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Bill And Nancy Becker’s Lives Are ‘A Pocketful of Miracles’

Bill and Nancy Becker


by Ann Bullard


The year was 1961. Frank Capra directed the award-winning film, A Pocketful Of Miracles, starring, among others, Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Hope Lange and Peter Falk. Frank Sinatra recorded the title song. When the film hit the big screen, 23-year-old Bill Becker worked for Jim and Betty Perry’s famed Spring Valley Farm in Eastover, N.C. Seven-year-old Nancy Whipple had yet to start formal riding lessons. 


Little could either imagine that song would describe their lives together. Their road from the Carolinas and Pennsylvania to Nicholasville, Ky., has survived many twists and turns, starts and stops. Through it all they have held onto their personal faith and to each other.


It all began with Colorado cowboy Ed Becker. A horse dealer, he fell in love with the Carolinas when delivering loads of wild horses to Chick Godley in Charlotte. He sent for his wife, Rose, and opened a stable. They settled down to a horse trainer’s life and to raise their four boys, Bill, Dave, Joe and Bobby.


The senior Becker discovered his passion for American Saddlebreds while attending his first horse show. He discarded his western saddle and opted for the “English ways.”  His oldest son started dogging his father’s boot steps from the time he was old enough to walk. As the younger boys, Dave, Joe and Bobby came along they joined in the family operation, training champion horses and riders. Bill says his family probably had the Southeast’s first Saddlebred riding academy.


“Dad could do anything with a horse. He was a horse whisperer with the nicest set of hands,” Bill said. “If we got into trouble with a horse, Dad could fix it.”


Bill honed his skills on Queen Of The South, a half-Saddlebred, half-Arabian mare, gaiting her when he was nine-years-old. He won his first world’s championship aboard the five-gaited pony Midnight Parader in 1956.


Bill won his first blue ribbon aboard the half

Saddlebred/half-Arabian pony, Queen Of The South.

She was the first horse he gaited.


During those formative years, Bill worked a black mare who would become one of the more influential mares of the time. Showing under registered names wasn’t a requirement in the late 1950s. Bill introduced CH Contract’s Lady Anacacho to the horse show world as Imperial Lady. At her breeder’s dispersal, the catalog reads, “This is a great young mare; Bill Becker says is the best he has ever worked.”


The mare passed through other hands before Don Harris found the key to keeping weight on her: a diet of Cow Chow. After a win at Germantown, she won everywhere she showed until the late Helen Crabtree purchased her for Kathie Gallagher. Renamed The Sorceress, she remained an outstanding show mare. Even more important, Contract’s Lady Anacacho is the dam of world champion sire Status Symbol and the great CH Glenview’s Warlock and granddam of CH Night Prowler.


Bill had chosen his career path at an early age. After working as an assistant to the late Jimmy Thompson and with his father, he enrolled in what could be called the “ultimate Saddlebred post-graduate program,” working with the master horseman, the late Garland Bradshaw in Danville, Ky. Bill’s husky-voiced imitation of Bradshaw’s voice has lightened more than one ringside lesson.


Ed Becker had sold a pair of newcomers several show horses and broodmares. His eldest son returned home to the Carolinas to head Jim and Betty Perry’s Spring Valley Farm. Young Bill Becker had his dream job. For 10 years, such world’s champions as Terra Cotta, The Benefactor, Belle Destiny and Havana Hijack came from Spring Valley Farm. The Perrys bred and Bill started another pair of black horses whose names will forever remain in the record books. In 1975, CH Finisterre’s Gift Of Love and Don Harris won the first of their four consecutive Three-Gaited World’s Grand Championships. The same year, Bill Wise rode CH (Val-Dale’s) Surefire to his final of three consecutive five-gaited grand championship titles.


Bill and Jane Becker married during the years he was at Spring Valley. Their three children, Billy, Jason and Jane Hart, each rode, although Jane Hart stayed closest to the horse business. After a decade with Spring Valley, Bill elected to strike out on his own. The family moved to Charlotte, N.C., where he faced the realities of being independent rather than working for an established farm.


Billy Becker made his show ring debut

 in leadline, with his father on the lead.


“I didn’t realize how difficult that would be,” he told Horse World in an interview seven years ago. “We had some great mares at Spring Valley… horses I couldn’t afford for myself. Ronald Lee had worked with me at the Spring Valley Farm and came with me. We didn’t have anything – not even a pitch fork and a broom, and only five training horses.”


Pony rides had introduced three-year-old Nancy to the horse world. Four years later, her father’s company transferred Whipple to Charlotte, N.C. His daughter wanted to be certain she would be able to ride at their new home.

At age three, Nancy knew she loved horses.

She rarely let her mother pass local pony rides

without stopping to ride.


“Mom laughs about my negotiating moving with the family to North Carolina as long as I could take formal riding lessons,” Nancy said, smiling as she recounted the tale. “I didn’t know what an American Saddlebred was or the difference between English and western riding. I had just turned eight when we finally were settled. I pulled out the phone book, put my finger on a spot in the Yellow Pages and said ‘This is where I want to ride.’”


This place was M.L. Porter’s barn. Fortunately, he taught Saddle Seat and trained Saddlebreds. Nancy’s passion for the horse world grew as she learned and later helped with teaching.


Nancy focused on the world of professional horsedom, despite her parents’ desire that she attend college. She was 18 and the owner of a Night Of Folly mare when the Beckers moved to nearby Matthews, N.C. While dreaming of a career with horses, Nancy worked as a clerk in a clothing store to pay her horse’s board.


“I heard a Saddlebred trainer was moving to town. I went out and literally begged him [and Lee] for a job,” she said.


When Bill protested that Nancy wasn’t needed, Lee disagreed. She was hired for $35 a week and half her horse’s board. Bill made her pay the other half. She soon went from groom to assistant instructor.


“She stepped in and taught with me for a year or two. I found out she was a better teacher than I, so I began helping her,” Bill said.


Nancy won a two-horse workout on

The Merry Rambler at Roanoke in 1975.


As often happens when two people work closely together, Bill and Nancy grew close personally. Both were married to other people at the time; however the outcome was inevitable. They married in 1994. Today, Nancy and Jane Becker are close friends and Bill’s three children a close part of both families.


Bill and his children, Billy, Jason

 and Jane Hart, remain close.


Bill’s judging at a Florida horse show brought him to Todd and Barbara Woods’s attention. Friends introduced the senior Woods and their daughters, Beth and Linda, to the trainer. It wasn’t long before they had horses in the Carolinas. The family atmosphere and closeness of the Becker clan made the move even more pleasant for the Floridians. They became – and remain – close friends.


Beth starred in equitation. Linda showed Dancing Time in juvenile five-gaited competition. She and her father shared the road pony Terry Jean’s Starlight Cadet. And here Barbara developed her love relationship with five-gaited horses.


“The girls told me Nancy and Bill always made them feel like they were at home. They were another mom and dad to them – and really taught them how to ride,” Barbara Woods said of her friends of 30 years.


Barbara Woods’s daughters, Beth and Linda,
were early Becker champions.
Beth showed
Vanity’s Sparkling Coin to world and national equitation

championships while Linda starred in junior exhibitor five-gaited
competition with Dancing Time.


The Woods/Becker relationship spanned several years and many horses. In the late 1970s, the Woods purchased the broodmare Erin Belle in foal to Spring Valley’s Deliverance from Bill. She died when the colt was days old. Barbara Woods says they knew the foal was exceptional from the time he hit the ground.


“He was a survivor,” Bill said, “After his dam died, we weaned him and gave him Foalac. He’d just stick his nose in it.”


The colt: Shadow Run, for whom the Kentucky farm is named.


“He was one of those phenomenal babies,” Bill said. “He developed pneumonia as a baby. He ran a 103-degree fever and still would trot above level and flag himself.”


As much as the Woods would have liked to keep the youngster, he was sold. By a turn of events, Shadow Run was brought back to Bill and Nancy. At Statesville in his three-year-old year, the colt showed he didn’t like harness. As he belonged to them, Nancy trimmed him that night.


At Lexington, Shadow Run missed a canter lead and was tied reserve. The late Steve Macfarlane added the young gelding to his collection, leaving him with Bill until after Louisville. They earned the Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited Reserve World’s Championship in a class of 21.


Shadow Run and Bill won many top ribbons, including a
Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited Reserve World’s Championship.

The horse for which their farm is named enjoyed a successful

career, including the Junior Three-Gaited qualifying blue and

tricolor at the World’s Championship Horse Show,

when owned by the late Steve Macfarlane.


In the 1970s, the late Richard Bachman bought his wife, Jill, a horse from Bill and Nancy, taking it to their Why Worry Farm in California.


Jill picked up the story. “The horse had problems so we sent it back to Bill. It wasn’t long before I realized that the way a horse is put together for an individual is a key factor. Bill and Nancy are very good at that.”


The Bachmans sold their farm and moved their horses to North Carolina. They, the Woods and some other Carolina customers went with the Beckers for their year at the Waldrons’ Bent Tree Farm.


Bill concedes the association with the Waldron family was successful; however, he was used to having his own business.


Nancy had their former barn ready when Bill moved the horses back to Matthews, N.C. During their eight years in North Carolina, Ann Tierney Smith and her children rode with Bill and Nancy, showing such champions as Starlike Sultan, Corinne Corrina and Chablis Premier. Doris Crumpler also joined them here.


“I hadn’t seen a horse for about 10 years when I went to the Statesville show,” Crumpler said, explaining she had gotten out of the business. “Bill was there. He and I grew up together and had been friends when we were really young. All of a sudden a mare came in the ring in the Junior Five-Gaited class. She was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. I asked Bill if he would find out about her.”


Bill insisted Doris ride her. “He said, ‘I want to see how you look on her. I fell off the first time I got on her. We ended up buying her.”


That horse was Artistic Impression, Crumpler’s first world’s champion. Bill rode her to the 1998 World’s Champion Five-Gaited Mare title as well as the Junior Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship. Crumpler and subsequent trainer Johnny Lucas enjoyed three more years showing her before retiring her to become a broodmare. Her best-known offspring: Carolina Cat.


“Bill is a wonderful person who has a great eye for a horse,” Crumpler said. “I picked this one out, but he totally agreed with me. He trained and showed her and did a wonderful job with her. He really could ride a gaited horse.”


Although the Bachmans moved with them to North Carolina, they eventually convinced Bill and Nancy that California was the place to be. They began to build a show barn at their ranch.


“We moved to the ranch on Dec. 3. On Dec. 13 we learned my husband had pancreatic cancer. We gave Bill the option of not coming, but he said he had made the commitment,” Jill said.


“When my husband was not doing so well, he told us, ‘It will be a miracle if you pull all of this off,’” Jill continued, recounting the way the farm got its name. “It wasn’t an easy time. Dick was in the hospital. He had designed the barn, but never got to see a horse in the stall. We took him pictures of our walking horses down on Friday night. He passed away on Saturday. It was like he had given me my dream and was at peace.”


Dick Bachman’s presence lived on in more than the barn he designed and people he helped bring to staff it. He played a huge role in one of the farm’s most famous horses even being born.


“We owned a stallion [Chaminade] who should have been a gelding. Dick insisted he remain a stallion; I wanted to geld him,” Jill recalled. “He told me to breed the horse to Capricious Capers and then we could geld him.”


They did. El Milagro’s Sir Richard was foaled on July 13, 1990, Dick Bachman’s birthday. He became a headline-grabbing mount with Nancy, Jill and her granddaughter, Cassie McEuen.


Named for the late Dick Bachman,
El Milagro’s Sir Richard
was a perennial winner
for the Becker team.


When El Milagro opened its doors, the Bachmans were virtual unknowns. “Bill and Nancy built our reputation. The combination of the two, their ability to work as a unit and the great warmth they have with people are amazing,” Jill said.


Nancy and Bill helped fill a huge hole in Jill’s life. “There were both very warm and nurturing. That was very important for me,” she said.


While miracles – or at least major ones – weren’t a daily occurrence at the farm, the family can point to one in particular. Its one Bill rarely talks about today but the story shows his and Nancy’s strength and the power of their faith and prayers.


In May 1996, Bill was critically injured when a horse flipped over on him. Initial worries about whether he would live, whether he would walk again became questions about when Bill would return to the show ring. He had Heart To Heart primed for the Louisville’s Roadster to Bike Mare Stake. Bill told Jill she could show the mare with him on the rail.


“He kept on about it until I realized he was determined to do this,” Jill said.


Heart To Heart won five world’s championships

 with Jill Bachman and Bill on the lines.

The two stopped for a photo on Louisville’s Stopher Walk.


Bill was on a walker when he got to Louisville. He forced back his pain as he greeted friends and well-wishers at the El Milagro tack room. And he leaned on the walker as he stepped into Freedom Hall to be inducted into the Road Horse Hall of Fame.


“The day I won that class was a highlight of my career,” Jill said. “As for Bill, when he came home he was a different person.”


The Beckers fit well into the California scene. “The local cowboys respected Bill for who he was,” Jill said.


In 1997, Jill realized she needed to make some life-changes. One of these entailed closing El Milagro.


“It had always been Bill’s dream to move to Kentucky and start a barn,” Nancy said. “Initially, we couldn’t decide between Lexington and Louisville. After several trips, we fell in love with the Lexington area.” In 1998 the Beckers leased Paul Turner’s place in Nicholasville.


The area has proven to be a great choice. As an added bonus, neighbors Nelson Green, John Conatser and Merrill Murray send some of their amateurs over for lessons.


“As the new kids on the block, it was a little difficult to start with,” Nancy said. “We were fortunate that many of our West Coast clients moved with us.”


Tasha Rose Sandler completed her junior exhibitor career and began showing as an adult from the Kentucky farm. Previous West Coast clients Lynn and Bob Keys along with daughter Jessica continue to have several horses in training with Nancy and Bill. World Champion Amber Lynn Lowry began her equitation career in walk and trot; last year she won the 14-year-old age group at the World’s Championship Horse Show.


Several years ago, Anna Hormann attended Shadow Run Summer Camp. Soon her parents had decided they would move from Raleigh, N.C., to Kentucky so they could better enjoy the horses.


Not surprisingly, both Bill and Nancy have been forced to slow down. Bill is at the barn every morning, supervising the entire day. He works a lot of the 30 training horses, but can’t ride as many as he did in past years. Most are limited to those that will stand and allow him to mount from a mounting block. After two knee replacements, Nancy no longer rides as much as she would like, leaving Bill to work many of the equitation horses.


Nancy laughs about setting off airport security alarms. “On one trip, they told me I was ‘beeping all over the place.’”


The solution for the Beckers has been an outstanding staff. Jorge Chavez has been with Shadow Run throughout the nine years they have been in Kentucky. More recently, Stephanie Sedlacko has joined the team as an assistant trainer and instructor. She works horses and manages the entire riding lesson program as well as the summer camps. Nancy teaches the show riders and “puts my two-cents worth in on the lesson riders as well.”


Sedlecko’s background is quite different than many assistant trainers. She was raised on New York’s old Saddleback Morgan Farm. Morgan hunter-jumpers, dressage and western horses introduced her the show ring. When the opportunity to take Saddle Seat equitation lessons with Sally Lindabury came along, she jumped at the chance.


Sedlecko briefly leased a horse from Jan Lukens and worked with her for a short time. When opportunities to help at horse shows arose, she always was ready. She even galloped horses at Florida and Massachusetts racetracks to stay close to the business that was her passion.


“I worked the Keeneland sales,” Sedlecko said, explaining how she got to Kentucky. She has proven a more-than-able assistant to both Bill and Nancy. Bill entrusts her with working many of the show and young horses – always under his watchful guidance. She evaluated the couple with whom she works.


“Bill jogs, long-lines and rides some,” she said. “We get along well. People say he used to be demanding, but isn’t too bad any more. Nancy is great and we get along really well. I like working here. I’ve learned a lot with more to come.”


Sedlecko already has proven her worth, gaiting several young horses under Bill’s supervision. She works with more seasoned stock, including Micaela Evans’s junior exhibitor three-gaited horse, Tipitina. And she has more than held her own in the show ring aboard young and seasoned contenders.


The Beckers do their part for the breed that brought them together. Because of their work, show schedules and camps, Nancy tries to limit her judging assignments to four or five a year. This year she anticipates judging five: River Ridge and Blowing Rock are behind her. Washington State, the Morgan Grand Nationals and National Show Horse Finals lie ahead.


She has lent her expertise to the World Cup of Saddle Seat Equitation. In 1998, she coached the U.S. Saddle Seat team that brought home the gold medal to the United States. Two years later, she became executive director of the U.S. Saddle Seat World Cup Organization, a position she held until 2005. This year, Nancy accepted the position of president of the International Saddle Seat Equitation Association.


Such contributions led to her receiving the 2005 Gordon Jenkins International Award at the 2005 American Saddlebred Horse Association convention. In February 2007, Nancy received the Helen K. Crabtree Instructor of the Year Award at the UPHA Convention. Barbara Woods and her daughters were among those who surprised the Beckers with their presence.


If you look back over Bill Becker’s career, you’ll find the name of more than 100 world’s and national champion Saddle Horses, road horses and ponies on his resume. He has been a large “R” judge for more than 48 years. A founding member of the United Professional Horseman’s Association, he was a 2004 inductee into the Carolinas Horseman’s Hall of Fame. Most recently, he received the C.J. Cronan Sportsmanship Award, presented in February 2007 at the ASHA’s Saddlebred Ball.


Bill just takes things in stride.


The Becker saga covers decades of Saddlebred history. With the staff and clients at Shadow Run Farm, it seems the future is bright. Bill and Nancy have triumphed over illnesses, accidents and the vagaries of time. One might call all that miraculous. But if asked, each probably would subscribe to the final lines of that 1961 song:


“I've got a pocketful of miracles, but if I had to pick a miracle, my favorite miracle of all is you love me.


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