When Joe Fargis arrived in southern California for the 1984 Olympics with the rest of the United States Equestrian Team, he spent the first week wondering if he’d even be able to compete at all.
Santa Anita Park, home to one of the most famous Thoroughbred horse racing tracks in the country, had been chosen as the venue for the show jumping competition, and Fargis’s horse, Touch of Class — an 11-year-old Thoroughbred mare who had started her career as a racehorse — was not a fan.
“When we first got to L.A., the first thing she did was really explode, for about a week,” Fargis said in a phone interview last week, speaking from Sandron, the training facility he operates in Middleburg, Virginia, with partner Conrad Homfeld. “Horses have great memories, and she had a memory of the racetrack.”
The lingering PTSD from her earlier racing career had the mare, known around the barn as Kitty, breaking into an immediate sweat any time Fargis rode her in the days leading up to the competition. She clearly wasn’t in a good place, mentally, and for a time took Fargis there with her.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was totally nervous, more nervous than the horse.”
Fargis, who describes himself as a “glass half empty” kind of guy, said he was worried the team alternate would need to take their spot, leaving them on the sidelines.
Kitty eventually settled down, and then she and Fargis put in the performance of a lifetime. Against the odds, the pair won the individual gold medal, beating out Fargis’s teammate, Homfeld, who took silver. They were also part of a team gold-medal-winning effort in what was a perfect way to celebrate competing in the Olympics in their home country.
Fargis looked back on the win with the horse that he said “put me on the map” just a few weeks after the United States Equestrian Team of McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, Laura Kraut, and Jessica Springsteen won the team silver medal in Tokyo following a thrilling jump-off tiebreaker with Sweden.
Fargis, 73, will be at the Hampton Classic next week, as he has been every year for the past four decades, judging the leadline class and also training several clients who are competing in the show, from the children’s and junior ranks to the adult divisions.
He still competes on occasion, although he said he won’t be competing at the Classic this year. He has won the Hampton Classic Grand Prix twice in the past, aboard a horse named Mill Pearl in 1991, and with a horse named Edgar 12 in 2005. In 1982, two years before her Olympic victory, Touch of Class won the Grand Prix, with Homfeld in the irons.
Touch of Class was the kind of horse that would not be seen in the Grand Prix ring today, and she was an underdog even during her time. She was trained to be a show jumper after a failed racing career, during an era where it was not uncommon to see Thoroughbreds in the jumper ring, before they were replaced with the larger, stronger warmblood types that dominate the sport today. Still, she was not the picture of a champion show jumper; she was on the small side, at only 16 hands, and looked even smaller with Fargis, who stands over 6 feet tall, in the saddle. Judging her by her appearance proved to be a mistake. While she was known for being temperamental at times, she was ultimately always good to her riders.
“The horse was a freak of nature,” Fargis said. “It was so kind and generous, anyone could’ve ridden her. I just had the luck of the draw that day and got to ride her. No one in the beginning thought she’d be able to [win the gold medal]. But any time she was asked to do a little more, she just sort of said, no problem.”
Fargis said he had faith in Kitty, because she continually rose to the occasion.
“I believe you should never show a horse something it can’t do,” he said. “She just kept on doing whatever we asked. It wasn’t hard for her.”
Fargis said that while he had confidence in his partner when they entered the ring to ride for the gold medal, he didn’t have any specific goals or expectations in mind. He also admitted that the gravity of what he’d done, with a horse that not many would have picked as the winner, did not sink in right away.
“I was just thinking, do the best I can,” he said. “I remember at the end, it wasn’t excitement, but more a feeling of relief. Just a sense of relief that I didn’t mess up.”
The victory made the pair stars, and solidified Fargis’s status as one of the leading riders in the country and at the international level as well. They enjoyed more success before Kitty was retired and sent to live at River Circle Farm in Tennessee, owned by Agneta and Brownlee Currey, longtime backers of the Classic who Fargis credited with supporting his and Kitty’s career and development from the start.
“They owned part of her and were instrumental in helping develop her,” he said of the Curreys. “Without them, Touch of Class wouldn’t have happened. They had faith in Conrad and myself, and were very encouraging.”
Fargis said he does not dwell much these days on his historic win —sentimentality is not a feature of his personality. Kitty died peacefully in 2001 at the age of 28, and Fargis gifted their gold medal to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in Lexington, Kentucky.
“It used to hang on the wall, but it was time for it to move,” he said. “Time marches on. As you get older, you realize that possessions aren’t important. It can be enjoyed by a bunch of people being on display.”
While many of the details about his time at the Olympics have faded from memory, Fargis said he does remember the thrill of winning a gold medal on home soil.
“It was glamorous, being in L.A., with the whole city celebrating,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”