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We’ll Never Know What Might Have Been

by Bob Funkhouser

“I have always said one of the biggest regrets in my life is that Giddy-Up-Go’s name is not up on that wall in Freedom Hall. The same goes for Prize Contender,” said Don Harris, one of his former trainers. “If ever there was a horse that deserved to be up there it’s Prize Contender.”

The World’s Champion Stallion and Five-Gaited Reserve World’s Grand Champion of 1998, Prize Contender didn’t get his chance in ‘99. Everyone with the Harris/Pidgeon Roost team was convinced that 1999 would be his year.

“I’ve never had a horse any more ready that he was that year. We didn’t show him much that season as we were concentrating on Louisville” said Harris. “I rode him in the chute the night before he was supposed to show and it was scary how good he was.”

Then came the unimaginable. Into the Monday evening session at the 1999 World’s Championship Horse Show Roz Harris suffered a fatal heart attack in one of the suites at Freedom Hall. The stud stayed in the barn and the lights on the Don Harris tack room were dimmed for the remainder of the week.

And now with the April 23 death of the 17-year-old stallion, his chance to become a world class sire has also been cut short. Prize Contender died of a suspected heart attack at Nunley Saddlebreds in Kingsport, Tenn.

“He was a grand horse. I know we’re going to miss him around here,” said Nunley Saddlebreds trainer John Warner. “He was the kindest horse you’ve ever been around in your life. We could breed two mares to him and then give bareback rides to kids.

“Blacksmiths David and Travis Herlocker were here that day and they helped me give him a proper send off. We trimmed his feet, braided him, and sent him to horse show heaven with a nice cooler.”

Bred by Ed and Terry Gunn of Roanoke, Va., Prize Contender was foaled May 10, 1986, a son of My Brigadier and Miss Boogaloo. While his sire and dam weren’t exactly household names, Prize Contender was very well bred. His sire was a son of The Great One and Fairy Darling (by CH Anacacho Shamrock) The Great One was by World’s Grand Champion CH Valley View Supreme out of the Beau Fortune daughter Kate’s Fine Feathers who was also the dam of the breeding stallions Sultan’s Spartan and Quick Decision as well as the Hall of Fame Broodmare Gay Nora.

On the dam’s side of Prize Contender, Miss Boogaloo was a daughter of High Rank and Sally Davis. Bred by the famed Castleton Farm, High Rank was a son of World’s Grand Champion CH Wing Commander and World’s Champion High Fashioned Sue. Besides being a full brother to the multi-world’s champion Popular Time, the lightly bred High Rank sired several nice show horses including Three-Gaited World’s Grand Champion Spring High.

According to Michelle Gunn, Ed Gunn had selected My Brigadier as a breeding stallion for his father, Virginia horseman A.O. Gunn. Gunn and his former wife, Terry Bova, had sent My Brigadier and a mare named Sally Davis to A.O. from Chicago. Sally Davis was in foal and her resulting foal was a mare they named Miss Boogaloo. She was later bred to My Brigadier and the resulting 1986 foal was Prize Contender.

Having gone through some personal problems Ed and Terry divorced and he returned to Virginia. He met his future wife the next year and in 1989 Ed and Michelle were married.

“Prize Contender represented a lot of our life,” said Michelle Gunn. “He was slow to develop so Ed never really worked him for the longest time. I think part of that was him being a stallion. In fact, he would ride him bareback around here just trying to get him broke and keep him good natured.

“He showed him for the first time at Richmond, Va., in 1993 and he was third in the novice class and then fourth or fifth in the stake. You could only do a little bit at a time with him because he was so excitable. In 1995 he really started putting time in on him and then took him to Lexington in ‘96 and made a real good show. That’s when people started taking notice.”

“I first found out about this horse when Lynn Weatherman’s daughter, Wendy Lewis, called me and said she had seen a gaited horse in Virginia that I needed to have,” explained Harris. “She said he had a slow gait that resembled Perry’s [CH Imperator]. I didn’t waste anytime calling the Gunns about him be he wasn’t for sale.

“I think a year went by and I was at Louisville watching the stud stake and this horse comes in that got me so excited I couldn’t stay in my seat. I had to get up and watch and then I went back to the Gunn’s barn after the class and there were already two or three people there in front of me but they didn’t want to sell. I think by the end of the week they put some price on him that scarred everybody off but I don’t remember that for certain.”

Harris couldn’t get the gaited stallion out of his mind. That next winter he called Ed Gunn and asked if he would consider sending Prize Contender to him for a while so if could see if he was really as good as he thought he was. After a family meeting the Gunns sent the stallion to Harris.

“That was a hard decision for the family, but it came down to a business decision. We all needed the money but some were thinking crazy prices,” explained Michelle Gunn. Ed had worked so hard to get his life together and stay sober and this horse was a big part of that so it was difficult to send him to Don’s [Harris] but it was the only thing to do. I told the whole family, ‘Let’s get real.’”

So the stallion that had been carefully brought along by Ed Gunn was turned over to one of the masters and Harris was indeed right about what he thought Prize Contender could be.

“I had him [Prize Contender] in here a for a couple of weeks and the Sledges were here to see their horses and they saw me working him. They said a lot of nice things about him, but I didn’t think anything about it. When they got ready to leave that day they walked out to their car, stayed for a little bit and then came back in. They said, ‘Okay, let’s get busy and get this done. We want that stud.

“I was kind of shocked as Mrs. Sledge is a walk-trot lady. It took a special horse for her to buy a gaited horse. I’ll be forever grateful for her buying this horse and giving me the opportunity that she did. He was just overloaded with Charisma, he never dropped an ear. I can say his slow-gait was the closest to Perry’s that I’ve ever seen.”

Under the Harris/Pidgeon Roost banner, Prize Contender started making a name for himself. They were third in the stallion stake at Louisville behind Zvoorbij Commander In Chief and Belle Reve’s Renaissance Man in 1997. That year at Madison Square Garden, the brilliant stallion had horsemen from all the different breeds talking.

The next year they won at River Ridge and then were second in the championship at Lexington Junior League. At Louisville they beat a ring full of top stallions to earn the world’s champion title. They returned on Saturday night and were sent back to the rail for a workout against Garland’s Dream. Harris and Prize Contender received a roaring ovation for their reserve world’s grand championship against the powerful mare.

The next year it was coming together even better. Harris was fine tuning the stallion at a level we had not yet seen.

“Every time we saw Prize, Don had him better and better,” said Phillipa Sledge. He was convinced he could win the big one with him.”

“I have to give Ed [Gunn] a lot of credit,” said Harris. “He did a great job with that horse. The biggest problem I had was finding a way to get him balanced. You would think you had it figured out and then get to the horse show and find out you didn’t. You couldn’t put much weight on him because he would get so much motion cantering that he couldn't handle it, especially in an open area. I had Bud Willimon grind a couple of ounces off his shoes when we got to Louisville.”

As we know, Louisville would not happen. The team regrouped and showed up at the American Royal that fall. Still deeply wounded from the death of his wife and not knowing he had serious health problems at the time, Harris brought down the house with Prize Contender, winning the first $50,000 Five-Gaited Championship at the Royal.

Prize Contender was then retired to stud and has since sired some extremely nice horses, many of which will make their debut’s this year as two and three-year-olds. He stood at Copper Coin Farm in Simpsonville, Ky., for a while and then moved to Nunley Saddlebreds in Tennessee. He already had several mares in foal this year before his untimely death.

“It was so unexpected,” said Sledge. “Again, he didn’t have his day in the sun. “This horse was like a pet. He was so kind and so smart. He’s certainly one of the greatest horses our family has ever owned. We had great hopes and aspirations. Now we can only hope that those aspirations will be fulfilled by his progeny.”

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