The striking chestnut with a huge jump and celebrity status helped David Broome to his second Olympic accolade, writes Pippa Cuckson
Great riders win with dozens of wonderful horses, but there is usually only one so loved by fans he becomes part of the rider’s identity: in this case, David-and-Mister-Softee.
“Softee” was a gift for the early days of televised sport. He was named after the nation’s favourite ice-cream, and had a blaze and white bandages over his stockings all round which, says David Broome, made him look good on black and white TV. He became much in demand for personal appearances, and is probably the only sport horse to “visit” a coal mine.
But even without his celebrity status, the triple European champion and Olympic bronze medallist inspired awe.
“Softee had the most phenomenal technique – the front end just disappeared and you could keep riding forward at these big fences,” says David.
Mister Softee’s story really begins in 1864, with the arrival in Nottinghamshire of penniless Italian émigré Giovanni Massarella.
Within three generations the Massarellas built a vast food business, their new wealth funding their passion for horses.
Giovanni’s grandson – known as “Mr John” – became a successful owner at Almholme, South Yorkshire. In 1960 he acquired a 16.1hh chestnut called Foxhound for £300 from Dublin sales. He was assumed foaled around 1953.
“We’d just say the breeding was Irish magic,” says David.
Michael Massarella, John’s nephew, visited Almholme daily to ride show ponies.
“I well remember his arrival, for everyone remarked that horses with four white legs don’t usually jump!” said Michael.
Foxhound was renamed after the American ice cream franchise freshly acquired by Michael’s father Ronnie.
Stable jockey Bobbie Bealby produced Softee to grade B. In early 1961 he was offered to the late David Barker, Rome 1960 Olympian, show ring supremo and later legendary huntsman of the Meynell and South Staffs.
David Barker’s autobiography notes he was not overly impressed at first viewing, distrusting those white legs, and because calves had chewed Softee’s tail. But he proved a “willing fellow”, needing no schooling over parallels because he used quarters and shoulders “to the fullest”.
By 1962 David Barker and Softee were Nations Cup regulars, also winning fans on the North American fall tour.
The European Championships were initially staged annually, for individuals only. David Broome was the 1961 gold medallist with Sunsalve, but his champion died in the summer of 1962, and David Barker and Peter Robeson were chosen over Broome to defend the title at White City.
David Barker was in fact amazed that Softee qualified for the final, against legends Piero d’Inzeo, Hans Winkler and Alwin Schockemöhle. As the prospect of actually winning became real, he became very tense, later recalling: “Instead of sitting very quietly, as if it was just another competition, I drove Mister Softee into the 13th on a flattish stride, riding more like a madman than a contender. The poor horse, on this by now holding going, had no chance of jumping it well. We hit it very hard. To my dying day I shall hear the groan from the crowded stands.”
But Softee jumped two last parallels brilliantly to snatch the gold. David Barker’s wife Valerie, also an international rider, immersed herself in a crossword puzzle, too anxious to watch.
In 1963 Softee finished sixth in his title defence in Rome, and had another superb Nations Cup season.
But he wasn’t the easiest to keep sound. John Massarella vowed never to start Softee in another puissance after seeing his pastern flat to the ground when landing from 7ft 2in at Madison Square Gardens, New York, in 1962.
“He also had the worst hocks in the business, but he lived with it,” says David Broome.
Softee was grounded for much of 1964, Tokyo Olympic year. Early in 1965, David Barker was offered O’Malley and felt unable to do both horses justice, so John passed the ride to his nephew, John Lanni. Matt Lanni well remembers his late father saying that “Softee was long in the back and jumped like elastic, like a modern horse”.
They won three consecutive Area International Trials and were picked for a team, only to fall heavily at the Royal International, with John stretchered out of the arena, after which he was off for some while.
Pragmatically, David’s father Fred stepped forward. David recalls: “My father said, ‘The horse has had this awful crash, I’m sure David would give him a couple of confidence-giving pops in the warm-up.’ So I was called over.
“Mister Softee jumped very nicely, but I thought no more about it until Mr John phoned two weeks later and asked if I’d ride him. The chance of a horse like that was phenomenal.”
But by the end of 1965 an unsound Softee was back with top vet Jeffrey Brain. David therefore planned for 1966, only for swamp fever to prevent British horses competing abroad all season. To fans’ delight, the new partnership was consolidated entirely on home soil. Numerous wins included the 1966 King George V Cup, the Hickstead Derby (with the sole clear), the Olympic trial at British Timken, and the Horse of the Year Show championship.
So it was six years after David Broome’s first European title and five after Mister Softee’s that they paired up for a second gold each, at Rotterdam in 1967, also winning the grand prix there.
Softee was around 15 when he got his first Olympic shot, at the Mexico City Games in 1968. The format was not unlike the unpopular “new” system for Tokyo 2021, with the individual staged first, then teams of three with no drop score.
The big difference was the vastness of the Mexico tracks. One oxer in the individual had a 7ft 2in (2.2m) spread to a 5ft 7in (1.70m) back pole. Only two horses cleared it.
“Softee was third in the jump-off for individual bronze,” says David. “In the Nations Cup only four rounds were jumped without time-faults and Softee had two of them. I remember it exactly. The time allowed was 96 seconds. We had 95.6 in one and were bang on in the other.
“After the first round Britain was ahead by approximately 40 faults. In the second round Harvey [Smith] and Madison Time had jumped fantastic – we were walking it. Then Marion [Coakes] was eliminated [the first refusals of Stroller’s career] at the combination which was a right tricky one – dangerous, in fact; a round wall to an oxer and another oxer. You needed exceptional scope.
“Softee made the front pole of the second oxer but the back rail came down under his neck. In the second round he did the same thing, but still had the courage to throw his heart at it. It was the only time I ever asked him to jump something I knew he couldn’t.
“The horses had all jumped unbelievably, though Softee was the most outstanding horse of the whole Games. When we got home as bronze medallists the brilliance of his overall performance didn’t really register with the public, and I felt sad about that.”
There was, nonetheless, a hero’s welcome for Softee and David at Hickstead in 1969, at the next European Championship. They began in sparkling form, having the fastest time in the opening speed leg despite five seconds added. The convoluted points system needed some working out, with David facing Hans Winkler and Alwin Schockemöhle in the finale.
David says these high-octane championships brought out the best in Softee.
“In the first round there were 18 numbered fences, the first six of a speed nature, the second six were puissance dimensions and the third a Nations Cup course. In the second round they took out the middle six.
“He didn’t put a foot wrong. I just had to sit on and steer. He had a natural flowing-on style, was always very neat and careful and would do everything he could to avoid hitting a fence.
“We all remember those great sporting moments, the fantastic goals and tries. That last round at Hickstead was Mister Softee’s. I’ve always felt that anyone able to see him that day was very lucky.”
One such spectator was a 17-year-old Linda Briggs, also present at White City in 1962. Linda went on to be a founding member of the Showjumping Supporters’ Club.
“Softee appealed to me straight away because of his sheer consistency,” she recalls. “He seemed to give it his absolute all. He was also a complete sweetie in his box – in those halcyon days when members of the public were allowed in the stables at major shows!”
Mister Softee was briefly ridden by Malcolm Pyrah before returning to David Broome in Wales.
Softee always had a long winter holiday at Almholme. In hindsight, David feels it unwise to have completely let-down an aging horse, for Softee found the opening show of his final planned season a more noticeable struggle.
“So I phoned Mr John and said, ‘Look, he was second today, but it was the hardest money he’s ever won. Shall we retire him?’ He replied, ‘I’d love to.’”
Mister Softee lived out his days with his donkey friend, Jenny, in John Massarella’s field by a footpath, still enjoying visits from fans.
In the 1960s, the FEI endlessly rejigged championship format. Often the winner might have been different had the previous year’s system applied.
David says: “I recall sitting on a wall with Harvey the evening after the Mexico team competition, reminiscing how easily we could have been gold medallists, had the scoring worked a little differently. Softee was a star in his day, and should have been an Olympic star too. I feel sad for him that he never got that; he certainly deserved it.”
“Heart” in bucketfuls
Althea Gifford (née Roger-Smith; pictured, on Havana Royale) competed alongside Mister Softee many times.
“What an amazing horse,” she says. “He had that thing we always look for in a competition horse, called ‘heart’, and he had that in bucketfuls. He never stopped trying to jump clear rounds.
“He was a bit of a freak, really, as he didn’t have the best conformation and certainly wasn’t a good mover, but he just wanted to please and over the big tracks he really had to try hard. He must have been a very intelligent horse too, as he always knew and rose to the big occasions. He was a great horse to have on a team.
“If he were human his school reports would have said, ‘This pupil will go far as he doesn’t know when to give up!’”
A showjumping dynasty
In the 19th century, four million people left Italy in search of a better life, mostly heading for America.
“But Italians are clannish and go where they already know someone – in our case, Nottinghamshire,” says Michael Massarella.
His great-grandfather Giovanni settled in South Yorkshire, and played barrel organs and sold ice cream around Doncaster. One son, Carmine, secured a farm tenancy and grew the food business from there. Michael vividly recalls the smell of ice cream boiling up in the cellar, before their state of the art plant churned out 6,000 gallons a day.
Softee the horse was responsible for the appointment of Ronnie Massarella (pictured above, second left, at the 1984 Olympics) as British showjumping team manager, presiding over the “golden age”.
“Uncle John didn’t like travelling, so whenever Softee competed abroad my father accompanied him,” says Michael. “Once in the US the British chef d’equipe was taken ill, so my father was asked to step in. He’d managed a football team but had to make up a lot of it on the hoof. After that he didn’t stop for the next 35 years.”
Giovanni’s other descendants John and Carmen Lanni also moved to England, later founding Arena UK, Moorhouse and Goostrey arenas, while sport horse breeding owes much to Louis Massarella’s pioneering Louella Stud. How different British equestrianism – and our love affair with ice-cream – might have been had their ancestors boarded the boat to New York…
This feature is also available to read in the Thursday 25 March issue of Horse & Hound magazine
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