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November 7, 1976

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The National Horse Show: One Man's Vice



Someday, Deloqueville maybe (he seems to have said every damn thing that gets quoted), once said. One man's secret uncontrollable vice is another man's total boring drag." Truer words n'er were quoted, even if I had to invent the quote myself. I have a secret uncontrollable vice, which, to many of my fellow strugglers against oblivion is probably a total boring drag. The first week of every November, no matter what else is available - dancing girls in Morocco, exotic discos in SoHo (the real SoHo, that is), or languid evenings in Palm Beach - I am always on Eighth Avenue in the murky Thirties for the National Horse Show. I have followed it faithfully from one Madison Square Garden to another, from Eisenhower through Kennedy, through L.B.J., through Nixon, Watergate, to the election eve of Carter. I can't get the N.H.S. monkey off my back. Why? Well, frankly, it is one of the most sensual experiences I know. Buck for buck, it beats hashish, anti smoking hemp weed behind the barn. First, there is the smell. Gone from the old Garden is the aroma of Walt Frazier's sneakers and Brad Park's sweat, to be replaced by an ancient mixture of arenas that goes back to the Persian kings, a heady amalgam of copious amounts of freshly dropped fertilizer mixed with the unmistakable whiffs of large amounts of rich green newly minted money. The Garden is filled during this magic week with high cheek-boned, golden-maned, females in hip-hugging $90 tailored jeans. They are often accompanied by hawk-faced, leather-skinned, tense-looking mothers who have dieted away all but the last rudiments of flesh. MUSTARD THE GREAT EQUALIZER Here and there the crowd is dotted with retired colonels in full regimental tick: gold braid, swallow-tailed coats and clipped David Niven guardsman mustaches. There are even a few Daddies, pink-faced. exhaling the distinctive essence of Wild Turkey or Chivas Regal. They have the faintly furtive look of men whose only true function is to pay, And pay they do. I always wander up and down the aisles and round and round the great arena as the pageant rolls on, as unchanging as the Mendenhall glacier. I find great satisfaction in seeing tall, silver-haired, patrician gentlemen in evening dress squirting mustard on their Garden hotdogs. Harry M's finest, the same mustard that. red-faced yahoos who spend their lives screaming, "Dee-fense, Dee-fense, - the night before squirted on their juicy dogs. That's democracy my friends. And then, of course, there are the horses. If there is a more beautiful creature under God's firmament than a finely conditioned thoroughbred taking a triple bar, racing against time, I for one have not seen it. Amid all the silken, elegant women and the blase board-room fathers, the grunt, the muffled snort, the whistling breath of a world-class horse in action is, to me at least, electric. Then there is Victor Hugo Vidal, his voice faintly tinged with fashionable ennui, describing the proceedings over the Garden's P.A. system. Understated to the point of nonstatement itself, a bit bored, his voice reminds me of the one Lord Raglan must have used just before the historic charge of the light Brigade: "Well gentlemen. we might as well get on with it." Somehow he is eerily right for the N.H.S., the way Mel Allen his precisely the true note for the Bronx Bombers. Where else in all of New York, and most of the Western Hemisphere for that matter, can a paying customer witness a real live cavalry charge performed with flashing lances, fluttering pennants and thundering hoofs by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police? The only thing missing was Jeanette Mc-Donald. Every year the same scene unfolds. Honey Craven, dressed in his pink coat, classical coach livery, beaver hat and all, blows the opening notes for every class with his 1ong golden coach horn. He has been doing it for the N.H,S. for 50 years, or one-quarter of the age of our countty itself. Clarence Leo Craven, thou art a rock of granite in an ever- changing sea. And the names of the great horses I have seen at the Garden have a certain resonance of their own: Merely-a-Monarch, Snowbound (who with Bill Steinkraus up took the gold in '68 in Mexico City), San Lucas, Beethoven and the Australian wild horse Chichester, who hurls himself over the jumps like there just ain't no tomorrow while the crowd in the Garden, usually politely reserved,, goes total bananas. And the different styles of the inter-national riders, the daguerrotype-classic grace of Bill Steinkraus, the truculent rodeo toughness of Frank Chapot, and the chiseled beauty of the icy Kathy Kusner, now retired, at least from the Garden. I always wangle a pass to the stable area down below the Garden floor, and that is truly a show in itself. Millions of dollars of rare, superbly trained horseflesh snoozing away in their stalls or quietly champing on expensive horse feeds as a nasal tape plays over and over again: "Attention. You are now in a no-smoking area." Beer-swilling grooms sprawl amid bevies of long-legged debutantes. Lady Chatterley is alive and well and living at the Garden. Let me tell you, folks, the National Horse Show is one of the great spectacles left in this old town. Tonight ends it for this year. The whole magic show disappears into the void, but it will be back next November, unchanged in its classic perfection. You can at. Least count on that. ------------------------------------------ Jean Shepherd is a four-time Playboy Humor Award winner and a performer of note on television, radio and the New York stage.


Copyright: 1976 The New York Times

2298 (19761107C)