Longtime National Steeplechase Association executive secretary John E. "Jack" Cooper died Sept. 9 at a nursing home near his home in Litchfield, Conn. Cooper, who was recovering from pneumonia, was 93.
Hired by the NSA (then the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association) in 1932, 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 and in a sense, the face, effort, and muscle behind American steeplechase racing.
"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 Cooper's many accomplishments were vast improvements to the fences jumped in competition. He embraced the concept of a portable fences early on, and progressed through a variety of models that led from wooden boxes stuffed with cedar to the man-made National Fence used today. In 1954, the NSA used portable hurdles at Belmont Park and 20 years later the steel, plastic, and foam rubber National Fence was unveiled. Modified only slightly since, the jump has taken steeplechase racing to countless new places and thereby ensured the sport's future.
Cooper also oversaw growth in terms of 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 the 1958 Temple Gwathmey, Neji carried a then-record 176 pounds and lost by a nose to Benguala, who carried 29 pounds less
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, Cooper served with the Army in World War II.
Cooper's survivors include his wife of 67 years, Grace, sons John Jr. and Robert, and daughter Joan.