Gladstone, N.J., October 20, 2009 -- Jack Le Goff would have loved it.
A celebration of the late U.S. eventing coach's life last night brought together people to whom he meant so much, at the place where many of them first came together. There were smiles, tears and memories that flowed as generously as the wine during the gathering at the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation headquarters.
The interior of the landmark stables had been redone for the occasion, so that its brass shone and the dark wood gleamed. Every stall bore the name of a horse that had undergone training with Jack. Can you imagine if they had all been there at the same time?
The rotunda was dominated by a display honoring Jack, including his brass-buttoned black Cadre Noir jacket from his days at Saumur, the French cavalry school; his boots, a cigarette in an ashtray and a bottle of champagne. On the back wall were larger-than-life photos of Jack, which was only fitting; he was a larger-than-life kind of guy, an extraordinary figure.
He died last summer in his native France after a long illness, but the stable was so imbued with his spirit that it almost felt as if he were mingling with the 90 people who had come to pay him tribute. If you never met Jack, you can get to know him by looking at the tribute that Jim Wofford wrote about him.
Jim, an Olympic medalist who trained long and hard (like all his contemporaries) under Jack's tutelage, was filled with feeling as he read his heart-felt words. Jim's a pretty tough guy, coming from cavalry stock, so his need to pause and gather himself several times underlined how much Jack had meant to him.
David O'Connor, one of Jack's last working students in the days when the USET eventing operation was in Hamilton, Mass., was similarly affected. These are two men who have seen much and been through more, but their poignant reaction was understandable as they and their audience rode a wave of emotion through the second-floor trophy room, filled with mementoes of their success and Jack's career.
The tribute portion of the program ended with David opening a bottle of champagne using a large knife that doubled for the more customary sword. He did a good job; I imagine he saw Jack do it many times; the technique likely was just another thing he learned from the master.
Before and after the ceremonies, I asked people to share their memories of Jack. Michael Page, who served as U.S. chef d'equipe after Jack retired and through the 1992 Olympics, knew Jack before any of the others, since he was a student at Saumur in the 1950s. I'll let him tell about Jack in his own voice; in this soundbyte, he's referring to exercises performed while the horse is tethered between pillars. You may be more familiar with such airs above the ground as the capriole and levade from watching the Spanish Riding School horses.
I also spoke with Susan Smith, Jack's partner who shared two decades with him. As we chatted, her devotion to him still showed.
Jack was a man of Gallic charm and strong beliefs; a diligent disciple of the work ethic, but someone who knew how to enjoy leisure time.
Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's director of sport programs who organized the evening, worked for the USET as director of eventing after Jack left, but was friendly with him. He remembered when Jack hired a mariachi band to serenade them while they were shooting in Mexico.
"We were in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden we see this station wagon pull up," said Jim, recalling his astonishment as the musicians clambered out. "That was Jack; he did everything with style."
Malcolm Hook came all the way from Oregon to attend the memorial.
"I owed it to Jack for what he did for both me and my wife over the 40-some years that we knew him," explained Malcolm, who noted that Jack's clinics were vital in putting their stable on the map in their area.
Like everyone else, he had a funny story about Jack, this one involving the time he was the technical delegate at the Ram Tap Horse Trials in California, where Jack was judging.
"I had a rider come to me to complain Le Goff had given her an error of course and she had a video showing she had clearly performed the movement" the first time. Le Goff had required her to perform it a second time.
"With great trepidation, I approached Le Goff," Malcolm recalled.
"Oh, no no, of course, I will look at the video," Jack told Malcolm.
" He said, 'Damn, I was wrong.' Then he noted, 'I gave her a 7 when she redid the movement. The first time was not that good; I gave her a 5.'" But she wound up in the same place, since he also had given her 2 penalties for the error of course, which made the 7 a 5 anyway.
"Jack would give with one hand and take with the other," said Malcolm with amusement.
Jack was quite the taskmaster, but there was far more to him than that.
"I thought he taught most of us as much about being human beings as being horsemen," said Mike Huber. "He taught us outside the ring as well. He really helped to shape us in a lot of ways."
Mike recalled being invited to Jack's house for the first time with the other riders in his group, all of whom worried about being quizzed on who won the 1948 Olympics and similar equestrian trivia.
"But he greeted us at the door, as gracious as he could be. He said, 'By the way boys, I only have one rule--you're not allowed to speak about horses.' That was who he was; there was a time that you were in the ring and a time you weren't," said Mike.
"Another time, I was being schooled heavily in the arena. The session was over and I was fuming because I thought I'd been picked on. We walked out of the indoor and I wasn't done yet; I wanted to continue the conversation. He turned to me and said, `We'll continue this tomorrow. Would you like to go fishing with me this afternoon?'
"There's a lot of people who live and breathe horses 24/7, and I don't think that's healthy," Mike observed. "He taught me you're a better horseman if you step back, at least for a few hours."
Jack was the consummate horseman, consistent with veterinarian Brendan Furlong's assessment that "He had an uncanny ability to see a horse/rider combination that could turn into a championship pair. He was amazing at it."
David commented, "He's probably the last person I know that you would call a great master."
U.S. Eventing Association (USEA) Executive Director Jo Whitehouse wrote a book with Jack called, simply, "Jack Le Goff: Horseman." She's hoping USEA will publish it, though it will take quite a fundraising effort to get it done. But the enthusiasm for Le Goff's wisdom exhibited at the memorial makes me think it can and must happen to preserve his legacy.
The evening stretched out as the guests lingered, reluctant to tear themselves away as they drank, ate and remembered.
Jack would have loved it.