The Black Night Shade - A Cinderella Story . . .Maybe. A Success Story . . .Definitely!

By Mark Davis

Call him a “dark horse,” call it a Cinderella story, but whatever he’s called, The Black Night Shade has a story unlike no other.

Step back a few years to the farm of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., breeder Mack Chandler. Chandler was anxiously awaiting the Poison sired colt’s birth. However, shortly after the black colt was born, his dam, Final’s Call Girl suffered a bout of colic and died before little “Shade” had seen his first complete day. Chandler knew that if the orphaned colt was to survive, he would require special attention and he delivered the special foal to the care of Bobby Mulvey and Judy Stephens of Shelbyville, Tenn.

Mulvey and Stephens were not only responsible for the colts special care, they came up with his unique name. “We were going through a medical book looking under poison, due to the name of his sire and found Black Night Shade, a type of poisonous plant often found in Tennessee,” stated Stephens.

During the first two weeks of his life, he required feeding from a bottle every hour. “He liked goat’s milk and I used to drive to Fayetteville, Tenn., to get it for him during his early days,” said Chandler. The long days of attention and care brought the young colt through his unfortunate start in life and when he was about 16 months old, Chandler made the decision to deliver the colt to Formac Stables in Union City, Tenn., to see what he was really made of. After about 30 days of work, trainer Jimmy McConnell realized that the colt had a lot of natural ability that might be developed into something more. It was then that Tom Waite, and his wife Judy, first entered the picture.

However, they were not your typical long time Walking Horse owners. Waite was born and raised in the Pensacola, Fla., area and had never had contact with Tennessee Walking Horses until he took a horsemanship class while attending Murfreesboro, Tenn.’s Middle Tennessee State University. “I was immediately taken by the horse,” said Waite. After college, Waite worked for 16 years as an educator before becoming a real estate developer. As they bought land, they bought horses as well. At first, they weren’t Tennessee Walking Horses, but Quarter Horses. However, as time moved on, Waite remembered the lessons learned at MTSU, and the Quarter Horses turned into Walking Horses.

Then, they started attending The Celebration with friends from Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and eventually Waite invested in a couple of colts with Mack Chandler. That’s when Waite had his first contact with McConnell. “Jimmy tried to help us with one of the colts we had bought. That’s when I first learned of Jimmy’s honesty and training ability.” “I was at home sick getting ready to have gall bladder surgery,” said Waite. “Jimmy called me and told me that he had this colt that was showing a lot of potential. He said that he was one that he really didn’t want to see leave the barn. Without ever seeing the colt, I trusted Jimmy’s word and bought him that day. ” That colt, Waite’s first show horse, the one he bought sight unseen, was The Black Night Shade.

And while McConnell knew the young colt had ability, he really had no idea that he would develop into a Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion. “No, we didn’t know that he would turn into what he has. Remember, he was a small, skinny colt in the beginning. It’s really taken him until this year to overcome the way he was raised. We had to progress with him slow, but as time went along, he got stronger and stronger and developed into what he is today,” stated McConnell.

The Waite’s are quick to credit McConnell and the Formac team for the development process. “He’s never been anywhere else. Jimmy McConnell, Dan Waddell and the whole Formac establishment deserve all the credit for Night Shade’s success,” said Judy Waite.

Due to his slow start, Night Shade was shown sparingly during his Two-Year-Old year capturing wins at Collierville, Tenn.’s Cotton Classic, Jackson, Tenn.’s Mid-South Show and Baton Rouge, La.’s Dixie Jubilee. “He got a ribbon at The Celebration,” said McConnell, “but he really wasn’t ready for that yet.”

It was really during his Three-Year-Old year that the owner and trainer really started realize that they might have a horse that could be something special. “When he won his Three-Year-Old Stallion preliminary, that’s when we knew that we might just have THE horse,” said Waite. Night Shade finished 2001 off strong by capturing the Three-Year-Old Stallion preliminary and the North American Three-Year-Old Grand Championship at Baton Rouge, La.’s Dixie Jubilee that fall.

However, the road to acclaim doesn’t come without some setbacks. McConnell said the next spring, Night Shade gave trouble in the ring at the National Trainers’ Show. “He wasn’t himself and at first we weren’t sure why. We knew he had stomach ulcers, but we thought we had that problem under control. But, what we thought was a cure turned out to just be a treatment. His ulcers had returned and he was just hurting in the ring.”

Once that obstacle had been overcome, the team hoped for smooth sailing ahead. However, that was not the case. When the team hit the ring at Panama City, Fla.‘s Gulf Coast Charity Celebration, Night Shade had trouble with his canter, something very uncharacteristic for a McConnell trained horse. “Needless to say, I was frustrated with him. So, I just decided to take him back in the Stake Class on Saturday night.” The Waite’s were not aware of Jimmy’s decision and had decided not to go to the show that evening. “We had gone to Captain Anderson’s to eat and just happened to stop by the show on the way home,” said Waite. “When we got to the show, Sister Milligan saw us and the first thing she said was ’Tom Waite, you’d better get up here. You’re horse is going in the ring.”

McConnell’s last minute decision proved to be wise, because on that evening the team topped an outstanding division of Aged competition and may have turned the corner that night. The rest of his Four-Year-Old season, with the exception of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Night Shade was shown in Walking Horse Stake classes capturing wins at the Germantown, Tenn. Charity Horse Show, Brownsville, Tenn., the International Grand Championships and the Dixie Jubilee.

His show ring success continued into the 2003 show season as McConnell and Night Shade topped competition throughout the south with wins at the Gallatin, Tenn. Lions Club Horse Show, dual wins at Germantown, Tenn.’s Charity Horse Show, Bethesda, Tenn., and the Belfast, Tenn. Lions Club Horse Show prior to the 2003 Celebration .

As the stage was set for the 2003 Celebration, McConnell, Night Shade and the Waites made their ultimate goal quite clear. They intended to win the favor of the judges and the fans and take home the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship. That goal was almost met. The team topped their division of the Aged Stallion preliminary and garnered the title of Reserve World Grand Champion.

The Waite and McConnell partnership didn’t let the Reserve performance get them down. “I thought the horse was terrific that night. I knew that we had the horse and I knew we had the trainer. The fact we didn’t win that night didn’t serve as a discouragement for even a minute,” said Tom Waite. “I told Jimmy we’d be back.”

And back they were indeed. From that night forward, the combination of The Black Night Shade and Jimmy McConnell remained undefeated finishing off the 2003 season with repeat wins at the International Grand Championships and the Dixie Jubilee and continued into 2004 with pre Celebration wins at the National Trainers’ Show, the Gulf Coast Charity Show and the Germantown Charity Show.

It was the National Trainers’ Show performance that stands out in the mind of Judy Waite as a very special moment. “Up until the Trainers’ Show, we hadn’t really had the support of the crowd. But, when Jimmy and Night Shade hit the ring at the Trainers’ Show, the crowd roared. That was very special. The crowd finally realized the talent that we had always seen.”

That support continued throughout the 2004 season and the team was certainly a crowd favorite at the 2004 Celebration. The team brought the crowd to their feet on both Saturday nights, and when McConnell and Night Shade rode from the ring with the roses on the last Saturday night, the standing room only crowd of more than 29,000 roared and they continued to roar when Celebration announcer Chip Walters announced that the team had won with a unanimous decision of the judging panel. “This was a popular win,” said long time Bluemont, Va., trainer and past Walking Horse Trainers’ Association President Benny Johnson. “This win was popular with the fans and the trainers. It was much deserved and long overdue.”

McConnell stated that the win was a very special moment for him. “Winning the World Grand Championship is the ultimate goal of every horse trainer, but to win it all with a horse that you started and showed throughout his career, that makes it all the more special.” And, McConnell said that he was never discouraged by his three reserve World Grand Championships leading up to this win. “It kind of makes you wonder if they’re just trying to get rid of us,” McConnell joked. “But, no, I was never discouraged. I knew I had the horse and I had the owners that truly were capable of winning it all.”

Looking back, Tom and Judy Waite were quick to note that they wouldn’t change a thing about The Black Night Shade experience. “It was worth it all. Every penny spent, every mile driven, every hour of sleep lost along the way,” said Tom Waite. “It was just wonderful, everything and everybody have been simply wonderful,” echoed wife Judy. Tom continued, “We had fun. And we’re going to have more fun.”

While the Waites’ understand that the immediate success they achieved is very unusual in this business, they intend to remain heavily involved in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. “This is not the finale, it’s just the beginning of a new era,” said Tom. When asked where they intended to go from here, Gail McConnell, Jimmy McConnell’s wife quickly chimed in with a quick answer, “We’re gonna sell them another one, another Night Shade. No problem, we’ll just sell them another Night Shade.”

Don’t we all wish it was that easy. No decisions have been made at this time about The Black Night Shade’s future. “Obviously, we’ve thought about what the future holds, but no firm decisions have been made. We’re going to have his semen tested and make some decisions on his breeding program very soon,” said Waite. And, with Bob and Luanne Sigman’s decision not to retire 2003 World Grand Champion, The Whole Nine Yards, the obvious question was would they retire Night Shade. Again, they responded that no decision had been made at this time. While the plans for the future may be incomplete, The Black Night Shade, trainer Jimmy McConnell and owners Tom and Judy Waite have secured their place in Tennessee Walking Horse history. A Cinderella story . . .maybe. A success story . . .definitely.