by Mark Davis

The Super Bowl . . .The Final Four . . .The World Series. Each represents the pinnacle of their respective sports. They each are places where memories are made year after year.

For the Tennessee Walking Horse, the elite have gathered in Shelbyville for the past 66 years to see memories that will last a lifetime made a reality.

Don’t think those memories come easy. The work that it takes to make those memories a reality is phenomenal. It means Saturday night horse shows in fields across Tennessee, it’s showing week after week at shows across the country. All with one goal in mind. The goal . . .making it to Shelbyville. The place where memories are made, the place where dreams are made reality. But, it only happens once a year and year after year more and more people are making that trip from around the world to the hallowed ground in Bedford County, Tenn., to see if dreams really can come true.

The 66th edition of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration set an all-time record in actual attendance as 162,176 fans streamed through the historic gates. The paid attendance was also one of the largest ever with 240,727 tickets being sold for the ten nights of competition.

“We couldn’t be happier with the attendance numbers,” said Celebration Chairman Pat Marsh. “To break the attendance records for the entire show and set single-night records on three of the ten nights is incredible. It tells us that the product we’re presenting is what the public wants to see . . .beautiful and talented horses, great riders, and a terrific overall atmosphere.”

Yes, it’s the horses who are the drawing card for Tennessee’s oldest continually-running event and by the time championship entries were made, a total of 5,358 entries were made by 2,610 different horses. That does represent a decrease of 133 over the record of 5,491 in 2003. The 2,610 different horses entered is an increase of 19 over last year’s event.

“When we went over the 5,000 mark in total entries a few years ago, it was a very big landmark to pass,” said Marsh. “It’s very gratifying to see the numbers continue to do so well. All credit for this should go to the owners, trainers and exhibitors in the walking horse industry. It’s their hard work and dedication to the breed that makes this world championship horse show what it is.”

The continued hard work and dedication of the many within the industry makes the competition tougher and tougher each year making the decisions of the judging panel that much more difficult. Making the decisions this year were Wayne Abee of Shelbyville, Tenn., Bob Cherry of Centerville, Tenn., Joe Fleming of Shelbyville, Tenn., Tommy Loid of Bowling Green, Ky., and Huck Moss of Trenton, S.C. Their task, certainly an unenviable one, to decide whose dreams become a reality and whose fade into the memory for another year.

While there had been some uncertainty about what to expect in the inspection area at the 2004 Celebration, National Horse Show Commission Executive Vice President Lonnie Messick reported that things proceeded smoothly, even after United States Department of Agriculture Veterinary Medical Officers arrived on Monday evening. “The working relationship between the DQPs and the VMOs was exactly what it should have been. There was very little conflict in the inspection area,” stated Messick. Representing the USDA were Dr. Todd Behre, Horse Protection Coordinator and VMO’s Dr. Lynn Bourgeois, Dr. Clem Dussault, Dr. Jeff Baker, Dr. Elizabeth Pannill and Dr. Kirk Hammil.

“Healthy, well-kept horses are being presented to an inspection team that is providing objective inspections across the board. This type of working relationship is what we strive to achieve every year,” stated Marsh.

Yes, this was certainly a Celebration where memories were made and dreams became reality. It seems an unusual number of longtime exhibitors captured their first Celebration blue at the 2004 event.

Mike Walden, of Chattanooga, Tenn., was overwhelmed to the point of tears when he won his split of the Owner/Amateur Novice Riders on Novice Walking Stallions on the first Saturday night. The Celebration staff thought that the always jovial Walden would enjoy a little humor. As Walden’s presentation picture was being made, tears and all, Celebration CEO Ron Thomas sent Charles McDonald out to deliver Walden a message from center ring. He told Walden that there had been a mistake with the cards and Mr. Thomas needed his blue ribbon back. Walden responded that if Mr. Thomas wanted his ribbon, he’d have to come out and get it. He commented later that he had considered riding around the ring with his ribbon until Mr. Thomas had Celebration Security come get him. Oh, the things people will do for a Celebration blue.

Atlanta, Ga., exhibitor Robin MacDonald not only captured her first World Championship at the 2004 show, as she and John F K’s Pusher topped the Elite Owner/Amateur Lady Riders on Walking Stallions, she also returned to make that memorable ride under the spotlight for the first time in the Elite Riders World Grand Championship. Many years coming, but a moment she’ll never forget.

Guylene Ozlanski, an exhibitor who captured the walking horse bug on the west coast a few years back, who now calls Woodbury, Tenn.’s historic Tamarack Farm home, made Celebration memories come true by capturing the blue in her Novice division preliminary and returning on the last Friday night to make that ride for the roses with her beloved Diamond Buster.

And, talk about making memories. After seeing longtime trainer Paul “Whitey” Whitehead run through the gate with granddaughter WhitLei Green close behind to meet daughter Candy Whitehead Green in the winner’s circle after her winning ride with Gossip in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Walking Stallions, 15.2 and Under preliminary, one would almost think that it couldn’t get any better. But, when Green and Gossip returned to make another extraordinary performance to claim the Owner/Amateur Riders on Walking Horses, 15.2 and Under Championship, it did. Not only did Green get to make that first ride in the spotlight, her father Whitey was right there with her, running along beside for her spotlight ride.

Woody Woodruff, who grew up traveling the walking horse barns with his father, the farrier, of the same name, had never made that unforgettable ride down the chute to the big oval. But, this year he convinced his mother, Becky, to lend him her ride, the talented gelding, Gone & Done It, for the evening ride and don’t you know he’s glad he did as he took home the blue on his first ride. How can you be so lucky?

Ah, but he wasn’t the only one. Miss Alexandria Holland made her first ride in the big oval in 2004 in the Youth 12-14 division on Sunday night. She and Ritz’s Diamond Joe, only a team for a few short weeks prior to the Celebration, had every little girls dream come true as they took home that enviable blue to the delight of proud parents Neal and Sherry Holland of Decatur, Ala.

Let’s not forget about the lucky young man who made the trip up from the lonestar state of Texas for the 2004 Celebration. Brandon Urad, son of Texas trainer Stan Urad and wife Margo, had made that trip to Shelbyville many times, but prior to this year had never claimed the ultimate prize. However, this year he rode to the winner’s circle, not once, not twice, but THREE times with Bad News Fantastic Cash, trained by his father and Lone Star Ritz and The Lady At The Ritz, both trained by Texas trainer John Feltner, Jr.

Memphis, Tenn.’s Rusty Hyneman knew the taste of Celebration success as his horses had reached the pinnacle in the past, but he had never personally made the ride, until this year. Hyneman and 2003 Three-Year-Old Amateur World Grand Champion I’m Silver Too made the outstanding performance in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Four-Year-Old Walking Stallions preliminary to make that sentimental journey in front of the west grandstand with the blue waving in the breeze.

However, the winning experience was just as sweet when it’s a repeat. Just ask Pusher’s Special Design and Kathryn Ramsbottom, 2003-2004 Owner/Amateur Youth Riders World Grand Champion or Alex Bumpus, 2003-2004 Equitation World Grand Champion.

A Specialist and Susan Gordon could certainly attest as they captured their fourth Owner/Amateur Riders on Walking Horses, Specialty, World Grand Championship. They may be trying to break stable mate Gen’s Fire & Ice’s record for Celebration wins. By the way, he did pick up his 40th win at the 2004 show, but who’s counting.

Four was the lucky number for Suzanne Littell as well as she and the one-of-a-kind Coinmaker continued their winning streak by picking up their fourth consecutive Amateur Riders on Show Pleasure Horses World Grand Championship. This win made Coinmaker’s SIXTH consecutive spotlight ride, winning in 1999 & 2000 for previous owners, the Paul Bryan family and rider Laney Walthall.

Another Celebration classic returned to the winner’s circle as classic horse Silver Design returned to ride in the Walking Pony World Grand Championship spotlight for the third consecutive year. Thad Way had made two memorable spotlight rides in 2002 and 2003 for the JR Partnership of Franklin, Mi. and Tuscaloosa, Ala. But, in 2004, it was Barclay Woodward making the winning ride for parents, Ronnie and Jennifer Woodward of Hartselle, Ala. Add in his win in the Amateur division in the early 90’s, and this makes Silver’s fourth set of roses. Not bad, not bad at all.

Probably the most talked about division of the show, the Four-Year-Olds made memories as well as NYPD, who recently became the highest selling Tennessee Walking Horse of all time after being acquired by the Rick Compton family of Tazewell, Va., for $1.6 million, and trainer Tim Gray arrested the competition to top the Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship with a unanimous decision of the judging panel.

It certainly wasn’t their first spotlight ride, however Bill and Sandra Johnson did go down in the record books for making spotlight rides in back to back classes at the 2004 Celebration. Sandra Johnson and her talented mare, Miracle At The Ritz started off the Saturday night performance with a spotlight ride in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Walking Mares or Geldings World Grand Championship and husband, Bill Johnson returned in the next class, the Owner/Amateur Riders on Three-Year-Old Walking Horses World Grand Championship to ride for the roses with JFK’s Monopoly.

Ah, the lovely ladies continued to impress the judging panel on Saturday evening as Caresse Mills and Brooke Baker both made their first spotlight rides with Mills doing the honors in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Walking Horses World Grand Championship (Canter) with Generator’s Champion and Baker in the Owner/Amateur Riders on Four-Year-Old Walking Horses World Grand Championship with Secretive.

Talking about lovely ladies, one certainly couldn’t forget Miss Christina Butler and Sunrise Que Sera Sera. This duo brought a big smile to the faces of proud grandparents, Glenn and Virgie Crutchfield of Memphis, Tenn., as they rode to the Owner/Amateur Youth Riders on Walking Mares or Geldings, Riders 11 and Under World Grand Championship. The Crutchfields had seen daughter, Candie make the spotlight ride with this outstanding mare in 2001, but it was even sweeter as Miss Christina rode to capture Sunrise Que Sera Sera’s 13th Celebration blue.

Talk about Celebration memories. In a year where it seemed the field was wide open just awaiting someone to step forward and ride for the ultimate honor, the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship, it turned out that one did just that. In the end, the team that topped the field including Cash’s All Star, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Main Power and yes, the gray mare herself, Shout, was the team of The Black Night Shade and Jimmy McConnell.

And, yes, in this Celebration filled with drama, there was drama involved here as well. No one present on the first Saturday night will ever forget the legendary Billy Gray and The Outlaw Jose Wales and Jimmy McConnell and The Black Night Shade both waiting in the northwest corner for the other to go first on their pass in front of the west grandstand to the line up. Of course, as Jack Greene’s already famous picture shows, neither would go first and they made the pass side by side bringing the already excited crowd even further out of their seats.

And, as each of the teams returned for the final class of this memory making event, memories were made again as Jimmy McConnell, one of the greatest sports and truest gentlemen the walking horse industry has ever seen rode, no, not for the reserve honors, as he had on three previous occasions, but for the roses with a unanimous decision of the judges. Riding in the spotlight with a standing room only crowd of 29,939 cheering for every step.

“It was a ride we’ll never forget,” stated proud owner Tom Waite.

Ah, yes, unforgettable memories. Moments in time. Dreams come true. All these certainly did make, one great Celebration!