London Olympics countdown: In praise of equestrian’s Authentic

It’s not that there haven’t been other great Olympic horses.

Rembrandt, ridden byGermany’sNicole Uphuff, won two individual gold medals and two team gold medals during the 1988 and 1992 Olympics in dressage.

But Rembrandt wouldn’t stick his nose in a trash can because curiosity trumped caution.

Rembrandt wouldn’t turn around and try to reenter Tampa Stadium after a major competition to return immediately to the scene of triumph.

As far as great U.S. Olympic horses are concerned, Authentic is the tops.

The 17-year-old bay gelding, who was bred in Holland, is a happy retiree in Cazenovia, N.Y., where he is an impish playmate to the other horses in the stable of John and Beezie Madden and owner of two team golds from Athens and Beijing and an individual bronze from Beijing, making him the most decorated Olympic jumper.

If not for a small injury in 2006, Authentic might be trying for his third Olympics with rider Beezie Madden. Instead, Madden is trying to make the team with Coral Reef Via Volo, a 13-year-old Belgian warmblood mare.

Authentic did the Olympic event most of us non-equestrian dabblers pay attention to — jumping.

The combination of tension, strength and elegance it takes rider and horse to complete courses without even touching — much less knocking down — a rail can make one sweat, just watching it on television.

Abigail Wexner, the wife of Columbus, Ohio, business mogul Leslie Wexner — who owns, among other things, the Limited clothing company — helped put together a financial syndicate that bought Authentic for the Maddens so that they could keep the most decorated jumping horse in U.S. history.

Olympic-caliber horses cost well into six figures. Authentic was in Holland when another wealthy horse lover, Elizabeth Busch Burke of theAnheuser-Buschbrewery family, helped John and Beezie buy the unproven 6-year-old in 2001. At that time the horse was worth upward of $200,000. According to two people with knowledge of the situation who couldn’t speak publicly, that price doubled when Authentic performed well in Athens in 2004.

“Elizabeth had known Authentic since he was 4,” Beezie Madden said, “and she had done business with the guy who owned him. Elizabeth had always loved the horse and she bought half for herself and half for my husband and I.”

Authentic jumped three clear rounds for the U.S., unheard of for such a young horse. “After that,” Beezie said, “we were getting more and more valuable offers from Europe, crazy money, and we needed to find another sponsor.”

That’s when Wexner stepped in.

“I know you hear it a lot, but Authentic felt like a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Wexner said. “It sounds odd, but you could tell the horse loved to compete. He’s small in stature and sometimes you didn’t know where it came from, but when he jumped, it was from the heart.

“And he is very cocky. You get this feeling around him that there’s nothing he thought he couldn’t do.”

John Madden said he’s never seen a more competitive animal.

“He liked to be onstage,” John said. “We were at a World Cup at Tampa Stadium once, and that’s intimidating to most horses because it is so big. He won twice that day and we were leaving and when we were almost out, he turned around and tried to drag me back into that stadium. Most horses want to get the heck out. Authentic wanted to go back in. He was the horse who would say, ‘Give me the ball, Coach. Put me in.’”

Clark Shipley, who groomed Authentic in Athens and in Beijing in 2008, said, “He was a little bit of a brat. He was on the small side, but he was never in awe. The bigger the jump, the higher he went. Stuff that scared other horses didn’t bother him.

“He could lay down and go to sleep with forklifts in front of his face, people throwing stuff. But he was a smart horse. He’d hear my voice 100 yards away in another barn and start screaming. He knew when I came it was time to go. And he wanted to go.”

Go beyond the scoreboard

Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.