Celebration Ends In A W.I.N.
McConnell Claims Third Crown in Five Years

by Jeffrey Howard

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. – The 71st annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration greeted fans and exhibitors to perfect weather, intense competition and a familiar trainer leaving with the industry’s top honor. The Celebration also marked the first time the industry marquee event affiliated with its own Horse Industry Organization (HIO) SHOW.

The SHOW HIO was activated April 1, 2009, and scrambled to become a full-functioning HIO with affiliated shows across the country throughout the summer. The HIO is headed by Celebration and SHOW CEO Dr. Doyle Meadows and Co-Compliance Coordinators Dr. Steve Mullins and Dr. John Bennett.

“I was so relieved when the Celebration started and I really felt we were going to have a good show because we had gone through so much in the previous 90 days, even to the point of the industry going to shut down in June. And I am not trying to patronize the owners and trainers, but I am happy they put a lot of faith in our system and showed their horses,” said Meadows.

“I feel like the 2009 Celebration was a success by most measurements. From early rumors there might not be a Celebration this year to having a World Grand Championship class with 11 entries I’ll have to say is a great measurement of goals accomplished as so many people worked openly and behind the scenes to maintain the tradition of presenting the “World’s Greatest Horse Show”. Trainers and owners supported the show despite the adversities of the inspection process and I feel like the spectators and fans were as enthusiastic as I’ve seen in several years. They seemed to have liked the quality of the horses in the show ring and let their support be known as the judges adjudicated their responsibilities,” said Celebration Chairman Charles McDonald.

With any new system, anticipation was very high with regard to the inspections of the new SHOW program. USDA Veterinary Medical Officers (VMO) were in attendance to oversee inspections for all 10 nightly performances. Drs. Bennett and Mullins have worked tirelessly throughout the summer to get the SHOW HIO up to speed with enforcement of the Horse Protection Act and on the same page with USDA VMOs.

“Our relationship between our DQPs (Designated Qualified Persons) and the USDA VMOs was very cordial and we agreed before the show we would disagree on some calls, but that was simply the nature of the beast,” said Mullins. When asked what was his overall impression of the inspections by SHOW DQPs, Mullins responded, “I thought they were very thorough and tough but fair.”

Dr. Chester Gipson and Dr. Rachel Cezar from the USDA agreed with Mullins’s assessment of the cooperation of SHOW and USDA personnel. “The DQPs and VMOs worked very well together. The lead VMO and the DQP coordinators met before the inspections began every evening to discuss any concerns from the previous night in order to ensure successful collaboration,” said Gipson and Cezar.

From the onset of the competition a noticeable difference in interpretation of the scar rule became apparent with the VMOs and DQPs. A change from previous years saw VMOs inspect the winners of each class in addition to the second and third place entries. Many of these entries were in violation of the scar rule according to the USDA VMOs. “The interpretation of the scar rule has changed since last year and at present any edema is considered a scar rule violation,” said Mullins as to why there were so many post show scar rule violations taken by the USDA. Edema is defined as a perceptible accumulation of excessive clear watery fluid in the tissues.

When asked the same question regarding interpretation, Cezar and Gipson responded, “SHOW did not agree with the USDA’s interpretation of the scar rule and instituted its own interpretation that contributed to an increase in tickets for scar rule violations.” When asked if the gap in interpretation could be narrowed, they answered, “Yes, it can and will be narrowed. We will work closely with the DQPs to ensure they understand the proper way to enforce the rule, and will take further corrective action when necessary.”

“We are very happy with the efforts of our inspectors and how the overall inspection at this year’s Celebration went,” said Mullins. “The condition of the horses was vastly improved over past years and it proves owners can enjoy their horses when compliant and trainers are committed to training compliant horses.”

“The USDA plans to work with Drs. Mullins and Bennett over the winter to continue training of their DQPs on inspection procedures as additional inspection procedures have been added,” concluded Gipson and Cezar.

Meadows applauded the work of his SHOW HIO as well. “Without question Drs. Bennett and Mullins were the true heroes because on June 15 when they took over things were pretty traumatic. I applaud them and all the things they did that allowed us to have a good Celebration. Most people don’t realize the sacrifices these guys made for the industry and for the horse,” said Meadows.

The total number of horses presented for inspection in 2009 was 2,618. The compliance rate was 93 percent. A breakdown of the violations included 18 unacceptable, 44 unilateral sensitivity, 83 scar rule, three scurfing, 12 bilateral sensitivity, 23 foreign substance (14 corrected and showed), seven illegal shoeing (two corrected and showed), one illegal chain, one high band (corrected and showed), two open lesion and three bad image. USDA violations were much higher with the majority of the difference being scar rule violations.

With all of the changes and uncertainty in the industry and a struggling economy, entries finished at 3,885 in 2009, a decrease from 4,689 in 2008, a 17 percent decline. About 1,819 different horses made up the entries as compared to 2,188 in 2008. “Considering all of the factors, we are very pleased with the final entry numbers and the outcome of the show,” said Meadows. The figures in 2009 represented an average of four less entries per class in 2009.

Attendance figures were another bright spot in 2009. Planning for large decreases in attendance had everyone worried but paid attendance ended at 195,299, down nine percent from 2008. A better measure of the success of this year’s show was the actual gate attendance, which was 126,685 as compared to 139,695 in 2008.

Adjudicating the 71st annual Celebration were veterans Mike Carpenter, Rollie Beard and Sam Sorrell. Judging for the second time was Jamie Bradshaw. Jennifer Bingham rounded out the five-person panel, judging for the first time.

In what may have been the biggest surprise of the show, 11 entries made the gate call for the all-important stake class on the final Saturday night. “I was especially relieved for 11 horses to be in the stake and that across the board the field was wide open,” said Meadows. “I saw this year there were more people for several horses and less following for a specific horse than I have seen in previous years.”

Each year the stake class sets the mood for the industry heading into the fall season, but this was never more true than on Sept. 5, 2009. A jubilant crowd left the Celebration show grounds excited about the last class and feeling more confident than ever on the direction and future of the walking horse industry.

In what is becoming a regular occurrence, Jimmy McConnell left under the spotlight after claiming top honors with Watch It Now in the competitive class. McConnell has now won the championship three of the last five tries. Watch It Now joins The Black Night Shade and Master Of Jazz as talented studs McConnell has directed to the industry’s top honor.

“After waiting so long to get the first one, I would have never dreamed that I would win three in five years,” said McConnell. “I thought it was a real long shot with the horse (Watch It Now) not being well-known. I knew I had a great horse but that is a big step (to win at the Celebration),” said McConnell. Watch It Now only showed one time prior to the Celebration, winning in Brownsville, Tenn.

“I knew whoever got the edge on the first weekend would be at a huge advantage and I felt the show we made on the first night gave him a real chance to win,” concluded McConnell.

McConnell met proud owners William and Sandra Johnson after the class in the Celebration center ring to accept the honors. “From the first time we saw this horse about 20 months ago, Jimmy McConnell had said he was very capable of winning the World Grand Championship. We put our trust in Jimmy and followed his direction,” said the Johnsons.

Like McConnell, the Johnsons have won the top honor before as well with He’s Puttin’ On The Ritz. “With Ritz, we purchased him as a coming two-year-old. Ritz had won as a two-year-old and three-year-old at the Celebration. Going into the 1996 championship, Ritz had a tremendous following. With WIN, this year, we felt like we were bringing out a “new” horse. It was a great thrill when the crowd supported him.”

Finishing second in the exciting class were Gary Edwards and A Victoria’s Secret, the popular mare who had claimed the Aged Mares World Championship earlier in the week. In between performances, the Dan and Keith McSwain families purchased the talented mare from Chester Stokes.

“I thought this was one of the most exciting stake classes in several years and I was thrilled to be a part of it,” said Edwards. “I was real proud of the way she showed from the first step to the last step. I couldn’t have been more proud of her and I thought she stacked up real well against the studs. I was also very proud of the reception she got from the crowd.”

The Edwards are no strangers to great mares. They have trained such notable mares as Ebony’s Dixie Belle, an 18-time world champion; Gen’s Sundance Lady, a 13-time world champion; and Generator’s Silver Lining, an 11-time world champion to name a few. “Victoria’s Secret is as talented as any mare we have ever trained,” concluded Edwards. 

Claiming third place honors was The Coach for Holland, Barnes and Kilgore. The talented stud, ridden and trained by John Allan Callaway, won the Aged Stallions, 15.2 & Over, Section A World Championship. The Coach was the Four-Year-Old World Grand Champion in 2008.

Rounding out the top five were Cadillac’s Bum and Edgar Abernathy for Pam Betts and Puttin’ Cash On The Line and Ray Gilmer for the Tommy Jowers family. The Aged Stallions, 15.2 & Over, Section B World Champions Rowdy Rev and Bill Bobo were unable to show back in the championship after the popular stud suffered a quarter crack.

Capping off an undefeated season and winning the Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship were Lined Walkin’ and Justin Harris. Harris directed the talented stallion owned by the Joey Tidwell family to the world championship on Sunday night as well. “I couldn’t have been more pleased with his performance. He is a true walking horse,” said proud owner Tidwell. Tidwell complimented Harris. “Justin did his job and was a professional doing it.”

Harris commented on his performance. “I was very nervous but I knew I had a good horse and he likes the show ring. He is a naturally talented horse and no matter how he is before the show, when he hits the ring he will be good.”

Finishing with reserve honors were I’m Indy Jones and Jimmy McConnell for owners Kimble and Madeline Tew. Rounding out the class with third place honors were Scratch Player and Winky Groover for Crawford Colts.

In one of the most exciting and deep classes of the Celebration, the Three-Year-Old World Grand Championship saw 18 championship entries on the schedule with 16 top contenders making it to the show ring. Taking home the roses were Rodney Dick and Folsom Prison Blues, owned by Judy McDonald. McDonald purchased Folsom Prison Blues after the Fun Show in Shelbyville, Tenn., in May when the talented stallion caught everyone’s attention with his performance. “He is a talented horse that made two good performances at this year’s Celebration,” said Dick.

“We were very proud of Rodney and Folsom Prison Blues,” said McDonald. “It was a very thrilling experience and I want to thank Gail (Walling) and Rodney for picking out such a wonderful horse.”

Finishing in second was the filly Paroled In Texas and John Allan Callaway. Paroled In Texas was the 2009 Three-Year-Old Mare Section B World Champion. She is owned by Coggin and Whittenburg. Finishing in third was crowd favorite He’s A Jazz Thing and Derek Monahan for Ricky Frazier. He’s A Jazz Thing was ridden by David Polk in the world championship class but because of health concerns, Monahan took over for the world grand championship. The stud was later bought by Floyd and Beverly Sherman. Two offspring of the late The Black Night Shade finished out the top five. Lethal Nightshade and Mac Benham were fourth for Phyllis Langley and Dark & Shady and Jimmy McConnell were fifth for Molly Walters.

A legend hit the ring on the last Saturday night for one more ride under the spotlight when Billy Gray directed Bingo Time to the Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship. “It was a very special moment on several different levels,” said owner Sandy Shumate. “I would like to thank Tim Gray for being so gracious to hand over the reins to Billy. It was an unbelievable experience,” concluded Shumate.

Gray has won the Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship seven times in his career and this special night with Bingo Time came 25 years to the day when Gray directed Pride’s Secret Threat to the Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship. “It was great just to be honest,” said Gray. “It has been so long since I showed and the greatest thing was the crowd. We needed some enthusiasm and I think we had a great Celebration and if we had a little part in that then I am happy to be a part of it.”

Bingo Time and owner Shumate shared the Waterfall Incentive of $50,000 for their world championship and $100,000 for their world grand championship with breeder Ty Irby.

Finishing with reserve honors were I’m Copperfield and Knox Blackburn for owners Bud and Suzanne Moore. I’m Copperfield and Blackburn took home a world championship in the B division of the Two-Year-Old Stallions class. Rounding out the top three were They Call Me Samson, the C division world champion, and Mickey McCormick for Bill and Karen Bean.

Amateur competition at the Celebration was just as stiff if not more so than the open competition. This year’s Celebration saw some great amateur accomplishments. None were more impressive than Lisa Baum’s Tuesday night at the Celebration. A quick look at the novice competition at the Celebration lets one know how precious one blue ribbon at the Celebration can be in a career. Baum took home three in one night. Baum directed Poison’s Splash Of Gin to the Owner-Amateur Two-Year-Old Mares & Geldings Section B blue ribbon. She then took Tony Montana to the Owner-Amateur Adult Mares & Geldings Ponies blue. She rounded out her night taking Gen’s Color Me In to the blue in the Owner-Amateur 15.2 & Under Mares & Geldings.

“I have no words to explain the feeling,” said Baum. “I can’t believe they called my number three times. I still feel like I am dreaming. I am very humbled by all of this.” Baum is the first exhibitor to direct three different horses to three blues in one evening performance.

Making the most of a final performance would summarize the first set of roses won by Lee McGartland. McGartland directed He’s Slim Shady to the Owner-Amateur Three-Year-Old World Grand Championship in their final performance together. Bill and Karen Bean bought the black stud during the show from McGartland.

The first performance in the big oval for He’s 3 Under Par and Barbara Kenehan brought home the Owner-Amateur Two-Year-Old World Championship. The duo also earned top honors in the Owner-Amateur Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship. Kenehan bought the talented stud colt earlier in the summer and had only showed him once, earning top honors in Pulaski, Tenn., at the Red Carpet Show.

Laura Cochran blitzed the competition in the Owner-Amateur Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship claiming top honors aboard Nine Yard Blitz. Nine Yard Blitz and Cochran also won the A division world championship earlier in the week.

Spud Warr came to the 2009 Celebration missing most of the competitive amateur competition throughout the summer. It didn’t seem to bother him too much when he won two world grand championships. Warr directed Roll The Gold to the Owner-Amateur World Grand Championship. Roll The Gold took Warr to his first set of roses in 2006 when the duo won the Owner-Amateur Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship.

Warr won the Owner-Amateur Show Pleasure World Grand Championship with Be Cool. Be Cool and Warr also won the Owner-Amateur Gentlemen Riders Show Pleasure World Championship. Warr’s trainer, Chad Williams, directed Warr’s The Lineman to the Four-Year-Old Geldings World Championship. Williams took home a total of four world grand championships. In addition to Warr’s two, Lucky Collins won her first set of roses aboard Rocky Mountain Sky in the Owner-Amateur 15.2 & Under World Grand Championship. Charlene Gibson rode the popular I’m Packin’ A Pistol to the Owner-Amateur Adult Walking Pony World Grand Championship.

“I can’t thank Chad Williams and his staff enough for the presentation of our horses. This is truly a memorable Celebration and something I never dreamed would happen,” said Warr. “To win two world grand championships is an unbelievable experience and I want to thank everyone who had a part in our success.”

Another accomplishment worth noting was when Jimmy McConnell directed He’s Dr. Cash, a gelding, to the 15.2 & Under World Grand Championship. McConnell has now won the 15.2 & Under World Grand Championship aboard a stallion, gelding and mare. McConnell won with the stallion Dragonfly and also with the mare Ebony’s Go Boy Dream.

One of the more prestigious awards handed out each year at the Celebration is the Susan Gordon Horsemanship Award. This year’s recipient was Debbie Myers. Myers passed away in January of this year after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer. The award, which is given in memory of Gordon, goes annually to an exhibitor who exemplifies the qualities of horsemanship that meant so much to Susan Gordon. Myers will always be remembered as someone who exemplified those same qualities.

The 2009 Celebration will leave a lasting impression on the walking horse industry. It will be viewed a success but also as a beginning. Chairman McDonald summed it up this way, “I think with the progress that has been made in the industry, with the support of the owners and trainers, we have shown that we continue to have the most beautiful and versatile horse in the world. Our fan base will improve as the industry stabilizes and we rebuild the confidence the spectators need to invest in our 11 nights of entertainment. For me, personally, it has been a pleasure to work with so many dedicated individuals, including the Celebration’s Board of Directors and staff, to help make this year’s show successful. We can definitely use this year’s event as a spring board to improve in the future.”