By Nancy Jaffer
June 20, 2016
Through six Olympic Games, scores of Nations’ Cups and dozens of victories at the world’s most important equestrian venues, Frank Chapot always rode to win when the nation’s flag was on his saddlepad.
In the subsequent quarter-century he spent as the U.S. show jumping coach, he inspired scores of riders to do the same. His life, which ended on Monday, June 20, at the age of 84, was about dedication to horses, the sport and his country’s team.
Frank’s longtime teammate, Billy Steinkraus, noted that, “Frank was a tenacious competitor, a stalwart teammate, and for me, a loyal friend for well over half a century. A mainstay of the jumping team for many years, he became a consistent anchor man in team events but specially enjoyed riding against the clock. (His unusual talent for going fast lives on today very conspicuously in his daughter Laura.)
“Frank’s taste for speed even extended to the way he dealt with Europe’s swarms of autograph seekers. He hated turning anyone down, but found it tiresome to scrawl his whole name over and over again. He solved this problem by simply signing `Tex’.
“Frank didn’t care a lot about what others thought of him, but all in all,” Billy said, “I think he’d be pleased to be remembered as someone who was 100 percent trier, no matter what the odds, and 100 percent genuine.”
There never was any question that his team and his country were focal points of Frank’s life.
“If you look at Frank’s clothing, he doesn’t wear baseball caps that say, `Yankees’ or `Green Bay Packers’,” longtime friend David Distler, a judge, steward and show manager, once mused.
“Everything he has says ‘USA’ on it. He believes in the U.S. doing well and winning. That’s his prime concern, and always has been.”
Frank’s wife, Mary, recalled that although Frank was “a formidable competitor against the clock, his main focus was the Nations’ Cup Team Competitions.
“After he retired from riding and went on to coach so many winning teams, he had little patience with riders who wanted to save their best horse for the grand prix, I like to think that his early input has contributed to more money being added in to those (Cup) competitions, and the scheduling of most Nations’ Cups to a Friday before the Sunday Grand Prix, rather than the day before, as was usual way back when.”
Frank once told me that he didn’t fear death, noting he was satisfied with what he had done. “I flew some fast planes (he had been an Air Force captain) and rode some good horses,” is the way he summed it up.
“I’ve had a lot of fun and had some successes–and some failures, too. To come close to winning some gold medals, which I did a couple of times, how can a person who’s not very wealthy dream of being able to do that?” he asked.
But really, that wasn’t even the half of it. When it came to committee work for the U.S. Equestrian Team and the old American Horse Shows Association, and then its successor, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, Frank was tireless and a veritable walking rulebook. He also rode steeplechase horses, was a show jumping course designer and a respected judge, saluted for all his accomplishments with the USEF’s Lifetime Achievement Award and a member of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
He was particularly proud of being the trainer and breeder of Gem Twist, awarded the Best Horse title at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. Gem, a thoroughbred by one of Frank’s top mounts, Good Twist, won nearly everything there was to win, from two Olympic silver medals, Pan American Games silver and the American Invitational to the American Grand Prix Association Championship with Greg Best aboard.
He went on to take two more AGA titles with Leslie Howard and Frank’s daughter, Laura, as well as a host of other honors. At Gem’s 1997 retirement during the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, Frank was by the horse’s side, as always, when the handsome gray got a standing ovation.
Gem’s owner, Michael Golden, characterized Frank as, “a determined leader in the industry to which he devoted his life. His work ethic, his demand of excellence and integrity, as well as conviction, enabled him to speak out to all that fell short of his standards.”
After Frank retired from coaching the team a decade ago, he spent his time working with Laura at his Chado Farm (named after his first show horse) in Neshanic Station, N.J., and continuing to go on the road with her and Mary, his teammate in the early 1960s.
“I like to be able to make him proud,” Laura once said, referring to her father. “It’s a lot of fun to have the success together and have both of us be a part of it.”
She called him “a natural horseman,” and wasn’t referring to the natural horsemanship trend, but rather, his ability to connect with horses.
“He’d walk up to a horse and it would come to attention. He seemed to have a rapport with them,” she recalled.
Laura loved watching him ride, noting “he could get on and be doing what you’d been spending the last three weeks trying to do with your horse. I’m so lucky to have had his influence on my riding and be able to have his input.”
A new chapter in the Chapots’ lives began after they cloned Gem. It was quite an innovative move for Frank, who tended to be a bit of a traditionalist, but the advent of Gemini helped preserve the fabulous Bonne Nuit jumping lines carried by Gem, a gelding. Gemini’s job is to stand at stud, and the Chapots have several of his youngsters, who just started jumping courses last year.
It’s all a far cry from when Frank was growing up in the 1940s. The sport in this country was small-time then, except for the cavalry teams that competed for the U.S. abroad and in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden at the National Horse Show.
“It was a hidden sport, more or less,” Frank remembered a few years ago.
“Now more people are interested in equestrian sports, show jumping especially, which gives a little more recognition, though (still) maybe not the recognition we’d like to have. It’s not so elitist anymore, and that’s a good thing. The dollars involved for sure are more than I ever expected.”
Mostly self-taught, he used to watch the Mexican team practice at the old Squadron A Armory in Manhattan when it came for the National, which helped him pick up some sophisticated riding tips.
Frank also got equitation instruction as a teen from Al Homewood at the Boulder Brook Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., where his father took him on Friday nights. Equitation practice, which was his mother’s idea, paid off when he won the ASPCA Maclay finals at the Garden in 1947.\
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Frank spent two years in the Air Force, serving between the Korean and Vietnam wars, and was able to spend the weekends riding.
At his first Olympics in 1956, his mother paid $3,500 for a horse named Belair who had sight in only one eye. The equestrian events were held in Stockholm, because quarantine restrictions kept them out of Melbourne, where the rest of the Games were staged. The pressure was on Frank to be the pathfinder. Only three riders were on a team in those days, so every score counted over an incredibly difficult course.
Team Captain Billy Steinkraus told him before he went in the arena: “You’ve got to get around.”
The first eight fences went well enough, but Belair got hung up in the next obstacle, a wide oxer. Frank stayed on, only to have the horse stop at the next fence.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to get around,’ ” he recounted, noting that if he failed, the team would be eliminated. He gritted his teeth and pressed on; the horse didn’t dare do anything but keep going. It was pure Chapot.
The team finished fifth, and “getting home” became Frank’s calling card.
“I didn’t come from a family with a lot of money,” he once said.
“My big break came from making the team and having a good relationship with Bert de Nemethy,” he explained, referring to the aristocratic Hungarian who coached the U.S. show jumpers for 25 years.
Bill Steinkraus and Frank, who succeeded him as captain, were mainstays of the team in the 1950s, ’60s, and part of the ’70s. Others joined them eventually, including George Morris and a California rider named Mary Mairs, who had won both the Maclay and American Horse Shows Association Medal equitation finals in 1960 and was selected to come to team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., by Bert after a talent scouting trip.
Mary remembers “Billy and Frank came to observe. They had made it (onto the team), and it was awesome that they would take time to watch us go round.”
Mary and Frank married 51 years ago and rode together on the 1964 Olympic team in Tokyo, where the squad was sixth and Frank was the highest-placed American, seventh on San Lucas. The couple also teamed four years later in Mexico City, where Frank just missed a medal on San Lucas, coming in fourth, as did the team.
Asked how he evaluated his success as a rider, Frank once answered, “It was more determination, not especially talent. I wouldn’t be able to ride with these young people today; they get better training and better horses.”
George assessed Frank’s basic style as “not too complicated. He was a great rider; aggressive with a difficult horse, aggressive against the clock, aggressive over big courses, but he was aggressive with ‘feel’ for the horse.”
Frank, George and Billy rode on the 1960 Olympic silver medal team in Rome, and the courtyard at the USET Foundation’s headquarters is dedicated to that squad.
“He was a great team player,” said George, noting that Frank “always had my back” and was supportive, telling him, “You can do it,” when George expressed doubts about a difficult course. The two were lifelong friends; George spent every Christmas eve at Frank’s house when he ran Hunterdon Inc. in New Jersey.
He called Frank “a great chef d’equipe” in so many ways, not the least of which was the fact that “he was street-smart, he was more diplomatic than I was; he was clever that way” and managed as a result to get things done under less-than-ideal circumstances. George also noted Frank’s regard for horses, never letting anything be done at their expense.
As coach, Frank presided over glory years of the USET, when the show jumping team won its first gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where Joe Fargis and Conrad Homfeld also brought home the individual gold and silver. The team won gold again in the 1986 world championships in Aachen, Germany, where Conrad earned individual silver. And Gem’s double silver at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 was personally special to Frank.
Frank remained active in the sport until recent years, when his health declined. Survivors in addition to Mary and Laura include daughter Wendy Nunn, an accountant who has been successful as an amateur-owner jumper; her husband, Edward Nunn, and their children, Frank, Mary and Cathleen.
Arrangements are by the Branchburg, N.J., Funeral Home. There will be no visitation or funeral, as per Frank’s request, but a celebration of his life will be held at some point in the autumn.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation at USET.org.