He was a green 6-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. She was a 23-year-old professional rider in her first year of contesting grand prix classes. The year was 1979, and they were showing at the prestigious Washington International Horse Show against grand prix superstars like Rodney Jenkins and Conrad Homfeld.
But at the end of a 13-horse jump-off, Leslie Howard (then Burr) and Chase The Clouds emerged victorious in the $25,000 President’s Cup Grand Prix at the Washington International in Landover, Maryland. It was Howard’s first grand prix win.
“For sure, it started my career in the jumpers,” said Howard of her time riding Chase The Clouds. Howard would go on to win team gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and win the 1986 FEI World Cup Final (Sweden) on other horses, and she’s still a formidable grand prix competitor today.
“I’d always ridden hunters, and I had a lot of nice top hunters at the time,” Howard said. “I was well known as a hunter rider, but for sure nobody thought of me as a jumper rider then.”
Chase The Clouds and Howard rocketed up the jumper ranks in 1979, debuting at the grand prix level in the spring and then winning at Washington. The next week, they added a second grand prix win to their record by topping the World Cup qualifier at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Howard and Chase The Clouds qualified to compete at the 1980 FEI World Cup Finals in Baltimore and placed ninth there, then returned to the FEI World Cup Finals in Birmingham, England, in 1981 and took fifth place.
“It’s a tribute to him, to what a kind and honest soul he was,” Howard said. “At that time, I didn’t ride badly, but I didn’t really know what I was doing in the jumpers. He really was so uncomplicated. Somebody that didn’t have any experience, like myself, could get on and go jump the biggest grand prix classes and win, and go to the World Cup Finals.”
Howard acknowledges the faith that Chase The Cloud’s owner, Edwin C. Andrews, had in her. “I remember everybody was going up to Mr. Andrews and telling him, ‘This is a fabulous horse; you should have someone experienced riding him.’ But Mr. Andrews was such a nice man, and he stuck by me,” she recalled. “He said, ‘No, no, I want you to have this horse.’ And he ended up being one of the top horses in the country at the time.”
Chase The Clouds (Dominar—Duchess Do, Dead Ahead) had raced a bit under the name Doma Due, but then he found his way to Raymond Burr in Florida. Burr recognized his talent and called his brother, Emerson Burr, at Fairfield Hunt Club in Connecticut, where Howard rode and trained. Raymond sent the gray gelding north for Howard to ride.
“I can remember taking him off the truck on a cold winter day, probably right before we went to Florida,” said Dana Goedewaagen, the groom who cared for Chase The Clouds. “Leslie rode him in the indoor ring that night, and it was freezing cold. Emerson just kept putting the jumps up and up, and he just kept jumping them. Emerson is the one that named him; he was standing there, and he kept saying, ‘This horse is a freak,’ and that’s where the barn name ‘Freakie’ came from.”
Howard recalled that she and Emerson started Freakie in the hunters. “We had him for not very long before we decided he wasn’t a hunter,” she said. “I don’t know why we ever thought he’d be a hunter, because he didn’t really jump in pretty hunter style, and for sure he wasn’t a very pretty mover. But he for sure had a heck of a jump!
“We started him in the preliminary jumpers as a 5-year-old,” she continued. “As a 6-year-old, he would jump so high and showed so much potential that we moved him to the grand prix. I knew nothing about what I was doing bringing him along. I’d done some junior jumpers with George [Morris] but never at that level.”
Howard asked Morris to help her with Freakie in 1979 as they found their way in the grand prix ring. At Washington, Morris recommended she jump Freakie in the puissance class on Thursday night to prepare him for the grand prix. She did, and placed second, then won the grand prix. They did the same thing at the National Horse Show the following week. “It sounds crazy, looking back at it, because he was just 6,” said Howard. “But back then, horses did things like that when they were young. They were different times!”
Freakie was careful, scopey and brave, but he had a unique approach to water jumps. “He never really loved the water jumps; he always jumped them eight feet high, so he was always a very exciting water jumper!” Howard recalled.
Freakie was special not only to Howard, but also for Goedewaagen. “That horse was my life. He was a doll to take care of,” she said. “I’ve been around horses my entire life, and he was by far the smartest horse I ever knew. He was scary smart. He had his quirks. He was very difficult to shoe, and he was not a good shipper. But other than that, he was so kind. I rode him a lot, and he was just a great horse.”
Freakie’s career came to a premature end when he died during colic surgery in the summer of 1981. “I can still remember Leslie calling me and telling me he was gone,” said Goedewaagen. “I remember where I was standing, what she said to me. It was my first heartbreak.”
Even now, 40 years later, you can hear the smile in Howard’s voice as she remembers her time with Chase The Clouds. “He was the one that started it all,” she said. “He was the vehicle through which I was able to find other owners and clients. He was a very special horse to me because he took me from nowhere to being one of the best grand prix horses in the world. He was quite a guy.”