In honor of Mason Phelps’s recent induction into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, #HallOfFameThursday features a retrospective of Phelps’s International Jumping Derby that was published in the event program in 1988, the Derby’s final year.
Twelve Years in Retrospect… by David Korb
Mason Phelps fastened the lids on nine tack boxes and turned his back on a setting sun. It was the beginning of a quixotic Journey eastward with his faithful groom “Shep” and a little mare named Terra Cotta in search of greener pastures on which to establish a horse business. Aboard a two-horse trailer, the little company followed the course of the national show-jumping circuit across America to New England, finally settling in Rhode Island at the family estate of Glen Farm.
And here Mason is celebrating the Twelfth Anniversary of his Jumping Derby at the helm of a production that screams under the weight of Olympic equestrians and socialites, the best horses money can buy, and an entourage of celebrities.
Within little more than a year of his arrival, Mason’s dream of European-style derby jumping began bubbling up on the fields of Glen Farm under the direction of course designer Frank Chapot, former captain of the Olympic equestrian team. “It was an 18 month, $18,000 project,” Mason remembers. Little mounds were pushed up and out, ruts were bulldozed deeper and wider, until a 6,000-square-foot area of grazing land was transformed into the most challenging show-jumping course America’s best horses and riders had seen.
“It was such an ambitious undertaking by Mason that some people really wondered whether it would come off as he promised it would,” Eugene R. Mische, president and founder of the American Grandprix Association, recalled recently. Mason also promised that the Derby would be a “sporting event, not a social event.” But almost immediately what was happening at Glen Farm sent a ripple under Newport’s social scene. The “Avenue Crowd” took notice. It is, after all, the winning longshots that attract attention. “True to form,” Mische added, “Mason delivered on his promise” on September 24, 1976, when Windsong, ridden by Susan VanderHyden, took the inaugural flight over the brand new course.
Almost from the moment that Mason proposed the Derby idea, Chapot recalls predicting success for the unique event. “It was something new and something very interesting for spectators, and Americans are always ready for something different.” It was, of course, very different for the riders as well. Many of them, those who hadn’t competed in Europe, had never seen anything quite like a Derby. Even Bernie Traurig, who rode Singapore to the Derby’s first victory, remembers Chapot’s field as the “toughest course I have ever ridden.”
The course has proven so challenging that several years ago two riders demanded that the raised ”Table,” which they claimed was too dangerous for their horses, be modified. With a desire to keep grandprix’s top riders among his retinue of exhibitors, Mason announced recently that the Table has been relocated.
Still, the Jumping Derby sports its Vichy Double Banks, the Grob, double ditches, water, and Derby Bank, which refuse to allow horse or rider to let down for a moment.
“There is a certain thrill in facing death,” said Julie Ulrich, who in 1978 was put out of commission by Pulvermann’s Grob, the jump that legend remembers killing its inventor. “That thrill intrigues me and I think it intrigues the public.” Olympic rider Michael Matz remembers his mount spinning out from under him and being hurt badly here, and Leslie Burr-Lenehan recalls falling over the Grob and taking ten stitches in her ear.
While the Derby is demanding, many of the last decade’s competitors described it as the most enjoyable ride on the Michelob Grandprix Tour.
As she hurried between classes at Lake Placid in June, Burr-Lenehan said that despite the injury, she thinks of the Derby as “a fun course to ride, a very relaxing show.” “Instead of 15 or 20 classes a day, you have three and four classes a day. It’s a relaxing show, yet an endurance test for your best horse,” says Matz, who rode Jet Run to a Derby victory in 1977.
That, incidentally, was remembered as “year terrible” by Joani Flather of Mason’s office staff. It was a disaster, she recalls. September hurled its very worst New England weather at the Derby. Were the Gods unhappy that the earth had been tampered with or was it the fact that Linda Blair, the bedeviled young star of the Exorcist was there to present the awards? Although the two-year-old Derby was being heralded as America’s richest show-jumping event, offering a total prize package of $73,000, the deluge reduced the crowd to a handful. Standing in the rain while a horse rode by splashing mud way up over its chestnuts, Mason announced to a writer that his spirits were dry: “I want this to be the biggest event of its kind in the world—what the Kentucky Derby is to thoroughbred racing, what the America’s Cup is to sailing.”
That next year Mason took out a rain insurance policy, and the Portsmouth police officers directing spectator traffic on East Main Road learned just how big Mason’s little show had grown. A record attendance of 15,000 was logged.
That success carried the Derby into year four when the statisticians began recording firsts. Women riders held four of the six top spots in the gruelling Derby finale. Melanie Smith riding Calypso on her 30th birthday, proved what she had said before the event: “There is no distinction between men and women in an event of this kind.” She wore the blue, the first woman to do so, at a birthday party given for her that evening at Glen Farm.
The next year, the Derby’s fifth anniversary, the show went international, and it was never again called the American Jumping Derby.
Not only did the 1980 Derby draw the biggest crowd in history, but it was the best attended event on the grandprix circuit. And it became the third point in the Triple Crown of Show Jumping, completing the triangle with the Anheuser Busch American Invitational in Tampa and the American Gold Cup in Philadelphia. Video cameras were broadcasting the Sunday Derby nationally and journalists began poling among the partygoers after dark. The off-course entertainment was growing in tandem with the classes, prize money, sponsors, competitors and crowds of Derby weekend. For that reason, even the most intense riders like Burr-Lenehen also speak of the Derby as “one big party. It’s a show where you have time to do that, and Mason has such a flare for that sort of thing.”
Derby nights have been ignited with greater flare in each of the event’s ten years. You must know that it is a must in the City-by-the-Sea that any important event be accompanied by a Ball. Looking back in 1976, Mason remembered that the requisite social side of Derby week included a black-tie dinner dance “like everyone else in town,” as Mason tells it, “but try to get riders into tuxedoes.”
Since then, sporting party-goers have donned grass skirts for a luau, surfer garb for a clambake, country-western duds for a square dance and have played cowboys and indians at a genuine Texas barbeque. Revelers are encouraged to add their own flare to Mason’s. The eye of guests at one of his clambakes, for example, turned skyward as a society matron sent a boiled lobster to the tent’s ceiling on the tail of a helium balloon.
Sporting longshots continued to make headlines in 1981: a failed race horse—SugarRay, ridden by Anthony D’Ambrosio—vaulted without fault into the Derby Hall of Fame before 12,000 spectators. It was also the year that Mason staged his first nighttime horse show under the lights. His inaugural Hall of Fame Equitation Championships featured many of the winners of the finals in the American Horse Shows Association Medal Finals at Harrisburg, PA, and the ASPCA MacClay Finals at Madison Square Garden.
Mason remembers 1982 as the year of “The Sale.” Forty German-bred dressage and show horses were auctioned by Paul Schockemoehle, and everyone was shocked at the $1.4 million take.
Nineteen-eighty-three was a first for the homestate team. Buddy Brown rode for Rhode Island’s Acres Wild Farm atop Charles Fox—you remember, “The littlest horse with the largest heart in the smallest state”—before a record weekend attendance of 16,000. It also was the first time in the history of the event that there was no jump off for first place. Brown did not have to apologize for denying the crowd some overtime action. “To me that is the single best ride I have had in my life,” said Brown on a rainy afternoon between classes at Lake Placid’s “I Love New York” series in June. “If you picked one win that stood out the most, it was that one in ’83.”
Brown has taken the Derby title in each of 1983 and 1984. And going into both classes, he considered himself a longshot. “Especially the first year I won it. I had never seen the horse compete before we bought him … just 10 days before the Derby began.” Brown described his first Derby victory, summing up in the jargon of showjumpers the hard work and spirit that go into preparing for and riding through the toughest event on the circuit: “I was on a course that was one of the biggest we jump during the year. The horse, when we bought him, wasn’t that fit and to go in there in so short a time and ask him to do what he did … I worked hard at it. In 10 days I did everything I could do to train that horse.
“It was really hot that day. I had to be 20 strides ahead of him every time we went forward to the jump. When you ride into that size jump, especially on a small horse, the margin of error is so small, and where you put the horse for his takeoff means so much. I had to be sharp as I ever was, and I was in there just
trying to survive.”
He rode without fault in the last round and was the only clear; the instinct to survive had carried Charles Fox and Brown to victory. But he remembers some labeling his win “a fluke.”
Brown and Eclair De L’lle proved otherwise in ’84, when again the combination seemed to spell trouble. “To tell you the truth I was scared to death going into the first round with that horse. We just weren’t clicking. We were going into an entirely different course. It was like all the cards were stacked against us. And then when we did go clean in the first round, and then to come back and be the defending champion and go last in the jumpoff—it was like Cinderella, like Walt Disney wrote the script. The first time I won it I was the only clear; the second time I won it they had the most clears and the biggest jumpoff field. And we put the stamp on.” It was no fluke.
As the 1985 Derby jumped into the summer Rhode Island sports scene, Newport steadied itself for the equestrian community to charge into town. The 10th Anniversary of the Derby was on its way. Buddy Brown of Acres Wild, Smithfield, R.I., was to ride for an unprecedented third title on Derby Day, but a large chestnut gelding from Wisconsin with Donald Cheska aboard had other ideas.
The rain began early Sunday morning on Derby Day, adding yet another obstacle to the already challenging Derby course. As the largest field of entrants ever to ride the big Sunday class prepared their mounts, the steady rain became a torrent. Even with inclement weather, hundreds of spectators climbed into the stands and roared with appreciation at some of the most exciting riding and jumping ever seen. In the 5-horse jump-off, Lyda Beigel riding Pluco had a refusal and a rail down; next Peter Leone riding Costello made a daring challenge but dropped a rail at the last fence. Mark Leone, Peter’s brother, aboard Tim took the lead with a clean round in 57.7 seconds. The final rider, Debbie Dolan, and the 1983-84 Mercedes horse of the year, Albany, sped around the course in fine form, but in a tight turn fell on the last stretch of the course. Luckily, both horse and rider were uninjured. Claiming to have the “luck of the Irish” on his side, Donald Cheska beamed as he received the $12,500 winner’s purse.
Nobody comes away from a show weekend at Glen Farm without a story to tell, a personal recollection to describe what the International Jumping Derby has meant to the sport.
Grandprix announcer Peter Doubleday, “the voice of American showjumping,” remembers that in 1976 the grandprix sport was “just ready to take off.” Both Doubleday and Chapot see the success of grandprix events over the last decade in terms of bigger purses and more sponsors, riders, horses and knowledgeable spectators. “The Derby has had a lot to do with that,” he said. “I felt that this was a major step.”
Katie Monahan remembers the banks, the Vichys, and the Grob of the Derby course forcing American riders to “realize our weak points.” Melanie Smith adds of the first year. “lt was a mini-Europe. It was the first competition that we’d had in this country that simulated European courses so it was really exciting for everybody—and fun, because there’s a lot more galloping to the jumps, presenting a different type of challenge.”
Facing that challenge also “gives the younger riders courage and confidence,” Smith said recently. “And in international competition that’s the idea; to bring along members of the U.S. Equestrian Team, to field teams for future European championships and Olympic games and to make them complete riders so that they can compete against anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
“Mason’s done a terrific job of promoting the sport with that event,” said Doubleday, “but the Derby is the Derby, all by itself. The ultimate challenge.”
A disagreement with the Town of Portsmouth in 1984 over the cost of leasing Glen Manor for the annual Ball (“they wanted too much money”) became the catalyst for holding the party just yards from the Derby course. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The 1985 Newport Roundup country western dinner dance was attended by over 1800 guests who feasted throughout the evening at a Texas buffet catered by Don Strange of San Antonio, Texas. Said Dallas Times-Herald Society columnist Nancy Smith: “They looked like Texans, and they acted like Texans yelling and carrying on in the best Lone Star tradition. “Sleepy LaBeef” and “Asleep at the Wheel” had nearly everyone toe heeling non-stop, from sundown to the wee hours. Even Attorney General Arlene Violet “went to jail” for photographers.
“It was the most fun weekend I had all summer,” said a guest after Derby ’85. That comment might not attract notice in a town where nothing succeeds like excess, but consider the source: Jane Holzer of New York; you remember, Baby Jane of Andy Warhol’s films, and who could possibly know more about what’s fun?
Nineteen-eighty six was a great year, highlighted by a spectacular win of the big class on Sunday and a record attendance at the Newport Roundup of over 2,000 people. Michael Matz aboard Bon Retour (“Good Return”) won the Sunday class with an outstanding round. Coming around the turn in the second-to-last turn in the Jump-off, Bon Retour lost his footing and went down on the turf; however, he rebounded to his feet with the help of Matz and went on to win the class. At the time of the fall Matz prevented the horse’s shoulder from touching the ground, thus preventing a disqualification. Last year’s entertainment featured Tammy Wynette and Sleepy La Beef was back for his second year by popular demand.
Nineteen-eighty seven, the 12th anniversay of the Derby, welcomed some new and exciting young riders, an exotic new Roundup theme, colorful TV commentator, Bud Collins, and was pleased to present a musical dressage demonstration organized by Janet Black.
The “Newport Roundup goes to New Orleans” Saturday party was a huge success. Cajun food, the Bourbon Street motif and the gayly costumed guests dined and danced well into the night.
Derby Day was to see Katie Monahan Prudent aboard German-bred, Special Envoy, compete in the largest jump-off (7) and become the second woman to conquer the tough derby course. Just edging out former student Beezie Patton, the two women posted the only two double clear rounds.
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