Cross Country with Jim Wofford: A Touch of Blarney

For Jim Wofford, judging the Dublin Horse Show is a window to the past and the future.
From the look on my face, you can tell I just stepped out onto the main arena at the Dublin Horse Show. I am a long way from Kansas, and I had better take a good look around: There is no guarantee that I will ever be back, and this is a moment that any horse lover would want to remember. I have watched the greatest horses and riders in the world compete in this arena for half a century, and I got a chill just standing on the same turf. Before I turned to my judging duties, I thought to myself, “Thank you, Kilkenny. I wouldn’t have gotten here without you.” | ©

A touch of blarney” is an old Irish expression used to describe someone with a slight tendency to exaggerate and embellish the facts of the matter. There is a stone mounted high in the battlements of Blarney Castle in County Cork called the Stone of Eloquence, and legend says one who kisses that stone will be blessed with “blarney.” I have kissed the Blarney Stone three times, which explains my tendency to … well, you know. Blarney was on my mind recently, as I had been invited to judge at the Dublin Horse Show.

I am comfortable in Ireland, as I have spent a great deal of time there and my family’s connections stretch even farther back (for more details, see “The Irish Connection,” page 20). By the time I started coming to Ireland, I had a ready-made circle of friends and an easy introduction to the Irish horse world. Imagine getting in a taxi at the old Dublin Airport and immediately falling into a serious debate with the driver as to whether Arkle or Mill House was the greatest steeplechaser that Ireland had ever produced or “was there a better in all the Emerald Isle?”

Ireland had been producing great horses forever, so that driver and I had plenty to talk about. By the time I got to my destination, I had a lead on two of the “greatest leppers” the world had ever seen, a tip on the 4:30 race at the Punchestown Racecourse and an invitation to an IRA fundraiser at The Grasshopper, in the village of Clonee, that evening. Only in Ireland, folks, only in Ireland.

The Irish Horse

Because I love Irish horses, my recent judging assignment at the Dublin Horse Show was more a homecoming than a visit. The show is organized by the Royal Dublin Society, a private charity that supports, among other things, Irish horses. My judging assignment was a subject near to my heart, the Young Event Horse classes. 

Well, I should say my assignment was supposed to be the YEH classes. 

When the organizers contacted me, I thought I would have to ride the horses as part of the judging, as I had done when I last judged at the RDS in 1980. I threw a leg over 72 horses that day. (Remind me to tell you about the 4-year-old who tried to jump the sausage van with me.) This time, I hastened to tell the organizers I was not up to riding, and they quickly told me riding was no longer part of my job. I also reminded them that last time I judged, I had a co-judge who did the conformation part. And by the way, I no longer had a dressage judge’s card and should not be asked to judge dressage classes. 

All this was accepted so readily that I should have been more attentive. You can imagine my surprise when I showed up at the start of the first day and was told to go judge the Connemara conformation. Well, it was too late to complain, as the RDS runs on a very tight schedule, so I handed out conformation scores for the rest of the morning. I think the only thing that can be said for my conformation judging is that I managed to enrage everybody in the class equally. 

“At least I don’t have to judge dressage,” I told myself. Wrong again, Jim. So I spent the rest of the afternoon judging dressage and survived the experience. Things were looking up the next morning, and I got to judge the Junior Equitation Finals. The Irish kids do not have our equitation riders’ technical expertise, but everything you hear about the Irish as natural horsemen was on display. I judged them in two sections, riders 11 to 13 years old and then 14 to 17 years old. Several of the riders showed a very sophisticated eye for distances, and the quality of the horses was quite good.

Then it was time for the Young Event Horses. YEH competitors do a simple dressage pattern, followed immediately by a show-jumping course, and then again immediately transition to a cross-country course. They get scores for each section, including conformation, although this time they had a good conformation judge (aka not me). Show jumping is judged on faults, and the cross-country score is subjective. The final part of the class is held in the Main Arena—think Centre Court at Wimbledon. 

The show grounds are much the same as when I first came to the RDS in the early 1950s. While still in short pants, I quickly discovered that I could sneak into “The Pocket”—the final holding area for the international horses before entering the Main Arena—but this time I had a judge’s badge that allowed me to step onto the turf in the Main Arena. 

I walked out to the middle, stopped for a second and took a good look around. Thinking of all the great riders I had watched on this turf gave me goose bumps. But it only lasted a second because the next thing I knew, the first competitor of the YEH classes walked into the arena and set off on course. A succession of lovely horses followed, most of them a bit “fizzy” as one would expect from young Irish horses, and glowing with good health. The breeders in Ireland have followed the modern breeding theories of Western Europe and their horses are more of a sporthorse type than the old-fashioned crosses between light Draft and Thoroughbred that I am used to seeing. But they were all nice horses.

The bad news was that my YEH judging assignment was over too soon for me. The good news was that I got to watch several of the international show-jumping classes. I do not get to watch as much top-class show jumping as I used to, so I am always mildly surprised at the sheer size of the obstacles. They are not jumping houses any more. They are jumping condominiums. Besides being huge, the jumps are very “fragile,” meaning the poles are light and rest in shallow cups. The trend in show jumping right now is to build very big, very airy fences. An oxer might be 5 feet high and 5-foot-6 wide, but it will have only three rails in front and one behind. Your horse really has to concentrate on the top rail if you want to have a chance of jumping clean.

After I had watched the other international classes, it was not front-page news that in the Land Rover Puissance, two riders in the final round jumped 7-foot-2. While the winner, Sameh El Dahan, riding Seapatrick Cruise Cavalier “Socks,” is originally from Egypt, he now makes his home in Northern Ireland. Sameh might be from Egypt, but when he was interviewed on the Jumbotron between rounds he sounded like a lifelong son of the Auld Sod. 

This is what it sounded like without a translator or subtitles:

“Tell me now, Sameh, you got a fantastic lurch over dat wall. Tell us how it feels to jump a wall dat size.”

“Ah, he gave it a graate lep, now din’t he, even wit da chronic stride I found fur him annall.” 

I was already impressed after watching Sameh and Socks clear 7-foot-2, but I was even more impressed when I found out later that he had ridden Socks only twice. The horse’s owner, Chris Megahey, had already cleared 7 feet with Socks, but the RDS would not let him enter. Chris is too young to compete internationally. So when Sameh mentioned on his Facebook page that he needed a ride in the Puissance, one thing led to another and Sameh got the thrill of his life. Socks must be quite a horse. Chris’ younger brother, Harold, had ridden him up to three-star eventing. If Socks starts to take an interest in dressage, current dressage golden girl Charlotte Dujardin had better look out.

Sameh provided the standing-room-only audience with plenty of thrills, but the real crowd favorite was probably Andres Rodriguez of Venezuela, riding Caballito. Tall and skinny with movie-star good looks, Andres is on a roll, having recently won the individual silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. If Sameh put your heart in your mouth as you watched his approach, then Andres reassured you with his precise, controlled, smooth technique. In the next-to-last round, Sameh cleared the wall at 6-foot-9, but nobody else could rise to the challenge until late in the class when Andres casually cantered down and jumped it clear, thus assuring the crowd of a jump-off. 

The Venezuelan rider Andres Rodriguez was already a big hit with the crowd at the Dublin Horse Show when he and Caballito qualified for the jump-off in the International Puissance. Clearing 6-foot-9 will do that for you in Ireland, where the entire country loves good horses and riders. If you take a premature victory lap and pull your riding jacket off to display the Irish National football jersey, the stadium is going to rock. | ©

Riders who qualify for a jump-off normally canter through the finish line, pat their horses, wave to the crowd, pat their horses again and trot to the out-gate. I approve of this attitude, as the horse is the real athlete in the ring and we should not do anything to draw attention away from him. He does have another round to jump, after all. 

Obviously, Andres did not get my memo on rider deportment. 

Keep in mind that Andres and Caballito had another round to go when I tell you that Andres jumped the wall, then cantered through the finish line, pumping both fists and throwing a party in the saddle. Not content with this and encouraged by roars of approval from the crowd (and quite a few shrieks from the younger ladies), Andres proceeded to take a pre-victory lap around the entire arena. Caballito must have a good temperament because Andres dropped the reins on his withers and put him into a flat-out gallop. Coming out of the first corner, Andres took off his jacket, revealing an emerald-green Irish football jersey. The fans were already into the spirit of things but this put them over the top, and it took a while for Andres to leave the ring and for the crowd to settle down. By that time the general opinion was that there was not enough mustard in the world for this particular hot dog, but everybody loved Andres anyway.

Fortunately, the TV had to take a commercial break, so the crowd had settled down by the time Sameh came back into the arena and jumped 7-foot-2. There was a minor celebration about this feat, but we all wanted to see Andres top his last round. Having obviously regained their composure, Andres and Caballito cantered quietly in, started their round, made nothing of the warm-up fence (a mere little 6-by-6-foot triple bar jumped going away from home) and started their turn toward the wall. Then things got interesting. Caballito decided he had had enough of Andres’ act—and napped. I don’t mean behind the leg or slow leg response, I mean Caballito was going nowhere fast. No way he was going to approach that 7-foot-2 wall. While startled, Andres recovered quickly and did everything he could to convince Caballito to resume his approach, to no avail. Penalized for his first refusal, Andres appeared to accept the situation and turned away.

Then the real comedy began. The announcer, thinking that Andres was going to withdraw, launched a real spasm of blarney—“agrate iffurt, and gave us sum fantstic leps, but ‘as taught da bettr of hit, after da slight misfortune of da hesutaytion” and so on. In the meantime, Andres (who had not held up his hand to the judges as a signal he was withdrawing) was nobody’s fool. He had snuck down to the far end of the arena, waited until he was broadside to the TV and ground jury and given Caballito a dose of negative reinforcement. 

Next thing you know, they were headed for another attempt at the wall. I don’t mean they were galloping, I mean they came boiling out of the corner with Caballito’s belly to the ground. At this point, Caballito thought he was running away toward home, and Andres was determined not to let his horse get away with a disobedience. About five strides out, Caballito suddenly realized his predicament and started to backpedal, but his momentum carried him into the base of the wall. His last-second stride arrangement put him at the perfect takeoff spot and he jumped it clear, at which point “hysteria” does not describe the reaction from the crowd. 

Sameh won the 2015 Dublin Puissance, but Andres won hearts and minds all around the arena. 

Only in Ireland, folks, only in Ireland.

The Irish Connection

Supposedly in the twilight of a successful career, Kilkenny was meant to be a schoolmaster for me. But “Henry” had other plans. One minute I was a hayseed kid from Kansas. The next, Henry and I had formed a mystical, unshakeable partnership that earned us Olympic and World Championship medals that hang on my library wall to this day. If not for Henry, my life would never have turned out the way it did. He was named the Irish Horse of the Millennium, but he was the horse of a lifetime for me. | Courtesy, USEA Archives

My father was the U.S. Military Attaché to Ireland in 1939–40 and made many friends there. This was a serious time to be an army officer, as World War II had just started. I have seen some of my father’s letters from that period. In the beginning of his assignment, he talks about beachfront fortifications and machine-gun emplacements. However, I noticed that the subjects of his letters changed during his stay, and he started to mention men like Capt. Dan Corry—who, along with Capt. Fred Aherne and Capt. Cyril Harty, had been on the Irish Horse Show Teams of the 1930s at the same time my father was on the U.S. team. Capt. Harty had 10 children, which meant there was always a Harty to match up with a Wofford. My siblings and I usually had an Irish pal our age when we arrived in Ireland.

In one letter, Daddy mentioned that he had run into Dan Corry, who was out walking his racing greyhounds. With typical Irish generosity, Capt. Corry invited my father for a day at the races. Daddy accepted this invitation with alacrity. It was obvious that as time went on, my father fell more and more under the spell of the Irish horses and the people who love them. In his last letter to my mother before he transferred back to the U.S., he closed by saying, “You know, I don’t think the Irish care if they are invaded or not.”

When I was older, my Irish connection extended to that country’s wonderful horses. Take it from me, a good Irish horse can change your life. All but one of the international events I ever won were with Irish horses, which explains my fondness for them.

I showed up on the U.S. eventing scene in 1965 riding a roan Appaloosa named Atos. He was a jug-headed, pig-eyed little thug of a horse. But he could jump, he was tough as a $2 steak and he was all I had. Fortunately for me, that soon changed. One minute, I was a greenhorn from Kansas, the next minute, the most wonderful Irish horse arrived in my barn. Kilkenny— “Henry” to his friends—was a 17-hand brown gelding by Water Serpent. Henry had already placed fourth in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and won a team gold at the 1966 World Championships at Burghley with his former rider, Tommy Brennan. 

The plan was that Henry would be a schoolmaster for me at the supposed twilight of his career. Being Irish, Henry had other plans, and the twilight of his career looked like this: He proceeded to win the U.S. National Championship in 1967, a 1967 Pan American Games team gold medal, the individual bronze at the 1970 World Championships and two more Olympic silver team medals (in the 1968 Mexico City Games and the 1972 Munich Games). He is one of only three horses to have ever competed in three Olympics; the others were Paket and Grasshopper. It is no wonder that in 2000 Kilkenny was named the Irish Horse of the Millennium. Some schoolmaster. Some career.

Other notable Irish horses in my life were The Regent, owned by Maj. John Lynch, on whom I won the 1971 National Championship; The Optimist, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone, my partner in winning the 1986 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event; and Carawich, who captivated me at Badminton Horse Trials in 1977 and came to my barn by the end of that year. With Carawich I ended a five-year drought of upper-level wins: We were 10th individually at the 1978 World Championship and fifth at Badminton in 1979 and we won individual silver at the Alternate Olympics in 1980 and Rolex in 1981. Like Kilkenny, Carawich is laid to rest at my farm, Fox Covert.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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