Posted September 17, 2001

by Christy Howard Parsons

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is the pinnacle for the Walking Horse. It is that point when it no longer matters where else you might have won, how well your horse worked back in the barn, or what obstacles might lay in your path. It is THE time.

It is the measuring stick by which all horses, all exhibitors, and all trainers are judged. It is, in fact, the measure by which the entire industry is evaluated. And never in history has the Walking Horse industry looked as good.

The year started off strong with excellent registration numbers. Then the NHSC and other HIOs signed a three-year operating plan with the USDA which allowed the breed as a whole to breathe a collective sigh of relief in knowing what to expect in the inspection arena. Early indications from Celebration, Inc. were good. When the program went to press, entries were well ahead of last year - more than 4500 before championship entries - and the all-time record of 4613 from 1996 was broken.

When the last entries were made, the new record was set at 5,037. This represented 2,475 different horses (also a record) participating in the 167 classes.

Three classes had to be split three ways - the two-year-old stallion class, the three-year-old stallion class, and the amateur owner novice lady riders on mares and geldings. The numbers were overwhelming. Over 150 two-year-old stallions were in Shelbyville to compete, yes stallions, that doesn’t even count the two-year-old mares and geldings. “We had more splits this year than ever before,” said Ron Thomas, CEO of the Celebration.

The judges for the eleven day event certainly had their hands full. Walking Horse Report President David L. Howard wrote an editorial prior to the show about how many different “decision moments” would occur for the judges during the 11 day event. Assuming that each judge made only one decision for every horse, it is over 25,000 different moments. Mike Carpenter, Jamie Hankins, Roger Hand, Brian Martin and Eddie Tuck were charged with making those decisions for Celebration 2001.

Increased publicity and many additional planned activities during the Celebration virtually guaranteed record crowds. Events like “Movin On Down” (on each of four nights, an upper level ticket stub was drawn and the lucky holder was invited to move his or her entire party “down” to a ringside box); the Skyriders Trampoline Act; exhibitions by world champion American Saddlebreds and Hackney ponies, Racking horses, and mules all brought records crowds out virtually every night of the 11 day show. Despite threatening rains for the last weekend, 156,097 people attended this year’s event.

“The numbers show that The Celebration continues to be the premier show of its kind in the nation,” said Bob Garner, Celebration Chairman. “We’ve added several new events to keep the show fresh, but basically we’ve continued our tradition of crowning World Grand Champion Walking Horses.”

And the quality of competition has never been better. The enthusiasm for the final class of the show started strong early in the week with banners, billboards, shakers, and the like blanketing the town of Shelbyville as one of the keenest competitive races ever geared up. Early favorites were sidelined. First it was announced that Seve would not be able to show due to a physical injury. Then anticipation that former two and three-year-old World Grand Champion Jose Jose would show ended in disappointment when he did not make it to the ring.

A year long promotion effort by the new partnership of Dennis, Terry and Pedigo for Pride’s Jubilee Encore paid off when Encore gave the performance of his career to garner a strong win on that first Saturday night. Pushover’s Powerstroke and Ronnie Spears made an outstanding showing on that first Saturday night to secure a strong legion of fans. And the young grey mare of Rodney Dick’s had all of Shelbyville in a frenzy. For the first time in years, a mare was going to challenge the studs, and her owners Keith and Sandy Baker were going to make sure everyone understood what that meant. With a campaign centered around her status as a mare, Shout! attracted thousands of fans.

So as a record-breaking Celebration came to its final class, the audience was on their feet before the first horse ever entered the ring.

“I made up my mind before I went in there that I was just going to go all out,” said Allan Callaway, rider of Pride’s Jubilee Encore. “In my mind, I felt like this was the year that if he was going to do it, he had to do it now.”

Eleven horses entered the ring for the final class and each trainer knew it was now or never. But despite the fire of competitive spirit, there was an air of professionalism that also permeated throughout. As Allan Callaway and Pride’s Jubilee Encore entered the ring, the crowds sang out. And when Ronnie Spears and Pushover’s Powerstroke followed immediately, the enthusiasm was palpable. And in a move that would mark the spirit of the class, Spears stopped directly beside Callaway and stuck out his hand. As the two shook hands prior to the competition, the crowd expressed their appreciation with their applause.

Shout entered soon afterward and her wave of fans with the hot pink shakers followed her every step around the ring.

After a brief first round, five horses were called into the grass while the balance of the class completed their work. Then Encore, Powerstroke, Shout, Generator’s Champion and David Landrum and Black Vengeance and Knox Blackburn returned to the rail for what everyone had been waiting for.

Each of the horses gave their best. The roar from the crowd was such that it became impossible to cheer for only one horse. The crowd began to cheer as much for the class, for the show, for the industry, as for any one horse. There was a momentary break in the action when Powerstroke’s breast strap broke. And when it looked like it would not be able to be repaired. Jimmy McConnell got down from his horse that was parked in on the grass, removed his breast strap and rushed it over to Spears. The horses returned to the rail for the completion of the workout and the lineup was called.

Those final passes to the lineup are what the crowd loves the most and Callaway and Dick each jockeyed for position to be the final pass the judges saw. Callaway shook his head yes for Dick to go ahead and Dick shook his head no, each with wide grins on their faces. When it was nearly a draw, both horses headed out to the lineup to a standing ovation from the crowd.

In the lineup, Callaway was confident, and he must have felt even better when fellow trainer Mickey McCormick, who was lined up next to him, reached over and said “I want to be the first to shake your hand.”

When Callaway headed to the winner’s circle for his first World Grand Championship, the professional picture was complete. Spears rode the Reserve World Grand Champion Pushover’s Powerstroke over to Callaway to once again shake his hand and offer his congratulations and cut across the grass to pick up his ribbon and leave the ring.

Callaway later said, “If you didn’t see all that [the trainers continued exchange of professional courtesies], you missed the best part of the class.”

It was a fantastic finish to what had been a fantastic two weeks of classes. Cash In My Stock earned his 15.2 & Under World Grand Championship title after fighting off his challengers Pusher’s American Patriot and Juke Walking. Out On Parole and Steve Dunn had to contend with both Private Charter and Ex Dividend but emerged the unanimous victor for Four Year Old World Grand Championship honors. Chicago and Link Webb completed their quest for top honors despite three qualifying classes of entries returning for the final class.

The Arthur Gordon family got to enjoy two world grand championships on the same night. Susan Gordon and A Specialist won the Amateur Specialty World Grand Championship while daughter Stephanie Gordon earned the Youth 12-17 World Grand Championship aboard Gen’s Fire & Ice making Fire & Ice a record-breaking 35 time world champion, according to owner Arthur Gordon.

Janice Fostek and I’m Willie Wonka successfully defended her section A qualifying win in championship competition against Darwin Oordt and The Total Score, who won the section B qualifier. After four classes of competition, The Total Score settled for the reserve amateur two-year-old world grand championship and I’m Willie Wonka wore the tricolor.

Joe Dixon took two world grand championships home to the Red Eagle Farm as well with Fully Armed and Strike It Rich, the Western Park Pleasure World Grand Champion. The pinnacle of the lite shod competition showcased Sun’s Top Gold and Craig Swagerty as world grand champions.

Some of the most special moments of the Celebration came not in the tricolor ribbons, but in the performances themselves.

It was when Daniel Potter was disappointed in not being able to show his Walking Pony because he was turned down in inspection. So he returned in the Three-Year-Old Amateur class, yes the junior exhibitor and the pony went against the three-year-old horses and the adults, and made the ride of his life. The crowd picked him up in the class and when his trainer Bobby Hugh coached him to wait, wait, wait, before heading to the lineup, he was rewarded by a standing ovation for his final pass. He left with a reserve ribbon, another standing ovation, and memories that will last a lifetime.

It was when they placed the retirement blanket on 2000 World Grand Champion Cash For Keeps. The blanket had been his sire’s Coin’s Hard Cash and had been lovingly remade for the new champion. There was hardly a dry eye in the house when Ray Gilmer led Cash For Keeps around the ring to a live rendition of the song “Please Remember,” allowing many fans to pet the copper stallion and to hug and offer Gilmer their congratulations.

It was when Coinmaker earned his ninth consecutive world championship at the Celebration, this time with new rider Suzanne Littell.

It was when Lindsey Landrum, 7-year-old daughter of David Landrum, rode into the big oval for the first time aboard This Is It!, already a World’s Champion. She was crowned the 7-Year-Old Saddle Seat Equitation World’s Champion at the Saddlebred World’s Championship Horse Show on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky., and returned to earn her first Walking Horse World Championship in the first split of the 11 & Under Gelding class on Friday.

It was when Chelsea Cook, granddaughter of Billy Gray, was swept off her horse and into her loving family’s arms as the 11 & Under World Grand Champion.

And when Lake Weaver, grandson of Steve Aymett and son of Joel Weaver, earned his first blue ribbon at the Celebration as the Leadline champion.

It was the strength and stamina of the pleasure horses, who showed time and time again, like Genius Dixie Chick who earned four new world champion titles including a world grand championship, To Die For who earned five titles, Strike It Rich who earned three including a world grand championship, and Pusher’s Beaming Pride who earned three also including a world grand championship.

Perhaps the most special moment of all is when each of us realizes that the success of this show, the success of this industry, lies not in the fantastic performances or even in the promotion and the publicity, but in the gentle disposition and willing nature of the Tennessee Walking Horse which allows it to be so many things to so many people.

For the complete daily coverage see the printed edition of Walking Horse Report dated September 17, 2001.