His name may not be recognized outside the small, clannish world of horse shows. But for the past 12 years, Rodney Jenkins of Orange, Va., has been the matinee idol of the show-jumping set.
Teen-age girls clamor for his picture and autograph. If Jenkins happens to offer a riding tip to an up-and-coming competitor, the suggestion is taken as law.
Jenkins clearly is the master. He has 42 career wins on the Grand Prix circuit and has been the tour's leading money-winner 10 of the last 12 years.
During those years, Jenkins always has managed to win at least three major events a season, usually riding his favorite horse, Idle Dice. But it gets more difficult all the time. The riders keep getting better, and so do the horses.
Last year on the tour, there was talk that Jenkins had slipped, that he was no longer the dominant man in his field. People said he was losing interest and would not be riding at the Grand Prix level much longer.
But this year, Jenkins, 37, and Idle Dice, 19, are once again prominent figures on the tour. Idle Dice nearly was retired last year by his owner, Harry Gill of Collegeville, Pa. But the horse apparently was not ready to be put out to pasture, and is back on the circuit after a brief layoff.
Jenkins is the third leading rider on the circuit, and he and Idle Dice have been named to the United States equestrian team for the fourth time.
Jenkins said the biggest change on the circuit now is that he can win only three or four Grand Prix events a year instead of all of them.
"With Idle Dice it was easy from the beginning. It was automatic. I understood him and he understood me," Jenkins said.
"Basically, 10 years ago he didn't have the competition," said Bernie Traurig, 36, of Hartland, Wis., another professional who has become Jenkins' most spirited rival. "Today so many can win. He had a wonderful horse and the competition wasn't as keen. These kids that come along now are so sophisticated."
Jenkins also uses some unorthodox methods. Many riders and trainers are proponents of calculated horsemanship. They are particularly concerned with analyzing the distances between fences and converting the number of human footsteps into the number of horse's strides. Jenkins does it by the seat of his pants. "Just go in a steady pace," he tells his students.
His assistant, Hugh Mutch of Weston, Conn., says, "The way he puts it is not a system. He's an artist. He tells you how to use this hip and a little pressure here. It's a totally different thing."
Mutch, 21, was hired by Jenkins last year. His duties include taking over the riding chores at Jenkins' home -- Hilltop Stables in Orange. At the shows, Mutch is assigned to ride three or four horses. In addition, he is always on call to ride when Jenkins fails to make an appearance.
That has been known to happen frequently. There are times when Jenkins disappears for days. He is notorious for breaking appointments. One customer drove two days from Florida to meet Jenkins, only to get to Orange and learn that Jenkins had just left for California.
"Now he (Jenkins) knows I'm there," Mutch says. "When he doesn't show up, it's been arranged that I ride the horses. He's just like a painter, and if you're not into it you can't produce the results. But he knows when a horse is going to have a chance to be champion, and he has to be there. He'll be there when it counts."
Still, his freewheeling spirit has frustrated owners and others close to him over the years. "It's hurt my personal life," Jenkins admits. "But sometimes this takes 24 hours of your time. People think they own me, always calling up on the phone or something. I have to go out, or I'd lose it."
The most influential man in Jenkins' life was his father Ennis, who suffered a disabling stroke three years ago and no longer can travel with his son. "I used to always look up to my dad. He was the only one I could talk to," Jenkins said. "It's hard. Now I talk to myself."
Most of Jenkins' friends have learned to live with his unusual habits. Wendy Waters, who has served as groom and stable manager for Jenkins for nine years, said, "I just accept it as part of him. I don't ask questions. He's long since paid his dues.
"People were talking at the Lake Placid show (in July) when he didn't show up for a couple of days," Waters said. "But he won the Grand Prix on Idle Dice and was second on Second Balcony. How much better can you be with two horses? It's more important to say he's become a more concerned horseman. He cares about the horses."
That apparently was not always the case. Twice in the last 10 years, Jenkins was suspended by the American Horse Show Association, once for using an illegal tranquilizer and once for "poling" a horse, using an illegal device to make the horse jump higher.
Waters says he "would never dream of showing a horse that isn't 100 percent now. He's mellowed. He's become more compassionate and sympathetic."
There is a saying around the horse world that if a man finds one great horse in his lifetime he's lucky. There is no doubt that Jenkins has been lucky with Idle Dice. And now he has another potential champion -- an 8-year-old gray gelding, Coastline.
Jenkins will be a favorite in Sunday's $25,000 President's Cup Grand Prix, the most prestigious event of the Washington show. There will be no disappearing act because, says Jenkins, "in the big classes, I get up for it." He always has.