November 20, 2006 -- Gem Twist, considered by many to be the best show jumper America produced--and one of the sport's greatest ever--was euthanized November 18 due to the infirmities of old age.
It is a loss that will make anyone who ever saw him jump reflect on the privilege of having watched him. The high-flying gray gelding, who was 27, captured the imagination of thousands with his dramatic style and bold personality. His death brings down the curtain on an era of stellar jumping, when another of the "great grays," Milton, ridden by John Whitaker of Great Britain, and Canada's Big Ben, with Ian Millar up, contested the greatest prizes with Gem and his young rider, Greg Best.
Gem's sire was Good Twist, the mount of Frank Chapot in the days when he was captain of the U.S. Equestrian Team. Good Twist was quick on course, but small. Gem inherited his sire's speed, combining it with size and scope that made him capable of jumping anything a course designer could build.
Gem, bred at the Chapot family's Chado Farm in Neshanic Station, N.J., where he died on Saturday, was sold to Michael Golden, a resident of a nearby town. But Gem was no mount for an amateur, so the horse was sent back to Frank in order to nurture the young talent. Michael was the ideal owner who listened to the trainer. Although he was not on Gem's back, Michael nevertheless enjoyed an exciting ride around the world for years as Gem became an international star of the highest magnitude.
"Gem was the first horse I ever bought," Michael said. "Who knew this would happen? It was a one-in-a-million shot."
The fairytale quality of the story was amplified by the fact that Gem was handled by an unknown rider at the beginning of his career. Greg was a teenager when he started riding Gem, then climbed up through the ranks with the horse. Their pinnacle was the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, where Greg and Gem won the team and individual silver medals, on the heels of their team silver in the 1987 Pan American Games. They went on to compete in the "final four" at the first World Equestrian Games in Sweden in 1990, where Gem took the "Best Horse" title.
A broken shoulder in 1992 put Greg on the sidelines, so Leslie Burr Lenehan (now Howard) took over, winning the American Grand Prix Association (AGA) Championship on Gem, as Greg had. In 1995, Frank's daughter, Laura Chapot, fulfilled her father's longtime dream by making her debut on Gem. She had a hard act to follow, but noted after winning her first grand prix with Gem, "If you get the opportunity to ride the best horse in the world, of course there's pressure. But what are you going to say, 'no?'"
Laura was awed at her mount's ability.
"Gem knows what he's doing. When you jump a jump, he's looking for the next one right away. You say 'turn,' and he's already turned around," Laura said in 1995, when she was named AGA Rookie of the Year.
Laura went on the next year to win the AGA Championship with the three-time AGA Horse of the Year. A mark of Gem's ability was the fact that he took the championship with three different riders.
With Gem it was never "how high is the jump" but "how high can I jump it."
"It was a thrill to watch him jump, because he enjoyed it so much and it was so obvious to everybody that he enjoyed himself," said Mary Chapot, Frank's wife and Laura's mother.
"I am particularly drawn to how many people enjoyed his jumping style, athleticism and show ring personality," said Michael.
After a 1997 retirement tour and a poignant ceremony in Madison Square Garden at the National Horse Show, Gem lived quietly for most of the time at the Chapots' farm, but always went to Florida with the family when they traveled south for the Winter Equestrian Festival.
"He'd come off the van better than anybody," recalled Mary.
Gem was ridden until a week before his death. Although he had been winding down as the year drew to an end, a pulled muscle behind meant he couldn't get up. While everything possible was done for him on Saturday, it was obvious that the only alternative was to let him go. Gem was cremated, with his ashes divided between Michael and the Chapots.