Friday, May. 24, 2024

Throwback Thursday: Benny O’Meara Was The Star Of The 1962 National Horse Show

In the glory days of the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, the legendary Benny O'Meara took center stage with the spectacular jumper Jacks Or Better.
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By the time Benny O’Meara rolled up to Madison Square Garden with Jacks Or Better in the van for the National Horse Show in 1962, they had already won the Professional Horseman’s Association’s Champion Jumper Of The Year point race (tripling the number of points that anyone had won before).

Benny and Jacks were at the Garden to not only be presented with the trophy and cooler from the PHA but to also show in the open jumper division.

Benny had a new farm in Montville, N.J., and as his younger brother Frank said, “he was trying to put Colony Farm on the map to help with his sales business” when he campaigned Jacks Or Better to win the most prestigious trophy in the United States for jumpers at the time.

They went to 29 shows with PHA classes. “Jacks” was champion at 25 of those shows, reserve at two, and won the PHA classes at the other two. The National Horse Show of 1962 was the culmination of a year for Benny and Jacks that started in Florida in the winter and then continued throughout the East and Midwest until it finished up in New York City at the end of October.


Benny O’Meara and Jacks Or Better at the National Horse Show in 1962. Courtesy of Frank O’Meara

The show had all but a few stalls in the basement of Madison Square Garden. There was one tent of stabling on a side street for horses or ponies that shipped in for the day. It was outside that Benny liked to be stabled because of the fresh air and that is where Jacks Or Better lived during the week of the show in 1962.

It is also where Dianne DeFranceaux (now Grod) braided his mane and tail and put red and white pom-poms in Jacks’ mane and his mud-knotted tail. Jacks’ dark brown coat glistened under the lights of the Garden’s indoor ring.


Benny O’Meara on Jacks Or Better at the Garden. Photo by Tarrance. Courtesy of Frank O’Meara

Benny was a very handsome man who dressed sharply. By 1962, Benny could afford to have his riding clothes and boots custom-made like many riders of that day. Benny wore a velvet hunt cap from time to time but his preferred hat was a straw fedora (hunt caps were not required in the early ‘60s).

Jacks Or Better and Benny cut striking figures at the Garden in 1962. Their show ring performances were equally as good. In addition to top ribbons in the other classes, Jacks won the PHA class and the puissance. Although Benny lost his right stirrup and Jacks lost his right bell boot in the puissance, they cleared the massive wall at 6’9” for the win.

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Benny O’Meara and Jacks Or Better over the 6’9″ puissance wall with no stirrup and only one bell boot to win the class. Photo by Ira Haas. Courtesy of Frank O’Meara

For the open jumper championship, Benny and Jacks tied with Kathy Kusner on Cecil Florman’s Unusual. They had to jump off for the championship. Unusual went clean and ended up champion open jumper with Jacks Or Better reserve.

“Benny’s Boys” (friends Steve Grod, Dominic Sabattini, Jackie Meli, and Jimmy “Ingo” Incledon who helped Benny with the horses) teased Benny that he threw the jump-off against his pretty opponent. Benny smiled and said, “No, I would never do that. She won fair and square.” For the rest of Benny’s life, he and Kathy had a strong business and personal relationship.

The night of the presentation of the PHA trophy, tradition called for the winner to have a party at the Belvedere Hotel and drink out of the trophy. Since Benny didn’t drink, he filled the trophy with chocolate milk. A good time was had by all.

“Brooklyn Benny” (the nickname given him by writer George Coleman) grew up a few miles from Madison Square Garden over the Brooklyn Bridge in a large family of non-horsemen. At 12, he started helping Harry Goldstein at his Prospect Park Riding Academy. That was where Benny started teaching himself to ride.

In the summers, Mr. Goldstein would move his operation to the Adirondacks for camp and Benny would go along to help. It was while in the mountains that Benny met H.R. “Kappy” Kaplan, who would become a mentor and best friend. He would change Benny’s life. H.R., as Benny called him, took the teenaged Benny into his home and taught him how to shoe horses plus guided him as he developed into a rider and horseman.

His grandmother lent Benny the money to become a blacksmith and to buy a truck. In his shiny red truck with gold lettering, Benny traveled to barns throughout Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester County, New York and soaked up knowledge wherever he went.

With a genius I.Q., Benny developed quickly as a rider, horseman, and businessman. By the age of 21, in 1959, he was showing at Madison Square Garden for the first time. Two years later, he won ribbons in the open jumpers on a police horse reject aptly named P.D.

Based at his new farm in New Jersey, Benny quickly became one of the best horse trainers, riders, and dealers in this country. He was known for his uncanny ability to quickly figure a horse out and get them ready to show or sell. He was also known for his soft hands. Being self-taught, Benny learned by watching and he emulated the greats of the early ‘60s—Bill Steinkraus, Dave Kelley, Harry DeLeyer, Frank Chapot, Johnny Bell, and Sonny Brooks to name a few. He developed his own style and horses responded to his training methods.


Benny O’Meara and Jacks Or Better at the Garden. Photo by Budd. Courtesy of Frank O’Meara

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It was on a buying trip to the Midwest, in the fall of 1961, that Benny traded for a Canadian half Thoroughbred-half Standardbred that would become known as Jacks Or Better. Benny went all over the country (a lot of times flying himself in his plane) looking at horses to buy or get on a trade.

The meteoric rise of Benny O’Meara continued as he turned out great horse after great horse first from his farm in New Jersey and then from his farm in Middleburg, Va. Some of the top horses that Benny developed in addition to Jacks Or Better are Untouchable, Silver Lining, The Hood, Grey Lady, Gone Flying, and Good Twist, to name a few.

In the days when only amateurs could ride for the U.S. Equestrian Team, Benny strongly supported the Team. He loaned the great jumper Untouchable to the USET for Kusner to show.

Benny had bought Untouchable on a buying trip to the Midwest. When he returned home, he told Kathy that he thought he had something special in the 11-year-old ex-racehorse. As Kathy prepared for the Pan Am Games in 1963, Benny took Untouchable to Florida and was green jumper champion at every show.

After Florida, Kathy took over the ride. Untouchable was green jumper champion at every show that year and was jumper champion at the National Horse Show. From there, he went on to be a valuable member of the USET for several years.

Then on Sunday, April 17, 1966, the horse world got the sad news that one of the world’s best horsemen and riders had died in a plane crash.

Benny O’Meara had purchased a refurbished World War II fighter plane just six weeks before. This particular day, he had picked it up at Dulles Airport, where he had some work done, and was flying back to his farm in Middleburg where the barn, runway, and hanger were almost done at his Colony Farm. Benny’s plane went down in a field at Arthur Godfrey’s farm near Leesburg, next door to Godfrey Airport. Benedict Patrick O’Meara, Jr. was just 27 years old.

Even though he was young when he passed away, Benny O’Meara’s contributions to show jumping are immeasurable. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall Of Fame in 1989. 


Benny O’Meara on Jacks Or Better jumping his band of brothers known as “Benny’s Boys.” Left to right they are Steve Grod, Dominic Sabattini, Jackie Meli, Jimmy “Ingo” Incledon. The photo was taken in Florida in 1962 by Leif Ericksen. Courtesy of Frank O’Meara

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