Horse Hero Gene Mische

Gene Mische
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The horse show organizer and official talks about the roots and the development of the Florida winter circuit, and the people and the circumstances that led to the formation of the American Grandprix Association.

When were you first drawn to horses?

My family moved in 1947 to a street in Cleveland, Ohio. At the corner was the Cleveland Riding Club. It had been the 107 Cavalry National Guard, but when the Guard became mechanized, the place became a riding club. Being a kid, I was attracted to horses. The head instructor at the time was Dick Avery, Sr., father of the Dick Avery who’s involved with Saddle Horses. I became friends with his other son, Tommy, and I started to ride and did some of the grooming.

The club had about 35 school horses. Lessons cost $5.00 an hour, and maybe half that for a class lesson. During the week, I’d go in after school. A lot of the guys who worked there would go home, so I’d help out until the end of the last classes, at 8:30 or 9:00 in the evening.

Among the people who rode there were Peggy Augustus, Bobby Motch (who was Sallie Wheeler’s first husband), Squeaky Reynolds, and later on, Susie Creech, who rode jumpers for R. L. Reynolds. The focus was on the hunters; there weren’t jumpers there then.

I worked at the club straight through high school, giving lessons. During my second year of college, I managed the club. Shortly after I left, the club fizzled out.

In 1956, while I was managing there, a man named Reynolds Perry had a young girl who was interested in riding, Pat Perry, who was Rodney Jenkins’ first wife. I went to work for the Perrys full-time when he bought a farm in Cleveland. That was Rolling Green Farm where I managed and trained until Mr. Perry died three years later.

Did you do much showing?

We went to horse shows in Rochester, Buffalo and other places in that area. We didn’t use our horses very much – perhaps eight or ten shows a year. The shows weren’t all that competitive in terms of numbers of horses. Nor was there quite the same demands on footing or stabling. A horse in those days cost from five to ten thousand dollars. The same horses did lots of things, such as horsemanship, hunters, and pleasure horses. In that way, they were a little more rounded than the ones today.

When did you discover Florida?

After Mr. Perry died, I went into business for myself. There weren’t many indoor riding ring, so winters became an off-season in that part of the world.

In 1961 I went to Florida on vacation. I loved the climate, and I realized that I could work all year. The first year I met people who had a farm in south Miami where I went. Then I went to the old Palm Beach Polo Club for three or four years. That place was totally different from the club we have now. It was On Military Trail, a quarter-mile south of Southern Boulevard. It’s a shopping center now.

I had a customer named C.F. Johnson, from Ashville, North Carolina. He had Chevrolet dealerships, including a couple in Florida. Mr. Johnson wanted to develop a show string, and he bought Fairfield Farm. We’d spend the winters in Palm Beach and summers in Ashville. When I got tired of moving back and forth, I asked him to pick one or the other, so he bough 2,500 acres in Lake City, Florida, which we considered sort of halfway in between.

Rodney Jenkins came to ride for me. He was sixteen years old at the time. I saw him at a show in Virginia. I talked to his father, and that’s how Rodney came to work for us. He also rode any of the horses his father sent down to us. Horses he rode included Let’s Dance and Nanticoke. He stayed for five years, till he was 21.

His successor was Steve Stephens, who had won the puissance at the National Horse Show when he was also sixteen years old.

By that time, I wanted to leave Mr. Johnson and go into business for myself. “If you want to go into business for yourself, sell me out,” he said. “If you’re not here, that’s it. I achieved all I wanted to achieve.” He was very supportive.

I bought Imperial Farm in Palmetto, Florida in 1967.

How did you become involved in show management?

I got a little taste of running horse shows when I was in Lake City, Florida. The town wanted to put on a show. [Dr. Robert] Doc Rost was the manager, but I was a kind of overseer because we had the farm there and Mr. Johnson’s money backed the horse show. That was my first taste of management, with Doc Rost. We learned together.

The Sunshine Circuit – Winter Haven, Delray, Tampa and Miami – was backed by a man named John Snively, a citrus grower. He was mainly involved in the Winter Haven show. When he went bankrupt, the Florida Hunter/Jumper Association, of which I was president, decided to take over Winter Haven. I got to call the shots. As an exhibitor and a trainer, I tried to correct lots of things that I thought horse shows were doing wrong, such as stabling, footing and scheduling problems.

In 1970 Jessica Newberry’s mother, Ruth, told George Morris that she wanted to start a horse show in Lake Placid, New York. George suggested she talk to me. Since I thought my forte was in training horses, not producing horse shows, I kept refusing. But Ruth was a very persistent woman and I finally agreed. That was 1971, and the Lake Placid horse show has been going on ever since.

How did the American Grandprix Association begin?

Also in 1970 Jerry Baker brought the American Gold Cup to Cleveland, where he held it with the Cleveland Grand Prix. But he was still looking for a new home for the class. Jerry and I thought holding it in Tampa Stadium at the end of the Sunshine Circuit’s season would be a good idea. I used my Florida contacts to secure the stadium, where it was first held in 1971. Steve Stephens won that first class.

The next year Jerry moved the Gold Cup to California (it was held in the Rose Bowl). I wanted to replace the class in Tampa with the American Invitational. I called my longtime friend Elizabeth Busch Burke, and we went to see her father, August A. Busch, Jr., chairman of Anheuser-Busch, at his summer home in St. Petersburg. Mr. Busch, who was a great supporter of show jumping, said he’d sponsor the Invitational for, if I’m not mistaken about the first purse, $15,000.

Mr. Busch’s son August III, who’s the present chairman of the board, was there too. His reaction was, “That won’t do us” – he meant Anheuser-Busch – “any good. My father loves the horses, but if you would offer us a number of events in different cities…”

That was the beginning of the American Grandprix Association.

I met a lot of opposition at first. The American Horse Shows Association seemed to feel that forming a league like that would be stepping on their toes. Some of the other horse show events were reluctant. Why? Because it was a change, probably – people in the horse business hate change.

Because of the opposition, I had the idea that if we couldn’t call it a league, we’d take some of the top events – the Gold Cup, the Invitational, the Grand Prix of Jacksonville, and the Newport Jumping Derby — and put out a magazine called “Grand Prix” in which those events would be covered. To get the magazine published, the events had to support it. That was the structure I used a few years later to form the American Grandprix Association.

In 1979 I tried again to form the AGA with the guidance of a marketing person: Bud Stanner of the Cleveland-based International Management Group sports management complex. We tried a few times, but there was still mistrust about why we were trying to do it. I tried to put everyone at rest by holding the first meeting at the AHSA offices and have a USET representative on the board. Billy Steinkraus was the Team’s representative and Jim Fallon [the AHSA executive director] was the AHSA’s representative.

The picture became clear: the AGA was the right way.

Actually, there were two organizations. The AGA Owners Association was for owners of the events. The AGA itself was a federation patterned on the National Hockey League. James J. Hickey, Jr, who’s now the president of the American Horse Council, formed it for us.

We went on to get some very nice sponsors, and the rest is history.

And Stadium Jumping, Inc. in West Palm Beach?

At first the Palm Beach show was at the polo club. 1989 was the first year across the road, to where the horse show is now. It’s been an evolutionary growth. The facility was originally 85 acres and built to accommodate 1,000 stalls. At present it’s 230 acres that are both owned and leased. 4,000 stalls are on the property, and 600 more in Grand Prix Village.

People ask me why I don’t limit the size. First of all, there’s lots of room to grow, and you’ve got to grow to accommodate new people. There are lots of drop-outs – kids who stop riding when they’re out of the juniors, for example, so we’ve got to make room for everyone who comes to the sport.

Besides, you’d never hear Anheuser-Busch say “we’ve sold enough beer.”

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