By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on http://nancyjaffer.com/coming-home-to-gladstone/.
“My life has been special because of what transpired here,” declared Michael Page, as he arrived at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation stables in Gladstone for a celebration with family and friends.
A month before his 81st birthday, the Olympic eventing multi-medalist arranged the Sunday gathering at a place he knew intimately.
The purpose was to salute Gladstone; Grasshopper and Foster, the horses who were his partners when he rode for the team during the 1950s and ‘60s, and his wife, Georgette, Foster’s groom, whose connections with the revered venue are as deep as his. The lower floor of the USET stables is where the couple’s love story began, and it has continued for more than a half-century.
“Those of us who lived through this period of time owe a lot to what happened here at Gladstone,” said Michael.
Think “Chariots of Fire,” going back to a time when the strong bond among the athletes and with their sport was the focal point for those aspiring to international equestrian greatness.
The trip down memory lane was especially gratifying for Michael because the building and grounds have been refurbished.
“To see it the way it used to look 50 years ago is exciting. To be at this stage and have a bucket wish and see how it has come back to almost be like it was when you were young–how much better does it get?” he asked. Michael praised the USET Foundation’s management decision that led to extensive work on what can only be called a hallowed facility, which is more than 100 years old. It started as the home of horses and carriages belonging to Wall Street financier James Cox Brady, the master of Hamilton Farm, a vast estate that once spread over three New Jersey counties. In 1961, it became the home of the USET.
Speaking about the Foundation, Michael said, “They recognize the history, and we’re the history. I’m old enough now to appreciate what Gladstone has done for me over the years. This place supplied my horses; this place supplied my wife.”
Michael, who won the national hunt seat equitation championship at Madison Square Garden in 1956, only wanted to ride. He was encouraged and supported by his father, Homer, (someone he quoted often while speaking during the afternoon in Gladstone). Michael went abroad to train, first to England and then to the French cavalry school at Saumur, where the demands were rigorous, from sitting trot until he bled to trying to trying to stay on horses doing levades and caprioles between pillars.
The training served him well when he was given the ride on the notoriously difficult Grasshopper. At that time, riders were assigned to horses owned by the USET or that had been loaned to the organization. Grasshopper was a challenge, but Michael made the most of it and convinced the horse to see the wisdom of cooperating. Together, they took individual gold medals and team silvers at the 1959 and 1963 Pan American Games and team silver at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the city where next year’s Olympics will be held.
With Foster, who at one time had a penchant for stopping on course, Michael claimed team gold and individual bronze at the 1967 Pan American Games, and individual bronze under extremely difficult conditions at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
There is now a plaque next to a stall at the Foundation stables commemorating both horses, and also the day that Michael met Georgette, Foster’s groom. “Best day of my life. Georgette Page. 12/15/66” reads the bottom line of the plaque.
After his time with Grasshopper, Michael had gone to work with his father in the family’s business, making hat and jewelry box liners. But the team called him back to ride Foster, and Michael eagerly accepted. When he arrived in Gladstone, coach Stefan von Visy told him to “go see George.” That turned out to be Georgette, Foster’s caretaker and Michael’s future wife, who was sitting on a tack trunk. The couple recreated the scene for their guests.
Georgette had answered a want ad for a groom from George Merck of the Essex Foxhounds, but when she applied, the position had been filled. He suggested she work at the USET, and that turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. It was also an enormous amount of work. Michael was still involved with his family’s company in New York, which meant he had to ride at 4:30 a.m. every day.
“I was here at 3 o’clock every morning, because he had to get on the train,” recalled Georgette.
“My day was always early. Then he got a second horse, so he had something else to ride, so he would ride that horse after he got back from the city. At 6 o’clock at night, we’d be going around and around again. You lived and breathed it. It was everything about getting Foster to Mexico.”
The Pages’ son, Matthew, expressed his respect and admiration for his father’s “pretty remarkable life” as well as “what my mom and dad have both done. To see them here on the trunk where they met…it’s a good experience they can share and hold onto. It’s really nice.”
Matthew dominated leadline and walk/trot/canter classes as a child before moving on to baseball and dirtbikes. Now 40, the NASDAQ employee never saw his father compete internationally, but he did accompany him to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. At that time, Michael was the team’s chef d’equipe, which meant Matthew got a glimpse of what it took to compete in the most important event in the world.
In his time with the team, Michael was legendary.
“He was winning when none of the rest of the Americans could win,” Michael’s teammate, Jimmy Wofford, once noted. Jimmy couldn’t make the party, but he sent a note, propped against the USET eventing national championship challenge trophy, which stated, “No horses deserve this honor more than Grasshopper and Foster.”
Michael had many other roles in horse sport as well as being a medal winner and chef d’equipe. At one point, he was head of the selection committee, and chairman of the federation’s equitation committee. With Georgette, he ran Old Salem Farm in North Salem, N.Y., and was a respected hunter/jumper/hunter seat equitation judge until retiring last year.
He continues as resident trainer at the Kent School in Connecticut, and still rides—often without stirrups.
Those who know him well always cite their admiration for his many special qualities; among them, integrity and generosity of spirit.
Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association founder Robert Cacchione recalled he was working as a ringmaster at a show when he met Michael.
“He gave me one of his red coats that he wore in the Olympics,” Robert said, and once he looked the part, that turned out to be the key in getting him more ringmaster jobs. Robert, the executive director of IHSA, appreciates the way Michael interacts with those he teaches and has judged.
“He listens to people and when he talks, he talks about them and for them, and what can help them going forward,” Robert said.
Michael is the only person to have judged the IHSA national championship show five times.
Peter Cashman, who with his wife, Sherry, coaches the West Point Equestrian Team, noted, “Michael to me is one of the very finest of his era. I like everything that he stands for. He recognizes it’s not all him, he always makes a point of that, the other people who contributed to make his abilities match up with reality.”
Bonnie Jenkins was judged many times by Michael when she was competing. Now she’s the executive director of the USET Foundation, and proud that Michael returned for his special day.
“He’s somebody who appreciates the sport and what it’s done for him. To see him come back to Gladstone and know how much it means to him, it’s pretty special. Everybody on the staff works together to make sure we can be good stewards of this building and this facility. We’re happy we can continue to do that for Michael and other riders who trained here, and for the next generation who will use it as well.”
This is a copy of an article that originally appeared on Nancy Jaffer Equestrian Sports and is reproduced here with permission. ©2019 On The Rail LLC and Nancy Jaffer. All rights reserved.