other times, Hollywood came calling. Champ had a supporting role in the 1960 film, “The Horse With The Flying Tail,” in which he played the part of a horse dealer. On set, he also served as a consultant, helping direct the horse scenes. The movie, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, won the award for Best Documentary at the 33rd Academy Awards. 

In the ’70s, Champ spent three years training and riding for a young actor named Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan, of course, would go on to become the 40th President of the United States in 1981. 

“He and I belonged to the West Hills Hunt, and that’s where I won the steeplechases and all that stuff,” Champ recalls. “He just knew me from that activity. He was still an actor at the time.” 

Years later, when Reagan was the governor of California, he and Champ crossed paths again. 

“It was funny. I saw him several years later when I had Sutton Place,” Champ says. “He came to watch the State Fair Horse Show at Sacramento, and I was showing in the class in which he was  to present the trophy. I went out to get the trophy, and I didn’t think that he’d remember me, but he said to me, ‘You’re certainly riding better horses today than when you did for me, aren’t you?’ ” 

National Show Hunter Hall of Famer Champ Hough can look back on a lifetime with a variety of horses and horse careers. Catie Staszak Photo

Champ spent five years in Saudi Arabia, where he was tasked with training a teenage Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al Thani. Champ was also charged with building up the young rider’s stable; he stocked the barn with 17 jumpers that he hand-selected from Europe. 

“[The show jumping program in Saudi Arabia] was just starting,” Champ says. “They really wanted a good horse, and the young men were very easy to train, and I turned out some very nice young riders over there. I thought they were very good.” 

“There were gold doorknobs on the barns and everything,” Linda recalls. “That part of Champ’s life was pretty unique.” 

Lasting Humility 

Despite his success in so many areas of the horse industry, Champ refuses to take much credit. But those who know him and have witnessed his successes firsthand say otherwise. 

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Linda, herself a member of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame and a recipient of the WCHR Lifetime Achievement Award, is no longer married to Champ, but they remain close friends. 

“When we married, it really set me over the top,” she says. “He really helped me become a top, top professional.” 

Another close friend is George Morris. He and Champ met when Morris began judging shows in California in the mid-1960s. 

“I have nothing but good things to say about Champ as a friend, as a showman, as an all-around horseman,” Morris says. “His horses, his stable, they were immaculate. His horses looked the best. They always won when I judged or anybody else judged out there, and when he came back East, his horses won. His horses were beautifully cared for, beautifully turned out, beautifully shown.” 

“A little bit of the showmanship, over the years, has become not quite as important, but I think it’s very important,” Lee adds. “[Champ] was a great showman. He always had a terrific shed row. The stable area, the horses, they were all turned out impeccably, and everything else was, too. It was just first class all the way around.” 

Lee, now chairman of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, was on hand to induct Champ in 2003. 

“At the end of my speech,” says Lee, “because he’s done so many things with horses—not just hunters—I said, ‘Champ has touched all the bases, and he’s hit a lot of home runs.’ ” 

A Father’s Love 

You might expect Champ, now 81, to cite his favorite memory as the day he won his bronze medal, his induction into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, his USEF Pegasus Medal of Honor, world champion Black Angus cows, appraising of million-dollar Thoroughbred year- lings, or training of a U.S. President. 

But it’s none of the above. 

“I think my favorite time was watching my daughters grow up,” he says. “It was the most important part of my career. I watch as many of their shows as I can. Lauren is in Europe most of the time, but I talk to Cindy on the phone every night.” 

Champ is a devoted father to his two daughters, Cindy Brooks and Lauren Hough. Brooks is a successful rider and trainer in California, where she established Northern Run, a full-service show stable, in 1999. Like her father, she rode a horse, Just For Fun, right into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. Just For Fun was inducted in 2009. 

Lauren Hough grew up on the show circuit with her father, Champ Hough, and followed in his footsteps when she rode in the 2000 Olympic Games. Photo Courtesy Of Champ Hough

Champ adopted Brooks when she was 8 after he married her mother Rae Deane Robinson, a Saddlebred trainer. When the two divorced, Brooks stayed with Champ, who introduced her to show hunters. 

“I thought he was the best thing on wheels,” Brooks recalls. “He paid attention to me, and we had fun, and he was my buddy, and I’d just follow him around. I wanted to do what he did, so I started riding hunters and jumpers. He taught me how to ride, and I spent pretty much every moment with him. That was it. 

“He’s taught me everything I know. He was my only coach. He was an amazing coach, teacher, person. Everything I am, I attribute to him,” she adds. 

When Brooks was 13, Champ married Linda, then Linda Lorimer, and Lauren was born several years later. Growing up, Lauren spent her summers on the road with her dad, and together they traveled to horse shows up and down the East Coast. 

“I’d bring my pony, and we’d hook the trailer behind the motor home, and off we went,” she says. “He did everything. We really didn’t have a groom. I spent my summers with him, and we’d sort of go show to show, and we spent a lot of time in Vermont when I was growing up. He always made it really fun. Those were good memories.” 

A top show jumper who earned two bronze medals at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Lauren also competed in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Champ made the trip to Australia to cheer her on in person. 

“That was a big joy. I was very proud,” Champ recalls. “When she was jumping one day, they put up a big banner that said Lauren Hough was competing and that her father competed in the ’52 Olympics, and that it was the first time ever that a father and daughter had ever competed in the Olympic Games in equestrian.” 

“Looking back on it and seeing all the families that have done it after us, it’s something I’m very proud of,” Lauren says. “I know when I was a small child in school and anyone asked, ‘What do your parents do?’ I always said, ‘My dad rode in the Olympics.’ I’m glad to know that we’ve shared that experience together.” 

“This Will Be My Champ” 

It might be easier to ask what Champ hasn’t done rather than to ask what he has, and when putting together a timeline of his career, it’s best to use pencil, not pen. 

He conducts his storytelling matter-of-factly, his tone never changing much, his emotions never getting too high or too low. There are no fish stories with Champ. His narratives, simply stated, require no exaggeration. 

That includes the tale of how Champ got his name. He received his lifelong nickname just moments after birth. 

“When he was born, he almost died,” Linda explains. “He had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and that’s how he got his name, Champ. His dad said, ‘What a champ’ that he survived.” 

“He said, ‘This will be my champ,’ ” Champ adds. “He slapped me on the butt and said, ‘This will be my champ, from now on.’ ” 

The nickname stuck, foreshadowing what was to come in the life of Charles Gordon “Champ” Hough Jr. 

“I think that there are certain people, and Champ is certainly one of them, that I say are born with it,” Lee says. “I’m not sure that’s exactly accurate, that they’re born with it, but they have a knack, they have a talent, and they have a desire. He certainly has all of those.” 


This article appeared in the Aug. 17, 2015, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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