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What A Difference A Year Makes



by Bob Funkhouser and Leeann Mione
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Last year at this time members of the Saddlebred and Hackney communities were ready to revolt. Conditions at the American Royal led to a meeting called by the UPHA with American Royal officials and the message was plain and simple: “We’re not coming back to the American Royal under these conditions.”

Royal officials met with the concerned and somewhat angered group of trainers, owners and other interested parties and they took their shots. Obviously the message hit home because Kansas City 2001 was a first rate horse show. The Royal officials said they could have the facility like it should be if the show were moved back a week and that’s exactly what happened. Stabling was ready; the place was clean; there was plenty of room to work horses; the footing was good in all areas; horses and pedestrians didn’t have to fight with large machinery for the right away; the list went on and on.

“The UPHA is very pleased with the efforts the Royal made towards this horse show,” said UPHA President Chuck Herbert, also one the key figures in last year’s meeting. “It was a very positive experience. The thing we liked most was that they [Royal officials] addressed last year’s problems, but more importantly they wanted to move forward. We met with them this year and they said ‘What can we do to take this show to the next level?’ I think we will see this thing get even better.”

It didn’t hurt that the week of November 13-17 turned out to be one of the warmest in history. After a couple of days, a few fans were even seen being brought in from the vans. The great weather had people lined up outdoors for Tubby Burgers and many others standing out by the indoor warm up ring enjoying the sunshine and checking out the upcoming classes. There was a relaxed atmosphere, a great working environment. “We have really enjoyed it this week,” said Pat McConnell. “It’s been great to have all this room to work and they kept the footing in really good order.”

This was a horse show fitting to be host of the UPHA Classic Grand Championships, the AHHS Youth Medallion National Finals, the UPHA Senior, Junior, and Exceptional Challenge Cup National Finals, and the AHSA Medal National Finals. The heritage of this Missouri tradition still lives on through the Mo/Kan classes including the Tom Bass Memorial Missouri/Kansas Five-Gaited Championship which was won by Karen Shelton Rader and Dinero.

“I felt like we had a wonderful horse show,” said Missouri horsewoman Fern Bittner who also serves as the show manager. “It was a do or die situation. We knew this had to be turned around and I think everyone is pleased.”

Bittner was quick to spread the praise. She said it was a group effort that made all areas of the show better. In the office she had Carol Benedict, Kelly McFaul, Rhonda Mikiska, and Paulette Orth.

“I want to especially thank UPHA representatives Chuck Herbert, Rob Byers, and Jimmy Robertson for their advice throughout the year and during the show,” Bittner continued. “Also special thanks to Darrell Vaughn for his tireless and meticulous work with ‘his dirt’ and footing and to Mike Urbohm and Bob Wolfe for the cleanliness of the AR building and orchestration of the buildings and staff.

“To Sarah Rowland, I am indeed grateful for her unselfish dedication, determination, and hours spent working with the horse show committees to produce one of the best American Royals in history.”

The site of that infamous meeting last year between the UPHA and Royal officials was again the site of numerous social events during the week. There were receptions for different organizations throughout the week as well as other gatherings and those were organized by Sally Jackson and Mary Ellen Purusker. Some of the highlights included a UPHA Pig Roast, a groom’s pizza party sponsored by Creech Brothers, Southern Venture, Dr. Scott Bennett, Freedman’s Harness, Juel Carmen, Summerfield, Bennett’s Tack and Show Horse Tack. Shirley Smith also put together a Groom’s Breakfast in cooperation with McDonald’s and Reichert Management Co. and Essig & Associates, while Honey Baked Ham and Purina supplied box suppers.

While the social aspect is nice, it’s the show ring competition that draws exhibitors to Kansas City. They want to compete against the best and with the large payouts in the open championships the past few years that’s exactly what the Royal has been getting. A highly competitive Five-Gaited Championship featured two-times World’s Grand Champion CH Wild Eyed and Wicked in the winner’s circle for the Howie Schatzberg presentation photo for the second consecutive year. The only difference was this year Dena Lopez was riding for long-time American Royal supporters Joe and Sally McClure Jackson. The Jacksons won $10,000 with Wicked’s performance and Lopez pocketed $5,000 as the winning trainer. The Ever Glades Fund was again the generous sponsor of the $50,000 Five-Gaited Championship.

Part of the festivities, a 4-H group from Overland Park, Kan., home of the Jacksons, made Wild Eyed and Wicked their project. The relationship started because Angie Holland, a 4-H leader who works in Joe Jackson’s bank, knew of the world’s grand champion. Her two children (Madi and Clint) were in a 4-H group and they thought the horse would be a great project. Readily identifiable, the group passed out Wicked stickers and the lucky penny cards to support their champion on Saturday night. Following his win they went back to the stalls to meet their hero and his trainer Dena Lopez. Lopez met with the group and they all enjoyed this time in the spotlight.

“The 4-H club was so excited to do this and get taken to the Royal,” said Sally Jackson. “They had never seen a Saddlebred show before and they said it opened up a whole new world for them. They also sent me a thank you card and said, ‘P.S. Wicked rocked!’”

The Three-Gaited Championship was a $25,000 event sponsored by Commerce Bank and the $5,000 first place in that one went to Nancy Leigh Fisher, owner of Sky High Money who was ridden to the championship by Andy Freseth. Freseth earned $2,500 for his winning ride.

Not as rich in prize money as the other two open championships, the $5,000 Fine Harness Championship, sponsored by Shirley and Barnett Helzberg, was a showdown of three awesome horses. In the end, announcer Peter Fenton called out Kalarama’s New Sensation and Lynda Freseth as the grand champions, giving Hollow Haven Farm two of the three big stakes.

“It was a heck of a night,” grinned Lynda Freseth that evening. “Andy snuck in there and gave them a pretty good show and that mare of mine, I’ve never had so much fun.”

One of the best things about stake night, other than the top competition, was the stripping of the Five-Gaited and Three-Gaited Championships. Something that has long been talked about doing away with, the stripping of classes has become quite boring and considered mostly useless by many horsemen. However, the age old tradition was given some sprucing up as the trainers were asked to line their entries up head to tail in two lines running down the center of the ring so the spectators could have a good look. Starting at the front of the line, the spotlight was put on each horse as the judges reviewed it and announcer Peter Fenton read the horse’s name, its breeding, owner and trainer. Yes, a horse show that actually reached out to the audience! This practice met with great response throughout the barn area following championship night.

Judges Skip Shenker, Sandra Currier, and Paul Boone had their work cut out for them as several of the classes were large and deep. Some of the cards were varied throughout the week, indicative of the many nice horses and ponies in attendance.

Both the Ladies Five-Gaited and Ladies Three-Gaited Championships were filled from top to bottom with world’s champions and in the Amateur Five-Gaited Championship the gray horse and the black horse went at it again, along with a cast of highly decorated veterans. Junior exhibitors must have saved up their days off from school because those classes were filled with quality as well. The three-gaited ranks featured some new teams that will be making headlines.

Of course among the biggest headliners at the Royal are the equitation national finals. When the week was over, 15-year-old Sarah Thordsen put her name in the history books with a sweep of the UPHA Senior Challenge Cup and the AHSA Medal Finals after having won the NHS Good Hands Finals a little over a week earlier in New York.

“It was a goal and now it’s over,” said Sarah Thordsen, a week after her last two equitation rides in Kansas City. “I never thought I would win those finals, but it was something I wanted. Now I’ll have to go on to a different challenge.”

“It’s the thrill of a lifetime,” added trainer Scott Matton. “It was a great experience all the way through. We were walking the pattern Saturday morning and Lillian [Shively] came over to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ I said I didn’t really know and she smiled and said, ‘I know, I’ve been there.’

“I was anxious and excited, but there was really nothing to tell Sarah on that last ride. Just go out there and do the workout. She’s quite a kid. She’s the same now as she was when she wasn’t winning all the time.”

Getting her first taste of the Kansas City limelight, Ashley Alden turned back a field of decorated contenders for the Junior UPHA Challenge Cup National Finals. This was a made for TV script as she almost lost her horse, Carboness, this summer due to illness and then they come back and win the national championship. It was also a great tribute to Alden’s instructor, amateur turned pro, Donna Pettry-Smith.

“I can’t believe this happened to us,” said Ashley Alden while hugging her mare in the stall. “She’s just such a great friend and to think we almost lost her.”

With Renee Biggins as its driving force, the UPHA Exceptional Challenge Cup National Finals has become a welcomed part of the American Royal highlights. These exceptional riders and their instructors perform in prime time displaying courage and a wealth of riding ability. With one of the biggest smiles you’ll ever see, Kathy Gray rode with the roses as the national champion.

Another national champion was pinned at the week’s end. The $10,000 Three-Gaited Show Pleasure National Championship closed out the Friday evening session with former UPHA Classics Grand Champion The Bess Yet earning the tricolor. Owner/rider Carol Hillenbrand has long been associated with world class pleasure horses but she fits this Supreme Heir daughter like a glove. UPHA night was again a huge success with the Classics Grand Championships paying out a little more than $135,000. The outlook around the industry is that there aren’t enough top horses and ponies to buy, however the championships for three-year-old Saddlebreds and four and under ponies looked to have ample stars. Judging ponies throughout the week, including the classics, were Paul Boone, Lee Adams Hudson, and Skip Shenker. They also held the cards in the AHHS Medallion Finals in which Crystal Harmon was again the big winner.

Part of the strong local competition, 21 entries competed for the Missouri Breeder's Challenge Weanling Stake. Harry Habecker turned out to be the big winner presenting both the champion and reserve champion. Tyra Banks was the winning entry for Bill and Janet Norton, while La Vida Mocha was the reserve winner for Carla and Jayne Pearman. " I don't know how I can top this," said Habecker.

This was a Royal to remember. Between the great weather, world class horses, ponies and riders, and a facility worthy of national championships, Kansas City was the place to be. As usual, as the last lights of Kemper Arena were being dimmed, trainers were scampering to finish deals, finding new horses and selling those whose riders had aged out. Meanwhile, Fern Bittner was already at work on next year’s show, going over exhibitors’ forms from this year which covered everything from the judging to the facility itself.

My, what an enjoyable difference a year did make.

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