|A young reader has asked rather crossly, "You and other writers refer to John Hook as if he was divine or something, but nobody says why. What did he do that was so special? Where was he from? When did he live?" Reasonable questions, showing us wrinklies, for a moment, how it must feel to be one of those computer gurus on whom we have to depend.
Where horse history is concerned, we have an exclusive on certain backgrounds and memories. My own situation with Hook is unique among writers of the present, I believe, because I spent many hours with the memoirs he had begun to write and with him, in the flesh, in his eighth decade, as he completed his story for my tape recorder.
Together we produced a book-length manuscript which, alas, found no response among the few publishers I sent it to before giving up; they had no idea what a Saddlebred Horse is. That convinced them, probably correctly, that not enough readers would be interested, in the fifties, in the breed or in people who worked with them.
Hook later was covered well by several pages in Vol. XI of J.H. Ransom's series, Who's Who in Horsedom. The author, long-time editor of nationally circulated Saddlebred magazines, called Hook "probably the greatest trainer, salesman and showman of all time." Ransom's was a very limited printing, however, and now is an almost lost-forever treasure. So, herewith, a little of what I learned, first hand and elsewhere, about one of the most prominent and colorful Horse World figures of my lifetime.
"The best horse I ever had was Grand McDonald." This sentence, written in pencil in a lined school tablet, is how Hook chose to begin relating his life story. Psychologists have a lot to say about how we define ourselves in a self-introduction. Hook did not say he made Grand McDonald and he did not enumerate all that the two of them won together. Maybe Susanne recorded it, but all Hook elaborated on for me was one championship in Louisville. There he and Grand McDonald defeated Edna May, a mare so important in her time that she still is called immortal. It was a plum to also defeat her rider, Mat Cohen, one of the most revered trainers and exhibitors in the South.
Hook related with relish how he and Cohen, apparently the friendliest of rivals, joked and challenged each other as they racked along together in workout, almost stirrup to stirrup, neither seemingly, able to pull ahead. Hook quoted Cohen's question, "Has he got anything left?" and his own reply, "Plenty." Though he was sure the stallion was already giving his all, Hook asked for more and to his amazement, got it; he and Grand won the class. Hook then went into a long tribute to the wonders of Grand McDonald's reserve. He wound up sadly that his cherished partner became blind and died at the age of only twelve years. "He got sold to a company," he explained, "and they treated him like a machine, made him spend himself too much, too often. I think he was the greatest horse I ever rode; how he was treated was a real sin."
Hook wasn't above some of the less considerate customs of his time, however. He related frankly and without remorse a few tactics that are best not repeated, lest they inspire emulation. And he could be callous in another way: he laughed when telling of classes that once were common, the name of which I've forgotten, if they had one. "We'd collect up the worst looking horses we could find, in the worst condition often borrowed from the killers - terrible sway backs, lame ones, disfigured, some of them winners in their day, and we'd have them compete and be judged. It was quite a spectacle. The crowds nearly laughed themselves to death." Indeed. We can be thankful that as a species we are beyond that now. But most of what Hook told was respectful and appreciative of his horses.
He reviewed a reunion with Easter Cloud, a beautiful champion he'd shown for five years with only one defeat. When, after long separation, the two were at the same show, friends thought they should team up one more time. "I hadn't been on a horse for a few years by then," Hook told me, "And Easter Cloud was retired to stud. We had both gained some weight. But they somehow got me into riding clothes that I could almost breathe in and they somehow got me on his back. There had been no doubt that he recognized me on sight, and when I picked up the reins, he went right to work as he always had. He did his best and they told me he looked great, but he was breathing hard before we'd gone all the way around. I stopped a few minutes for both of us to rest and then took him on. That was the last time I ever saw him."
Hook's stories dwelt often on the changes he'd seen. He told of riding across the Eads Bridge at St. Louis on a mare with a foal by her side, and into a dense business district so the foal's owner could see it for the first time. The man came down from his office with a number of associates and they held a nice admiration party in the street. That probably was in the early 1900s when traffic was still mainly equine. Hook told of losing one of his most promising colts to pneumonia. "We could hear his breathing all over the barn," he commented. "Today, we could have saved him with a wonder drug."
Hook liked to describe his earliest shows when he rode a lesser horse from the barn, leading the horse who'd exhibit. "Now they are taking horses across the continent on planes," were his closing words.
Here, as when he was in person before me, the nitty gritty barely gets in. Such things as: Hook was born near Mexico in 1879 or a little earlier, and died in the '60s. He began showing and training horses before he was twenty and became internationally known for his successes and for the prominence - in their day - of some of his clients. For many years, he headed the Saddle Horse operation at Longview Farms at Lee's Summit, Mo., an establishment called "an American Versailles" and "the greatest Saddlebred nursery in the world." The establishment was internationally known for its size and beauty and for the quality of horses it produced.
Hook went from there to Pomona, Calif., to manage an equally renowned barn owned by the founder of the Carnation Milk Company. Later Hook returned to Mexico, Mo., and set up his own very successful training and sales barn. In his last two decades he was a much revered judge at the nation's biggest shows. He was a popular speaker because he made the people and horses he had known live again, vividly. It is frustrating to try to profile such a big person in a small space, but one can always hope for an opportunity, sometime, to do justice to John Hook.