By Sadie Fowler

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — As picturesque weather passed through Shelbyville for the opening ceremonies of the first official night of the 81st edition of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, everything felt on point. The grandiose white flag horse passed through the gate as a decent crowd nestled in their seats waiting for the youth riders to emerge for the first class of the night. 

The Youth Riders 6-11 on Walking Mares kicked off the Thursday evening show with a nice field of six. Indeed, it was quite a show as the entire group of young riders graced Maverick Arena like pros to start off what’s looking to be a fantastic Celebration. For the second year in a row, Emma Wright received the winning nod aboard Extra Special José for Sammy and Gayle Cagle. Annie’s Lined With Cash and Khloe McSwain commanded a respectable reserve finish.

The gentleman of the Celebration followed with a very talented group vying for top honors in the Elite Owner-Amateur Gentleman Riders on Walking Stallions class. Defending his title from last year, A King Thing did his thing for an impressive Celebration win with Bob Adcock skillfully and comfortably cruising down victory lane for the final pass in this class with Maroon 5 and Dr. Jim Baum settling in for reserve.

Though slightly down from last year, it was still all about quality as 12 entries walked through the gate next for what proved to be an exceptionally competitive class. The sharp and flashy Charlie’s Phantom made his owners proud as he wore the blue ribbon out of the ring in the Three-Year-Old Walking Geldings Riders’ Cup class with Jimmy McConnell for owner Bobby Bagwell. Charlie Green dutifully directed Vintage Gin to a strong reserve finish in classic form for Glen Sisk.

The first of two splits appeared on center stage next for the Amateur Two-Year-Old Walking Stallions. If there’s such a thing as wearing your heart on your sleeve, no one could mistake how Rae Shumate Tysor felt as she pulled off the ride of a lifetime on her winning ticket, otherwise known as My Ticket To Ride, owned by her mother Sandy Shumate. Honored & Proud and Rodney Koger held their heads high to round out the well-filled dozen as the reserve champions. 

In the B division of the same class, another dozen of depth and quality had their game faces on but it was Smoky Mountain Strong and Lexie Stinnett who climbed the highest in the ribbon ranks and put on arguably one of the top performances of the night. Mountain Voodoo and Sarah Coffee Burks worked their mountain magic as well and heared how much the crowd liked it as they were called out as the reserve champions.

Talented youth riders proved their abilities in the class that followed, for riders 15-17 on mares or geldings where eight showed up for a chance to claim their stake on Maverick Arena. Sellers Veazey earned a nice label for herself as a young equestrian when he directed The Dixie Label to the win while Miss Ebony Rose and Ashley Cortez secured their position in the reserve ranks. 

Numbers remained strong in the next class, the Amateur Park Performance Mares and Geldings class. No stranger at all to Celebration competition or the winner’s circle, Dr. Jim Baum had Do Right perfectly poised for the winning nod while Bustin José and Ronnie Reed worked hard for reserve. 

Year after year, the Amateur 15.2 and Under Stallions class serves as an entertaining showdown it seems and this year was no different as the ladies took charge and delivered another major highlight of the night. In the end, two talented and tough-riding blondes battled it out until the end but it was Janice Fostek who earned the top prize with her partner Marty McFly. Word throughout the grounds remained consistent that the pair couldn’t have looked better. Similarly, everyone loves Sheryl Jordan and He’s Made In The USA. Just like last year, they heard support loud and clear from their loyal fans as they walked away with reserve honors once again. 

The  first division of the Amateur Novice Lady Riders on Novice Walking Mares and Geldings featured a full-house of fierce contenders prepared to give it their all for that first Celebration victory pass but on Thursday night it was Walk On Beethoven and Michelle Henley who came together in winning harmony for a well-deserved victory. Cash’s Second Chance and Leigh Ann Harrison stayed right in line with their name as well as they exited as the reserve champions.

Names are always revealing and also fun in the walking horse business and Thursday night everything seemed to be in perfect alignment. In the B division, A Strong Statement was indeed strong as he bested another stiff round of competition with Kelly Stewart deserving credit for her expert navigating skills while Brain Power and Kathy Baker played it smart as well and secured the red streamers. 

Layered with horses who could win on any given Saturday night all summer long in Middle Tennessee, the Amateur Four-Year-Old class had the crowd going wild as well as everyone picked out their favorites — and there were many favorites. Yet another well-filled class on Thursday night, in this performance it was Playing Gin and Lorraine Rosbury who played their cards just right for the winning nod, edging out reserve champions I Am Mighty José and Jason Myatt. 

While the ladies starred several times on Thursday night including in the previous class, it was the men who took center stage in the 15.2 and under class for the mares and geldings. At the end of the day, any given fan in the good crowd might have had their favorite, but it would have basically been just fine if anyone had won because all the men delivered and they looked like they were having fun doing so too! John Allan Callaway smiled and shook his head just a bit as his number was called out of the line up riding Pappy Van Winkle. Ironically, his pal next door in the lineup was Philip Trimble and he was called out next after putting in a very good ride with Memphis Mafia. 

Thursday night was action-packed and very well-received by all in attendance, with many highlights. But perhaps nothing topped the final class of the night when the class order was revealed. Another deep class with world class competition, the top three in this class remained exactly the same as last year with Suzanne Moore once again in the winner’s seat with her polished champion, He’s Starbucks. Shining very bright as well, I’m Moonlighting and Stephanie Elliott walked away with a respectable reserve tie for the second year in a row while Barbara Corbett and He’s Primetime rounded out the top three.