Updated December 4, 2010 -- Eugene R. Mische, whose remarkable vision reshaped the country's hunter/jumper world, died yesterday at age 79 after a long illness.
The founder of Stadium Jumping Inc., which ran the Winter Equestrian Festival, the American Invitational and many other landmark shows, from Lake Placid to the National and the American Gold Cup, he was an innovator who not only dared to dream, but worked hard to make those dreams reality.
Gene once said, "It distresses me when someone in my organization tells me something can't be done. I always look at, 'How can you make it happen?' That's just the way I am."
Sometimes his vision was grandiose. He was good-naturedly nicknamed "Cecil B. deMische" by the late trainer Ronnie Mutch because of his penchant for big productions. David Distler, who worked for Gene over the years as a coordinator and official, said if the showman hadn't been involved with horses, he believes he would have been a Broadway producer.
"He always saw the big picture. He made such a difference. I cannot think of anyone who comes close to affecting the sport in our country like Gene Mische did."
His approach moved the sport forward, from what was basically a rich man's hobby played for penny ante money to a much broader-based activity that offers millions of dollars in purses and found a niche with TV and spectators.
Not everything worked, of course. The 1989 World Cup finals in Tampa, for instance, had an overly ambitious line-up that ran from driving to quarter horse competition as part of the Cup week.
"It was a financial disaster," said Gene, who chuckled about it in retrospect, "but I think it was a good World Cup."
His involvement with horses began when his family moved into the Cleveland, Ohio, neighborhood where a riding club was located. Gene used to watch the activities there, and one day leaped on a horse as it was going to its stall after a lesson. Club manager Dick Lavery caught the errant 9-year-old boy, and told him if he wanted to ride, he could work for it. Gene did that, going on to manage the club when he grew up and becoming a professional rider and trainer.
Eventually, he moved his base to Florida. His top horses included the national champion hunter mare, Let's Dance, as well as the jumpers Mighty Ruler and Houdini. He also had some blue-ribbon clients, among them longtime U.S. Equestrian Team patron Patrick Butler. As a rider, Gene called himself average, but he had a way of spotting talent, both human and equine.
Rodney Jenkins rode for Gene until he was in his early 20s, but "he was so good, everyone was after him," Gene recalled. When Jenkins left, he was succeeded in Gene's operation by Jimmy Day, who went on to join the Canadian Equestrian Team, and then by Steve Stephens. Spotted as a 15-year-old by his mentor, Steve went on to be an Olympic course designer, creator of jumps and competition manager, while serving as a partner with Gene in their Imperial Farms, located in Palmetto, Fla.
"Gene and I have never had an argument," Steve said, contending Gene's success with shows stemmed from "the nerve to go out on a limb, and then make it happen. I don't know where this industry would be if it wasn't for what he's done."
In 1967, Gene was running a Florida breeding farm and show operation when the owner of the property decided he wanted to put on a horse show in Lake City, in the central part of the state. Horses were stabled in tobacco barns and the competition was held on the local high school football field.
"I thought there were a lot of things you could do better than what we were doing," said Gene. That was when his interest in show management began. As president of the Central Florida Horseman's Association, he got more involved with management as he kept the Sunshine Circuit of shows going.
"He saw a future for these shows," said Stephens. That turned out to be an understatement.
"Show jumping was just becoming a big thing, and Jerry Baker and I were friends," said Mische. When he saw Baker put on the first U.S. grand prix in Cleveland, he said, "I was very enthused, and I told Jerry, 'It should be in a stadium.'" That was the genesis of the American Gold Cup, and Gene's proclivity for dreaming big began.
"Let's try and get the Gold Cup in Tampa Stadium," he said. The Gold Cup started there, then moved to a stadium in Philadelphia, eventually going to Devon and then Cleveland, while the American Invitational took over in the Tampa facility. In 1973, Stadium Jumping Inc. was off and running to become the basis for Gene's equestrian empire, as he worked to develop the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center in Tampa and the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, now the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, in Welllington, Fla.
Gene always seemed able to come to a rapprochement with people, even those with whom he had been at odds.
At one time, he butted heads with HITS impresario Tom Struzzieri, who had developed a nationwide circuit of his own.
"We came to a truce after we had been at it pretty good for a number of years," Tom recalled.
"Then we found that we co-existed pretty well. He had his audience and I had mine and we found that we weren't necessarily competitors in the exact sense of that word. From time to time we'd confer and it turned out to be a good relationship."
Gene also eventually developed a connection with Mark Bellisimo, whose Equestrian Sport Productions now runs the Wellington show grounds.
After a turf battle with Mark, Gene lost the Winter Equestrian Festival as his reign at the Palm Beach Polo facility ended in 2007. He was still a familiar figure at the showgrounds, however, where a ring was named after him and he hobnobbed with friends in the VIP club.
Once the conflict with Mark was settled, the two became quite cordial.
Although their battle had been bitter at times, "I never lost my respect for him," said Mark. "He was a very committed person. After it all happened, I think he realized we had more common interests than not. I enjoyed being with him and welcomed his enthusiasm for what we were doing. He always made himself available and I think his legacy will live long after we're all gone."
Tonight, during the grand prix at the showgrounds, a video about Gene will be played. On Jan. 22, a celebration in his memory is being planned at the facility. Mark hopes to get many of the people who were part of Gene's life to gather there in tribute. A WEF hall of fame is being started at the White Horse Tavern next to the showgrounds, and Mark said Gene will be the first person installed in that gallery.
Appropriately, he often has been honored by the sport that he served. He is in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, and in 2009, he won the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Jimmy Williams Lifetime Achievement Award.
I once asked Gene what kept him going.
"I enjoy very much what I'm doing," he said.
"I even enjoy the disasters, like the (1989) World Cup. My one belief is that if you take care of what you do in the sport, as far as I'm concerned, it will take care of you."
"What I enjoy is doing things for people that can make their situations better," he told me.
"By having the sport grow and having it become more prominent, that helps everyone involved in it, and there are certainly a lot of wonderful people involved in the sport. And I'm not talking just about owners; I'm talking about riders and kids who come in on the fringe edges. If you can give them a place to go, I think that's what I'd like to be remembered for."