Jimmy McConnell: From Farm To Fame WHTA's Trainer Of The Year

by Mark Davis

Union City, Tenn. Not exactly the mecca of the Walking Horse world, but for more than 35 years, it’s where 2004 Walking Horse Trainers’ Association Trainer Of The Year, Jimmy McConnell has operated one of the industry’s most successful training operations.

McConnell’s interest in the Tennessee Walking Horse was passed from his father, Odell McConnell, who initially made his living farming, like most others around his Obion County home. But Mr. Odell loved horses and he always kept a few around the farm. In their free time, he and sons, Jimmy and Jackie, would carry those horses to the saddle club shows near their Northwest Tennessee home for a little Saturday night entertainment. Before too long, Mr. Odell got a horse that was a little better that a saddle club horse and he was winning everything there was to win around those parts and people around the area started calling to see if he would work their horses.

“You have to remember, all we had was a plain old stock barn,” stated McConnell. “It probably didn’t have room for over three or four stalls. It wasn’t long before that grew to 70 stalls.” The demand was such that Jimmy and Jackie were drawn away from the farm and into the training barn. In 1967, Jimmy started training full time and by 1970, he was in The Celebration winner’s circle with Copy’s Coquette. Since that time, a list of talents that read like an industry who’s who including Ebony’s Best Chance, Ebony’s Dolly, Sinnamon & Sugar, Delight’s Sundance, Mark’s Triple Threat, Ebony Go Boy’s Dream, The Ghost Who Walks, Pride’s Hurricane, Senator’s Voo Doo Doll, Our Secret Rhonda Voo, Beam’s Shalimar, Storm Cloud’s Thunderbay, Hallelujah’s Dude, Sam Nicky, Coin’s Walking The Floor, Sweet Victory, Mirabella, Pride’s Keepsake, The Perfect Copy, Pusher’s Twist About, Walking All Over, Pushover’s Infiniti, Barracuda, Sunrise Que Sera Sera, Dragonfly, Hey Hey Ole’, The Black Night Shade and countless others amassing nearly 100 Celebration victories in amateur and open competition and one of the most competitive stables of horses in the industry. Certainly a long way from the stock barn.

McConnell quickly notes that the majority of those wins came in amateur competition. When asked what it’s like to prepare amateurs for the show ring, he turned with a mischievous grin and responded, “very frustrating.” After a quick laugh, he returned and said that it had always been very rewarding for him to prepare the horses for the amateurs and see them find success. “ The real pleasure comes when you can get a rider to where they can get in the ring and be competitive and get everything out of the horse,” said McConnell. “When that happens, that’s when I know I did my job to get them prepared.”

Most any trainer will be quick to remind you that it’s the customers who are responsible for the success of any trainer. “We’ve had a good run and we couldn’t have done it without the customers we’ve had over the years.” The base of customers that McConnell has compiled over the years is rather unique because he’s amassed a diverse group of customers coming from as far away as California, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida that could have horses anywhere, but choose to have horses at Formac Stables in Union City, Tenn. Many of these customers have developed relationships with McConnell and his family that have spanned most of his years in the business. People like Frank and Dixie Parnell, Gene and Kirby Akers, E.B. Tanner, Jim and Bonnie Gerhart, Bob and Mary Medina and countless others either have or have had horses with the McConnell team for spans of more than 20 years.

“You know,” said McConnell, “in all the years that Mrs. Dixie Parnell showed, she only rode out of two barns. She and Mr. Frank started at Jimmy Waddell’s and when Mr. Frank wanted to send one up to me, about 1969, Waddell told them that I wasn’t nothing but a kid and he didn’t know why he’d want to send me a horse.” However, Parnell didn’t take Waddell’s advice. He did send McConnell a horse. One of the first horses the Parnell’s had with McConnell was Ebony’s Dolly. “That was in 1970. We went all year and didn’t get Ebony’s Dolly beat. We took her down to Alabama and showed her against Rock-A-Bye Lady, who was trained by Vic Thompson and was really in her prime at the time, and they had to have a two horse workout to tie the class,” said McConnell. In the end, Rock-A-Bye Lady won, but the next week he received a call from the legendary Thompson. “Vic called and said ‘Son, the next time you’re gonna show your mare, you let me know and we just won’t show ours,’ he knew how close he’d come to getting Rock-A-Bye Lady beat.” Shortly thereafter, Dolly was sold for a significant amount of money. “That was the only time the Parnell’s didn’t have a horse in training from 1969 until the late 80’s or early 90’s, it was the 30 days it took to find them another horse.”

P.J. Jones of Paducah, Ky., who showed in the juvenile division out of Formac Stables, said that growing up in a divorced family with a single mother he and his brother always looked up to McConnell as a role model and father figure. “I take pride in the fact that I am considered by some to be his biggest fan and I believe that Jimmy is not only the greatest trainer in the industry, but he is also the greatest rider and hardest worker,” said Jones. “Both of these awards, WHTA Trainer Of The Year (his second) and World Grand Champion, are long overdue. Jimmy is a master showman and the definition of a true Tennessee Walking Horse trainer. I owe him my thanks for teaching my family how to ride and love walking horses.” “In my mind, Jimmy is the Trainer Of The Year every year,” said longtime customer Bob Medina of Skillman, N.J., who has been with McConnell for over 20 years. “He’s not working with the really high priced horses, the $200,000 range for example, but yet he ends up winning the trailer or the MASCUP money every year.”

Medina continued, “If you review his list of customers, most of them have been very long term customers. We have been there for over 20 years and there are still several others with more longevity. There is zero jealousy in the barn, we all root for each other and are all supportive of each other. Jimmy treats everybody equally- both customer and horse, all feel good about themselves and their horses.”

Something that says a lot about McConnell as a person and as a trainer is the fact that many of his top horses were purchased by their owners totally on his word, without the owner ever seeing the horse. WGC The Black Night Shade, WGC Barracuda and WC Dragonfly were all purchased that way. “We have always known that Jimmy has our best interest in mind at all times,” said Medina. Tom Waite, owner of 2004 WGC The Black Night Shade, was at home in Milton, Fla., preparing to enter the hospital to have surgery when he purchased his future champion. “Jimmy called me and told me that he had this colt that was showing a lot of potential and he didn’t want to see him leave the barn. Without ever seeing the colt, I trusted Jimmy’s word and bought him that day,” said Waite. McConnell doesn’t accept credit for his success alone. He credits much of his success to his wife of 37 years, Gail. “I couldn’t do it without her support. A lot of times, she’s my harshest critic, but I still couldn’t do it without her.”

On that point, the customers agree. “Part of the credit of Formac’s success certainly goes to Gail. She watches the new customers very closely, making sure they are accepted by the other customers and to make sure they are comfortable and having fun,” stated Medina.

It appears that the customers of Formac Stables have become almost a family over the years. The reason for that may be that it has been such a family operation over the years. The McConnell children, Stacy McConnell Blackburn and Jason McConnell both were in the show ring by the age of five and won World Championships riding under their father‘s direction, and now a fourth generation has hit the show ring with grandchildren Alex and Evan Blackburn already in the ring and each winning their own World Championship at the 2003 Celebration and Libby McConnell waiting in the wings.

“When Stacy was showing, there wasn’t a Youth 11 and Under division, all the kids had to canter, so we got her ready to show the first time at Decatur, Ala., and it was just a horse that she was showing. The horse would canter part of the time and not canter part of the time, but there were three horses in the class and she got second, so we were pretty pleased." McConnell continued, “By the time Baton Rouge came around, we had been working on cantering a little more and I had her a better horse to show and this time she made a really good show and got second in a bunch of really good horses. Of course, we were thrilled. Well, Stacy got to the gate and replied ‘second again’ and got off. Needless to say, she was ruined from the very beginning.”

However, McConnell noted that it was Stacy who convinced him to purchase one of their winningest horses, multi-titled champion The Ghost Who Walks. “We were at the morning show during the Celebration and Stacy had been up at the ring watching and all of a sudden she came running up to the barn ‘Daddy, Daddy - I’ve found me a horse’ and she begged and pleaded, so finally I told Gail to go look at him.” Time passed and the mother-daughter pair returned with positive reports on their find. However, there was a problem. “They wanted me to give pretty good money for a horse that was going to be FOURTEEN years old. I told them that had to be the craziest thing that I had ever heard of doing.” Nine years later, Ghost had captured 14 World Championships for the McConnell family. “Needless to say, he paid for himself several times over,” said Gail.

While McConnell has found a great deal of success in the show ring over the years, he has also realized the need to give back to try to make the industry stronger than he found it. He has served as President of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association for five years, two in the 1980s and three during the 1990s and has served on the WHTA Board of Directors on numerous occasions. He was also honored previously by his peers as 1985 Trainer Of The Year.

“Jimmy is everything that a Trainer Of The Year should be,” stated past Trainers’ Association President and long time friend, Bluemont, Va., trainer Benny Johnson. “He supports the industry in every way and probably has the best overall training program in the walking horse industry. His win with The Black Night Shade was a popular win with the trainers and the fans and in my opinion, was the most outstanding win since Sun’s Delight.”

McConnell also notes that none of the success that he has achieved in recent years could have been accomplished without the work of his assistant trainer Dan Waddell. “Dan is a very important part of the team and a great asset. He’s always there and there’s no way that I could do what I do without him.” It’s not unusual now to see the two head off in two different directions on a Saturday night to support two different horse shows. “Dan really enjoys that because then it’s all on him and really, it’s good for him. We really couldn’t do it without him”

Yes, indeed Mr. Odell certainly was proud when he was looking down from up above on that final Saturday night. Not just proud to see his son ride out of the big oval with the roses, but proud that his sons were able to turn his love of horses into successful careers in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. He would also be proud that in doing so, both sons kept their families close to their hearts and spread their love of the Tennessee Walking Horse, passed on from him, to their circle of customers and friends.

Indeed, that probably is the reason why Formac Stables has developed into such a successful operation filled with long term relationships is that the McConnell family truly does treat each and every customer just as they would their best friend.

Longtime customer and friend Bob Medina may just say it best, “Over the years mine and Mary’s relationship with Jimmy and Gail has changed from customer and trainer to very good friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”