August 28 , 2009

FULL CIRCLE FOR FRENCH

John French had a week for the ages in the open divisions at Menlo. The northern California trainer earned five championships in six tries. He took the pre-green title with Tanya Hardy’s Simplicity, rode Iwasaki & Reilly’s Small Affair to the championship in first year green and added the tricolor in second year green with Mountain Home Stables’ wonderful Rumba.

Regular working honors went to Yellow Dog Farm’s Crown Affair, and French finished off the open divisions by taking Tracy Sully’s Cruise to the championship in regular conformation. Then, Saturday evening, he rode Rumba to a 92 score to win the $10,000 hunter challenge.

“It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever had,” French said. The ride on Rumba was an afterthought. He’d already taken the horse home and trailered him back to the show on a whim. “I just brought him back in the afternoon, hadn’t even ridden him, took him in the class, and he wins,” French said.

French is convinced Rumba knows when it’s a special class. “During the regular classes, sometimes he’s a little bit bored,” he said. “But in the derbies, or this class tonight, he kind of puffs up. He really wants to go to the jumps and jumps a lot higher. I think he knows when it’s time.”

Not 10 minutes after his victory lap, French faced another challenge. He had to sing the national anthem, a capella, prior to the grand prix. French sang in high school but left that behind for his career in the horse world. He sang the anthem for the first time in public at one of the HITS Thermal (Calif.) horse shows last winter.

“When I did it at Thermal, that’s all I could think about all week long,” he said. “I couldn’t even think about riding.”

But that experience made it easier to perform at Menlo. “At least I had done it one time before,” he said. “I got the words right this time, I think.” He held up his right hand, which was scribbled with the anthem’s lyrics. “I had it all on my hand in case I forgot something,” he said.

“I always wanted to sing it once at Menlo,” he added. “I said that a long time ago. Now that I’ve done it here, I’m probably finished.”

French began his professional career right out of the juniors, apprenticing with several East Coast trainers. He decided at age 25 that it was time for him to go out on his own. “I had moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I wanted to start my business,” he said. “I had only three clients.”

He was looking for an amateur horse and called Pam Hall in California. She suggested he come out and look at several prospects, and while he was there, perhaps he could fill in at a horse show for Hall’s trainer Patrick Rostron, who was among the first in the horse world to fall victim to AIDS. He was still in the early stages, but this was in 1982 when there were few effective treatments for the new disease, and his decline was rapid. French didn’t have much on his plate and was glad to help out.

“I did Monterey,” he said, “and they said, ‘Can you come back in two weeks and do Menlo, and can you come back in a few weeks and do State Fair?’” French flew out for those events and then went back to Pennsylvania. Rostron’s health continued to fail. When he became too ill to work, Hall asked French to take over the business. “There was a barn full of mostly ladies, probably 10 of them, and I had only three horses in Pennsylvania,” French recalled. “I said, ‘Maybe this is where I should be,’ and I moved to California.”

Now, 27 years later, he can’t imagine living anyplace else. He goes east every fall for the championship shows, but his heart remains in California. “I have the best of both worlds,” he said. “I get to go back in October, the most beautiful time of the year on the East Coast, then I’m here for the winter.”

He also gets to show off a bit in front of his old cohorts, a friendly rivalry he enjoys. “I like going back there,” French said. “I see people I haven’t seen in years who knew me growing up. But I don’t think I’d want to live any other place than California.”

Rostron’s former clients never forgot him and sponsored a memorial trophy in his memory for the Menlo champion in regular working hunters. It seemed fitting when John French won the trophy for the second year in a row.

Matt Hinton

Reprinted with permission of The Chronicle of the Horse