Ace of Spayeds: Gelding Pavarotti goes balls out at Verizon Center horse show.
Ace of Spayeds: Gelding Pavarotti goes balls out at Verizon Center horse show. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Like every career horseperson, Todd Minikus sees human traits in his animals.

For example, he insists that Pavarotti, the 11-year-old show jumper he owns and rode throughout last weekend’s Washington International Horse Show, knows he’s different from other horses.

“I think he knows he’s special,” says Minikus. “Horses are like any other world-class athletes. You’d be amazed by the similarities. They just know. And Pavarotti, he likes to compete. He likes the attention.”

The Washington show, held at the Verizon Center, was loaded with famous names. Well, surnames, anyway: Riders named Bloomberg, Dobbs, and Johnson were among the two-legged entrants sired by the rich and famous.

But among the competing horses temporarily stabled in the streets around the arena, only one has really ever gotten any notice from folks who don’t know the difference between puissance and croissants.

That would be Pavarotti.

The steed showed his class here. Despite Minikus missing practice time at the beginning of the show to be with his wife in New York for the birth of their first child—a boy named, of course, Colt—Pavarotti placed second in the International Open Jumper competition and took third in the $100,000 President’s Cup, the premier event in the 50th rendition of the biggest annual horse show in the region.

Last year, Pavarotti got more mainstream press than any other show horse in the world. But not because of his athletic gifts, which he puts on display week after week in arenas around the globe. Pavarotti got ink because he was at the center of a horse trade gone wrong involving Bruce Springsteen.

The tale that, well, rocked the horse set began when Springsteen and his bandmate/mate, Patti Scialfa, agreed to buy Pavarotti, a Dutch Warmblood, from Minikus for $650,000 in cash and another horse they owned, worth $200,000. They put down a $25,000 cash deposit.

Pavarotti was to be the new ride of the couple’s teenage daughter, Jessica Springsteen, an accomplished rider who has competed at the Washington International Horse Show for the last four years.

But between the remittance of the down payment and the scheduled settlement date came the 2007 Pan American Games, held in Rio de Janeiro.

Those didn’t go well for the horse. Pavarotti, who had been jumping with Minikus for less than a year at the time, was penalized for refusing to jump a fence in a qualifying round and was later eliminated from medal contention for dumping his rider in the water on the course.

“Unfortunately, Pavarotti fell on the landing of the water jump,” says Minikus, who blamed the performance on his mount’s inexperience. “You see this everywhere in sports, not just with horses. You can be the world record holder in the 110 high hurdles, but in the Olympics your foot clips the top of the last hurdle and you fall. And you lose. That’s racing luck. That’s what makes sports so exciting.”

Minikus thought only his and Pavarotti’s pride was hurt by the fall, and despite their bad breaks, the U.S. squad earned a bronze medal in the team competition. But when the pair got back from Brazil, they were told that the Springsteens wanted out of the deal.

Hold your horses, Minikus told the Boss.

Before joining the show circuit—Minikus has been riding at the D.C. show since 1990—the 45-year-old Iowa native rode bulls. And he’s still not thrown easily. The contract Springsteen agreed to said he’d take Pavarotti “as is…with all faults,” so long as there were no new physical ailments. Wounded pride wasn’t sufficient to void the pact.

Minikus sued the Jersey icon for breach of contract.

The suit, filed last October in Palm Beach, Fla., near Minikus’ home base, came as a shock to Bruuuce fans, as the gossip columns related that their working-class hero had agreed to spend $850,000 on what to the uninitiated was just a hobby horse.

Even at the top tier of equestrian events, very few animals get much prize money. (Pavarotti, despite the high finishes at the Verizon Center events, took home just $17,000 in winnings.)

For some successful animals, however, there’s a breeding career after racing. Pavarotti, alas, had no future at stud: He’d been gelded before Minikus bought him. Castrated animals, no matter how great their jumping careers, get turned out in the field in retirement.

So in effect the Springsteens were shopping for something their kid would ride competitively for a few years at most and, at one point at least, had agreed to pay a price greater than it would cost them to lease her a fleet of Lamborghinis.

Springsteen’s loaded, so, fiscally speaking, it was the equivalent of a guy earning a journalist’s wage ordering a Happy Meal then running from the Golden Arches before it was placed on the counter. But the whole thing looked bad for Springsteen. He settled the suit quickly after word hit the newsstands. In February, he agreed to pay Minikus a reported $200,000 and let him keep Pavarotti.

Minikus says he’s appalled that folks (like, um, me) found this one horse trade so intriguing.

“If you look at my career and my winnings, that probably outweighs my notoriety for a business deal that wasn’t cleanly operated,” Minikus says. “This was strictly a contract case, like happens every day in every business, and if it wasn’t such a known celebrity as Mr. Springsteen, nobody would have ever heard about it. There was star power, and due to people’s boredom and lack of flair in their own life, that was their entertainment for the day. That’s the shame here.”

Minikus stuck by Pavarotti once the deal went sour. In the last year, they’ve crossed the pond together to jump over temporary 5-foot-3-inch fences and fake brick walls in France and Italy and Switzerland and all over North America. The greenness that sabotaged what would have been Pavarotti’s international coming-out party at the Pan Am Games is gone.

Minikus is now the highest-ranked American rider, and second overall, in the 2008 jumper ratings compiled by the U.S. Equestrian Federation, with domestic wins aboard Pavarotti in August in the Sotheby International Open in the Hamptons, and in June at the Budweiser Jumper Classic in Upperville, Va. Best of all, Pavarotti and Minikus made up for the Pan Am disappointments when they and the rest of the U.S. jumping team won gold in the Nations’ Cup, a premier international competition held this summer near Calgary, Alberta.

And over the weekend, Pavarotti sure looked like he belonged at the Verizon Center, the very same building that the man who jilted him had rocked so many times over the years. In the International Open Jumper class, Pavarotti and Minikus finished behind only one entry: Marengo, ridden by Hillary Dobbs, daughter of foreigner-disliker Lou Dobbs. The sort of folks who were titillated by the Pavarotti/Springsteen debacle—folks like, um, me—would also have gotten giggles out of Friday’s early session, when Marengo let loose with a stream of flatulence during her jumping spree that echoed throughout the arena much the same way “Born to Run” did last time the Boss played there.

Other big names on hand included Georgina Bloomberg, offspring of New York mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, and Paige Johnson, daughter of BET biggie Robert Johnson and Mystics president Sheila Johnson, who won the Ambassador’s Cup, for amateur owner/jumpers.

Jessica Springsteen, meanwhile, also had a good weekend. Competing in two junior categories aboard Tiziano, she was named Best Child Rider at show’s end.

Minikus competed in different classes than the younger Springsteen, so Pavarotti didn’t have occasion to look over at her and her mount. Given that the horse has human emotions, it’s probably best that he didn’t have to dwell on the past or what might have been.

“I don’t know if Pavarotti knows what went on” with the Springsteen deal, Minikus says with a chuckle. “But if he knows, from his record his year, he’s not holding it against me.”