‘An Unassailable Lead’: An Excerpt from ‘Horses Came First, Second, and Last’ by Jack Le Goff

EN is honored to share with our readers an excerpt from the hot-off-the-presses Jack Le Goff autobiography, “Horses Came First, Second, and Last” by Jack Le Goff, reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

The late Frenchman is, of course, is a legend of our sport, an Olympic medalist and successful U.S. three-day eventing team coach whose legacy still reverberates today. His leadership of the team from 1970 to 1984, during which they achieved multiple international championships, winning 18 medals including several in the Olympics, is heralded as a golden era for American eventing. After retiring as coach, he acted as a consultant to the USET for new rider development, director of the USET Training Center and coached the Canadian national team. He was also an FEI judge, committee member and Olympic appeals judge. 

Read on for more information about the book, including a special offer for EN readers! 

Jack Le Goff riding Laurier to third place at Burghley in 1963. Photo courtesy of Jack
Le Goff.

In 1980, world politics once again impacted the scheduled Olympic Games in Moscow when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. In protest, many countries boycotted the Moscow Games, which made that competition less of an Olympic Games and more of a competition between Eastern Block countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, world politics had an immense and often devastating and tragic effect on the Olympic Games which, given the whole philosophy of the Olympic movement, is a sad indictment of human nature.

The FEI decided that all those nations who boycotted the Olympic Three-Day Event could compete in an international CCIO (Concours Complet International Officiel ) at Fontainebleau in France. The major eventing nations all went to Fontainebleau including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, and Italy. The home team of Joel Pons (Ensorceleuse), Jean-Yves Touzaint (Flipper), Thierry Touzaint (Gribouille), and Armand Bigot (Gamin du Bois) won the team gold medal with Denmark’s Nils Haagensen taking the individual gold medal on the Thoroughbred-Hanoverian cross, Monaco.

French organizers rose to the occasion and in just three months put on a superb event at Fontainebleau, a beautiful chateau that had been the residence of several kings and the Emperor Napoleon. This competition came to be called eventing’s “Alternative Olympics.” The United States sent a team of four and two individuals. The team was made up of Jim Wofford on Carawich, Torrance Watkins and Poltroon, Mike Plumb and Laurenson, and Mike Huber and Gold Chip. The two individuals were Karen Stives and The Saint, and Wash Bishop and Taxi.

The team was lying in second place after dressage, and I knew we had a chance of improving on that after walking the cross-country. The course was very demanding being very winding with lots of turns. Every fence required a big, bold effort or technical accuracy. The severity of the cross-country was evidenced by the number of falls; in fact, there were falls at 30 of the 34 fences on the course with the water responsible for six of that number.

Jack Le Goff with his first United States Team. L–R: Bruce Davidson and Plain Sailing;
Jim Wofford and Kilkenny; Kevin Freeman and Good Mixture; Jim Powers (reserve)
and Foster; Mike Plumb and Free and Easy. Photo by Fifi Coles.

The first US rider out was Wash Bishop on Taxi. Competing as an individual, Wash had to report back on how the course was riding. Unfortunately, Taxi had two falls that resulted in his elimination. The next day we found that Taxi had developed a fever and a virus, which accounted for him being unable to perform to his usual standard. Ill fortune was to befall the team also.

As the cross-country progressed, we moved up with every horse until we were in the lead by 90 points! An unassailable lead I hear you say. After our third horse, Gold Chip, came home I was worried. Gold Chip’s knee looked bad as she had sustained a deep cut. I asked Marty Simensen to go back to the stable and check her out and give me his opinion as to what her chances were of show jumping the next day. Marty came back with the news that although Gold Chip would be fine in a few days, there was no chance of her being fit to show jump. So, it was down to Mike Plumb and Laurenson to secure the team gold medal for the United States.

Mike’s instructions were to go for a safe clear round and do everything he could to ensure that we had a team to show jump the next day. That is a lot of pressure! Now Mike is one of the greatest riders of all time, a superb team member, and I think of him as a dear friend, but on this occasion, he had what I would call today a “brain fart.” All riders in this position clearly understand that in the event of a refusal at a fence with an alternative route they are to immediately take the longer and easier option to minimize the risk of any further penalties. At this point in the competition, with the United States in such a dominant position, Mike could have taken every long route on the course, had he wanted to. He had a fantastic round and was foot perfect coming into the second-to-last fence, a significant water complex. If Laurenson had a weakness, it was water jumps, and his successful competition record was due to the rider on his back. I was standing near the water jump, feeling quite confident that we would finish the day well in the lead when Laurenson came into the first element and refused. Oh well, we had the 20 penalties well in hand, Mike would take the option, and we would be okay, thought I. But no, Mike approached the fence again at the same place, and again Laurenson refused. Now he would take the option; our lead was greatly diminished but we could still do it.

In utter amazement and disbelief, I watched Mike turn again, approach the fence in exactly the same spot as the previous two times, and get eliminated for a third refusal. The team’s chances of a medal were gone, and it was left to Jim Wofford and Torrance Watkins to win the silver and bronze medals for the United States as individuals.

Jack Le Goff walking the course with the 1976 Olympic Team. L–R: Mary Anne
Tauskey; Bruce Davidson; Mike Plumb (always thinking); and Tad Coffin striding the
distance. Photo by Barry Kaplan/TFI Photo.

For two days I couldn’t even look at Mike, let alone speak to him. On the third day, he came to me and asked, “When are you going to let me have it, Coach?” To ask what he had been thinking would have been stupid and futile. It was apparent that his thinking capacity had eluded him that day, and no thought process had occurred whatsoever. There was also a factor of a romance going on that could explain this complete brain fart on Mike’s part. (As an example, Mike Huber had taken an option with the injured Gold Chip on cross-country and managed to complete the course!)

But I was wrong. “I’m sorry Jack, I honestly thought I could get him over it,” was Mike’s reply.

Perhaps he could have done so if the rules allowed for that many attempts!

The annual Luhmuhlen CCI in Germany was the weekend after Fontainebleau and some of the US alternative horses were to compete there. Mike had Better and Better entered but after the fiasco at Fontainebleau, he felt so bad about himself that he just wanted to go home to the States. Better and Better was ready to run, and I was not going to let Mike back out. I finally was able to convince him to compete and hoped things were going to go well. I do not know what was going on in Mike’s head at this particular time, but he made another big mistake by violating one of the rules on saddler in the warm-up area before the competition. Fortunately, one of our riders saw him and tried to convince him that was not allowed. When Mike refused to change, the rider ran to tell me, and I ran to the warm-up area. I was terribly, terribly mad at him, as mad as I have ever been. I told him, “When stupidity fell upon the earth, you certainly did not have an umbrella!” His explanation to me was that he could not find the rule change in the rule book. This was because the rule had just recently been changed (and was why we had talked about it the night before!)

Still, life goes on, and guess what? Mike and Better and Better won the Luhmuhlen CCI. Oh my!

About the Book

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Courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.