By Mark McGee

It has been a busy first year for Warren Wells as CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. Despite his busy schedule, he spent some time with Mark McGee from The Walking Horse Report to reflect on the past year, the goals for the future for the board and his expectations for the 84th annual Celebration.

Can you give us an overall recap of your first year as CEO? What are some of the goals that you were able to meet and some that still remain to be accomplished?

“The good thing is I survived. I was a little worried about that.

“I spent a lot of time learning about The Celebration – the ins and outs of it. People think it is a horse show, but it is a very big horse show and a very big corporation. We are doing stuff 12 months out of the year.

“It took a lot to understand what goes into putting on a show of this size…a multi-million-dollar show. I had been to The Celebration almost every year of my life. I know the traditions, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any old traditions, while attempting to improve The Celebration. That was very important.

“Last year was our first truly profitable year since 2006. I am not taking credit for all of that. It had been building and was getting closer and closer every year. I just happened to be the guy lucky enough to be at the wheel when it happened.

“When I say a profitable year, I mean the corporation for 12 months. We always do well for The Celebration as a show. It has to carry us every year. It is going to be close this year as to whether we are going to be profitable again. I think we will. Revenues are higher, or the same as they were last year. Inflation is killing us. Expenses have gone through the roof.

“I look at several things to see how the show is going to be. How are the shows leading up to our show doing? How are our ticket sales, corporate sponsors and entries doing? All those are higher than last year so it looks like we should be doing okay.

“We are spending a lot of time and resources on our infrastructure. When you have so many years without a profit, you must look for places to make cuts. One of the easiest cuts to make is deferring maintenance. We are trying to catch up for having to defer that maintenance for so long. 

“The David Howard family has helped us with a new gate. We have three new barns. We have a new fountain. We have new sod in the center ring. The grounds look better than they have looked in a long time because we have been able to focus on that. Right now we are making changes that are easily seen, but very soon we will have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and people won’t be able to tell a difference.

“Recruiting new events is something we really need. I am very focused on having money come in from outside the walking horse industry to support this place. We depend so heavily on the walking horse, and we are constantly going back to the well for sponsorships and things like that. The walking horse people need some assistance in keeping this beautiful place going.

“The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association Eastern United States Championship will be here in September. It has been in Murfreesboro for many, many years, but we talked them into coming here and giving us a shot this year. That should be the largest events we will have outside of The Celebration.

“I want to recruit more events and continue to grow The Celebration shows that we have. I am tickled to death with where The Celebration has grown. We had a 10% increase in entries in 2020. I came in here a little nervous because I thought there was no way to have an increase again last year, but we had an increase of 10 entries - not much, but we were happy. This year, we had a 12% increase in entries, 22% increase the last three years. You don’t see that at many equine events. I think we should be proud of that as an industry.”

As you mentioned earlier there are three new barns on the showgrounds this year. It is the first time since 2000 new barns have been constructed. What was behind the decision to build new barns and when was the last time a barn was added on the showgrounds?

“This is one of those areas where we are focused on infrastructure. Barns were on the list. I wasn’t sure if we could do it this year. But, we got a little microburst kind of storm come through. Thankfully, the only damage was to the old barns. I think we had one piece of tin on one of the new barns that was messed up.

“Some of those old barns needed to be demolished. We had five of the old barns that were damaged. We decided it wasn’t feasible to repair three of them. We tore down three barns. The insurance money almost paid for one of them. The board decided since we were talking about infrastructure, and we were already going to have someone on the grounds, to go ahead and build three new barns.

“It is exciting they will be ready for the show. Josh Lawwell Construction did a great job and we loved using someone that is in the industry to do the work. The barns will have horses in them and one of them may have a horse in it that will be the future World Grand Champion. People wanted to see some progress. There have been some rough years and some lean years. I am blessed to be in this seat when things like this are happening.”

Earlier this year, The Celebration received a grant from the State of Tennessee for $150,000 to go towards new footing. Can you give us an update on where this process stands and when you expect work to start and be completed on this project?

“We are going to have new footing in Calsonic Arena and also Champions Arena. This is the focus the board and I have on attracting more equine events that maybe aren’t in the walking horse industry.

“We have this beautiful outdoor arena that was built for walking horses and is the home of The Celebration. But, we have to figure out a way to not depend so much on the walking horse industry for everything we need. With this new footing, Calsonic Arena and Champions Arena will be more versatile. With this new footing, we will be able to host almost any type of equine event. 

“We went to the State of Tennessee and lobbied them for some help. Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Marsh and Senator Shane Reeves were very, very helpful, and also some others in the General Assembly. Ryan Williams out of Cookeville was very helpful. We thank the General Assembly for the grant.

“With this new footing we really could attract a lot of events from surrounding states and bring a lot of tax dollars into the state. Luckily, the General Assembly heard us and with the pull from Pat and Shane we were able to get it.

“Right after the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association banquet in December we are going to shut down Calsonic Arena. We are going to dig up the dirt and put new dirt in.

“We don’t have anything booked in Calsonic Arena until February. If things look good, we might have some things going on in January. Right now, it looks like the Lonestar Rodeo will be our first event. With all of the new footing they will be very happy. They have been coming here since 1989. They were the first event held in Calsonic so it would be cool if they were the first event on the new footing. 

“We are using the Kiser family out of Texas for consulting. They are very well known in the footing industry.

“We are going to get the dirt out of West Tennessee and mix it and bring it here.. I have learned a lot about footing. We think we will have the perfect mixture for our arena.”

Is there any truth to the sinkhole in center ring? How was that discovered and what was the remedy?

“Yes, it is true. This is one of those things where you are focused on infrastructure, and something forces your hand to do something. It was toward the southwest corner of the center ring. We are not sure what caused it. There were some drainage pipes going through there. The hole was there, but there was nothing leading to more holes.

“We walked out there because we were looking for a new contractor to take care of the turf this year. It was like, oh no, what is this? It was very large. A tractor or mower could have fallen in it.

“We dug it out to make sure we weren’t going to have any more problems. We got it fixed.

“We were looking at new sod for the center ring. The Bermuda we had out there had mutated. We already had some discoloration that I noticed last year. I am a baseball nut, and I could tell our grass wasn’t even all the way through. We decided to rip it all up and start over. We have a new strain of Bermuda that is a little bit more athletic tolerant. This will hopefully be stronger especially if we get a lot of rain with a lot of people walking over it. It looks pristine right now to have just been installed.”

The new Gate A, named after former Celebration director David Howard, is impressive. Are you hopeful to be able to continue the look of this new gate around the entire arena?

“It is awesome. The Howard family, especially his wife Mary, wanted a way to honor David. His adult life was devoted to The Celebration and his company. When they approached me about it, it was perfect since we were working on infrastructure. Not only did they honor their father, but they were able to also help out The Celebration.

“He spent his life trying to protect The Celebration. Now he has a gate with his name on it that protects the arena. His name also overlooks the Walking Horse Report building. I think it is really cool how that all worked out.

“I really hope other people will want to do this. When the board members were discussing this proposal that was something they really wanted. We need to have good criteria as to what type of person we would name something like this after. 

“We also needed a good example. The Howard family was committed to doing it right. When you see it, you will know it was done right. It is gorgeous. They wanted it to be elegant and represent their father, but also to provide a good example of what could be done around the rest of the arena.

“Tom Meek was the architect and he is in the walking horse industry. The general contactor was Jake Jacobs Construction which is also in the walking horse industry. It was cool to honor someone who devoted so much time to the walking horse industry and to also have walking horse people involved in building it.”

I hear that sponsorships remain strong. I know The Celebration doesn’t release dollar figures, but overall, how is your program going and what have been the major factors in the growth of this program?

“We had great growth last year and I am really happy to say we have more growth again this year. We had to raise sponsorship levels this year. It is my understanding they hadn’t been raised in 21 years. With inflation we had to make an increase. We lost some sponsors over it, but it was interesting that several people moved up. They not only took on the increase we asked for, but they also moved to a higher level.

“We are really grateful for those people. This is a very expensive show to put on. Ninety percent of the entry fees go back to the winnings. We have to find ways to put on a world class show and sponsorship dollars are what does it. The pomp and circumstance we have, the quality judges and things like Jumbotrons could not be done without a lot of sponsorship dollars.

“There is a chance this is our highest corporate sponsorship program since 2006. I won’t be positive about that until after The Celebration is over and we have time to go through the records.

“Local businesses drive trophy sponsorships and ribbons. We have 198 classes this year not counting the splits. That is a lot of trophies to sell, a lot of ribbons and a lot of floral horseshoes. Our local businesses know what we do for the town, and they come out to help.”

Can you speak to any other capital improvements on the showgrounds or what are some of the items on your wish list moving forward?

“The fun things would be more new barns to replace all the old barns so it would be uniform looking. I would like more asphalt on all of our roads to keep the dust down.

“We need all new chairs in Calsonic Arena. They have been there since the arena was built. A lot of moisture is put on that track. The moisture has to go somewhere, and it is corroding the chairs around the facility where the metal meets the concrete. Unfortunately, they don’t make those chairs any more and we will need to replace them all at some point. We are going to need a new roof on Calsonic Arena at some point. I would love new fencing all around the property. I want an electronic sign on Madison Street to promote the events we have here. I would love to repaint the whole outdoor arena, but it would be a million-dollar-plus project. It is hard to see when that could be put into the plan. I could go on and on about all the things I would like and need to do.”

This is the first time the Futurity classes are a part of The Celebration class sheet. Do you envision this continuing and what challenges did this present to your class sheet?

“Mark Farrar, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA) and I are still new at our jobs. They (TWHBEA) had some issues internally they wanted to do better and differently. The Celebration had some things we were going to ask the TWHBEA to do differently this year.

“So the two groups got together and came up with this idea of combining the Futurity and The Celebration. We are hoping it makes the Futurity better and The Celebration better. We are doing a soft approach to it. The first night will be a Celebration night, but it will be in Calsonic like the Futurity. There are four classes that are true Futurity only classes. The others have been merged.

“The classes will be tied, and the winners will get Celebration ribbons. If the first-place horse is not a Futurity nomination, but second place is, they get a second place Celebration ribbon and a first place Futurity ribbon. Some people may win both the Futurity and The Celebration and get two blues. What riders will do is they will go to the TWHBEA offices to receive their prizes and get special photos done for the Futurity portion. 

“Some people think this is a really good idea and will cause some excitement. Some say it was special the way it was. We will get together later and see what we want to do going forward.”

You decided to not split the aged stallions on the first Saturday night this year. When was the last time this class wasn’t split? How did you go about making this decision this year?

“I know this class has always been split and I understand it. Some people have asked why it is fair we split a class with nine entries when we don’t split a class with 28. I chose last year not to break tradition in my first year. This year there was a lot of sleep lost over it and a lot of stress. I think this is the best decision for The Celebration. We are the pinnacle of the walking horse industry. If you want to come here and win you are going to be facing competition.

“I think people will enjoy it. I know some people think we are going to lose some excitement on Saturday. Some trainers have told me they have seen horses win third, fourth or fifth that first Saturday and then come back and win the big stake. It can be done. And, last year we had a four-year-old, Justified Honors, win. I think we will go into the big stake class with a lot of excitement.

“When I was a kid, I remember the campaigns and everyone getting excited when they saw the different colors around. I am hearing that is going to be a little stronger this year. I wonder if this is going to help build up the excitement.”

Are there other new ideas or activities around this year’s show?

“We are going to have a golf cart decorating contest this year. It will be the same day as the barn decorating judging. Golf carts have become a way of life for The Celebration. They are everywhere. Someone recommended the contest. I am hoping it will be really exciting. We become a little town with just under 290 campsites. We are packed to the rim with two or three people in each one of them.
“I love all the traditions we have, and I am trying to start new ones. After The Celebration last year, we took down the American flag and the state flag and at the Fun Show gave them to Lisa and Dr. Jim Baum, the owners of the World Grand Champion along with a proclamation from the Tennessee General Assembly. That is one tradition I hope will outlive my time here.

“I had a poster commissioned this year by an artist named Daryl Stevens from Roots in Tennessee. When Tennessee Downs had cars on the square, they had a poster made and that is where I met Mr. Stevens. I would like to have a poster made every year for people to collect. He designed us a really good one. 

“Another tradition I am trying to start is I have had special lapel pins made for the judges. I will also be giving pins to last year’s judges. It will have our logo on it and it will say ‘judge’. I am hoping it is something they will wear with pride to different events.

“We have tried to increase interest in the golf tournament. We want it to be a good time for our customers. We have added breakfast and we are going to have some entertainment.”

The championship nights of this year’s show (September 1, 2 and 3) are starting at 6 p.m. instead of the traditional 7 p.m. start time. Why was this change made and what do you see as the benefits of this change?

“We will see how it goes. Some people like it. Some people don’t.

“I think we should try new things, but not just to do it. I think we need to have a reason to try them.

“I want more than just diehard walking horse people staying around the see the big stake. If you have never been to a walking horse show but you experience the flat walk boogie and other aspects of the stake class, you will be back. Last year I had a bunch of friends come down from Nashville and I begged them to stay until the last class even though it was around 11 p.m. They didn’t know anything about walking horses but they felt a part of big stake class. They said it was like going to a football game.

“That is something I want more people to experience. We are one of the few equine events that have this type of spectators. We are moving the starting time to see if we can get a little more spectator involvement.”