By Sadie Fowler

Sometimes there’s a story behind a name, or a story in general, that’s so special and unique you can’t help but take notice, and when you do take notice, you’re glad you did because it’s the type of story that will have its place in your memory forever.

On Friday night, Aug. 30, 2019, that kind of story unfolded when Lexie Stinnett rode a horse named Smoky Mountain Strong to her first set of roses in the Amateur Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship for owner Jimbo Conner. Coincidentally, it was also Conner’s first world grand championship, and Stinnett’s first win ever at the Celebration. 

It was a story lined with emotions on many fronts and by the time Stinnett and her horse made their grand entrance into the Big Oval many had heard about their story by this point in the show as the pair had already won their qualifier earlier in the show in a very tough division. In the championship, they performed to perfection in a large and deep field of contenders and won the crowd’s heart over from start to finish. 

Stinnett’s smiled said it all as she grinned from ear to ear — she said her cheeks were in fact hurting — and as she reflected on the victory she said the only thing she’d change if she could go back was to tear up a little more. Truth is, she was just having the ride of her life and so much fun in doing so the tears were saved for later. 

A good rider, a great owner and a talented team from Snapwood Farm, led by Chris Helton, came together to make this winning combination possible. While Stinnett and Conner and Helton and Smoky Mountain Strong made their stamp in the history books, they also won over the hearts of everyone at the 81st Celebration — and that’s because of the story behind the horse’s name. 

Smoky Mountain Strong was born near the same time the fires took place in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. By I Am José and out of world champion mare Lorena Ochoa, this colt was destined to be special with both of his parents have produced many successful show ring stars as well. But for that first month of his life, he didn’t have a name.

“The effort to rebuild all the homes and get everyone through it was called ‘Smoky Mountain Strong,’” said Conner, explaining how his name came to be. “It even had a hashtag in front of it everywhere on social media … It kind of just felt right and like it had a place for this horse’s name so we went with it.”

Like the people of Gatlinburg rose above the challenge, demonstrated strength and true grit, so did this horse with the help of a very poised rider. The Celebration finished a chapter of their special story from 2019 that was filled from top to bottom with unbelievable memories and success, including an undefeated season.

Prior to the Celebration, they showed and won at the National Trainers’ Show, Upper Cumberland, Columbia Spring Jubilee, Christmas In July and Fayetteville. 

Not only was their season great, but their Celebration was monumental and when this unfolds for an owner, rider and trainer team with such goodness among them … everybody’s happy. An endless amount of sincere congratulations to the ‘strong’ and winning combination followed their Celebration victory, making the unforgettable memory all that more special.