“Claremont was a treasure, a very special element of New York City life. Its loss is still felt in many, many New York hearts,” muses Claremont Riding Academy’s erstwhile owner, Paul Novograd.
Culpa Equestribus non Equis, was chiseled in a sign over Novograd’s desk. Loosely translated: it’s always the rider’s fault, never the horse’s.
As a second generation owner of Novograd Claremont, Paul knew his Latin. He was also fluent in Japanese, and a graduate student in Japanese studies at Columbia.
Then there was the Paul Novograd who oversaw the spills, chills and soap operas of Claremont and Central Park.
Welcome to Manhattan’s equestrian life of yester-year.
It’s a push to imagine New York without Claremont or Central Park without horses. Gone are the days when Tavern on the Green served carrots on silver trays to equine guests… yes, in this lifetime.
Claremont horses were Claremont horses. Good horses, Saddlebred horses; horses with a New York attitude; horses like the one my father rented to ride to his horse-crazy daughter for a family photograph, only to take a tough toss as the crescendoing notes of parade music blared “horse trouble.”
Then there was Paramount, who was featured in the New York Times for his infamous runaway rides and Claremont horses that modeled for Ralph Lauren ads.
Not to be outdone, their stall-mates were seen on the stage of Metropolitan Opera productions, and in movies.
Claremont Riding Academy was a 115 year-old tradition, rudely interrupted on April 29th, 2007 at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
The reason was mostly financial. Once beautiful bridle paths were poorly maintained by 2007. The footing had become so dangerous, in fact, that cantering was out of the question. But Claremont was not only a Manhattan landmark—it was the only gig in town.
From Roosevelts to Kennedys to celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeremy Irons to private school children and tourists, a ride in the park always lifted New York life to embrace its most upbeat fragile blossom.
Claremont was the Upstairs/Downstairs of New York equestrianism. Picture this, on 89th Street beween Columbus and Amsterdam: one small office, a marginally rideable ring with posts interrupting or delegating its space, a penthouse and a basement.
Horses that were kept “upstairs” were the “penthouse” of horses—private, privileged, or the ones you did everything you could to ride. Take a number.
Downstairs horses were, well, downstairs horses. You waited for your horse at the end of the ramp while a groom called out their name.
“Stonewall, Charmer Cloud, Hot Shot, Sensation…”
Once their names were heralded, hoof steps headed halfway up or down the ramp and came to a halt, the signal to meet your mount and escort him the rest of the way. There’s nothing like a New York horse with an attitude.
For the naïve and adventurous, you could aim your horse at Central Park, and hope for the best.
To maneuver to the bridle path, you had to conquer the Minotaur of Claremont.
An electric door would creak tentatively up to the ceiling, oozing cacophony and terrifying most horses.
Assuming that you managed to exit, there were two traffic-tied streets, potholes, and often, construction to navigate.
Forget upstairs, downstairs. Think inside/out.
Most horses have two temperaments: indoor and outdoor. Even the most pokey, boring, stubborn of horses could morph into a Belmont wannabe once he took to the streets.
The streets are horseless today.
The Riverdale Equestrian Centre has been driving horses into New York, keeping the Central Park bridle paths and equestrians united. Whether this gesture will continue remains to be seen.
Was it all worthwhile?
Novograd thinks so.
“I like to believe that I made a few little girls happy,” he says.
I count myself one of many who found Claremont—and riding in the park—to be the soul of a perfect day in New York.
Thank you Paul, Christmas Stockings (my favorite chestnut companion), and most of all, thank you Claremont.
New York is missing a great friend in you.