Longtime National Steeplechase Association executive secretary John E. "Jack" Cooper died Sept. 9 at Rosehaven Nursing Home near his home in Litchfield, Conn. Mr. Cooper, who was recovering from pneumonia, was 93.
Hired by the NSA (then the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association) in 1932, Mr. Cooper was elected executive secretary in 1946 and held that position for 30 years, along the way earning the appropriate nickname "Mr. Steeplechase." In addition to his executive secretary title, he was also the racing secretary/handicapper. Based in New York (first in the offices of The Jockey Club on Park Avenue and next at Belmont Park), Mr. Cooper and a tiny administrative staff coordinated all licensing, entries and all aspects of the sport, which included racing at numerous racetracks and one-day race meetings throughout the country.
"He was it, symbolic of the sport itself," said Charles T. Colgan, Cooper's now-retired successor. "There were presidents and a board of directors obviously above him, but they were in the background. He was the face of the sport."
Among his many accomplishments were vast improvements to the fences jumped in competition. He embraced the concept of portable fences and progressed through a variety of models that led from wooden boxes stuffed with cedar to the man-made National Fence used today.
He oversaw growth in the sport's participation, purse money and officiating. He was with the NSA when it merged with the United Hunts Association in 1970, and weathered changes in the racing calendar that included a shift away from racetracks to popular one-day race meetings. He also served as an association steward (senior race day official) for many years. Under his watch, the NSA created the Steeplechase Fund, which benefits injured jockeys and others in need. He was also the longtime editor of "Steeplechasing in America," the NSA's hard-cover annual book that is now published as "American Steeplechasing."
Best known publicly for his position as handicapper, Cooper assigned weights to such legendary horses as Neji, Bon Nouvel, Oedipus and others. In 1958, Neji carried a then-record 176 pounds and lost by a nose to Benguala, who carried 29 pounds less.
"It's the purpose, of course, for a handicapper to provide a close finish," he told author Peter Winants in 1998. "This I did, but I felt terribly that Neji was beaten."
In 1974, Cooper was presented with the F. Ambrose Clark Award for distinguished service to American steeplechasing. He retired from the company at the end of the 1976 season, though he regularly worked as a volunteer steward for many years and stayed in touch with the sport through Colgan and others. Beyond steeplechasing, Mr. Cooper served with the Army in World War II.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years Grace, daughter Joan Denu, sons Robert Waide and John E. Cooper Jr., eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Arrangements were still pending Sept.10, but the family suggests donations to the Steeplechase Fund (which benefits injured jockeys and other needy individuals connected to the sport), c/o National Steeplechase Association, 400 Fair Hill Drive, Elkton, MD 21921.