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Midwest - A Horse Show That Doesn't Act Its Age

by Ann Bullard

It’s a coming out party – at least for a number of the sport’s young horses. It’s an early ‘get your feet wet’ for new combinations. It’s an early season opportunity to evaluate what you have and how it stacks up against many of the best in the country. It’s a family reunion with all the flair, food and fun associated with the best of such events.

These terms and more describe the Midwest Charity Horse Show. The popular event celebrates its 68th birthday this June. Despite its age, it acts ‘younger and younger’ every year.

The year was 1935. The country was just recovering from the Great Depression. Horses had become more of a sport than a necessary means of transportation. They again had proven their worth during World War I, but were becoming less essential to the U.S. military. The 106th Cavalry National Guard Unit, still a mounted division, was stationed at the Springfield, Ill., Fairgrounds.

Hester Kerr, whose daughter, Susie, now serves on the Midwest Board recalls that first show. Susie literally has been associated with the show since before she was born. She’s been a volunteer forever and has driven the tractor for 42 years.

Her mother, who will be 97-years-of-age July 9, spoke of those early days through her daughter. "Mother was a farm girl who moved to the city. She never lost her love of horses and ponies," Susie said. "The cavalry was stationed at the fairgrounds. She and my godmother went out every day to groom and help work horses. They decided to have a little show to raise money for needed tack."

"We lived out there during the show, sleeping in barn lofts," Hester Kerr recalled. "We dared not leave them alone."

That first show included Tennessee Walking Horses and hunters in its 25 classes. The 2008-version: 201 classes spread over 10 performances in a five-day period. The four-time UPHA National Honor Show (2003, ’04, ’06 and ’07) again features Saddlebreds, Hackney and harness ponies, Arabians and Morgans.

The Amateur Horse Show slowly evolved into the event it is today. Four years after its beginning, area horse lovers organized the Midwest Horse Show, known as the Midwest Society Horse Show in its early years. They dropped the ‘society’ as members felt some might consider it an event for "the country club set," according to former board member James Kyle. Since 1938, the event has been registered as a non-profit organization and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to area charities.

For five years during World War II, when the Army Air Corps took over the Illinois State Fairgrounds, and for one year (1958) when the fairgrounds were undergoing a major renovation, the show was suspended. Fans feared the same would happen this year, but all renovations to the fairgrounds were completed in mid-May.

Pageantry remains a part of the Midwest tradition. However, the days of downtown Springfield kickoff parades, queen contest, coronation and fashion show are no more. In the 1950s and ’60s, the show included movie and television stars among the featured ‘extras’ designed to attract local audiences. However, as with many other shows, the emphasis was on charity, and event budgets tightened to enable the show to contribute as much as possible to the designated organization.

"My interest is making this a good show, following rules, having the best possible, safe facility for exhibitors and horses and the best officials to honor those who come to show," Susie Kerr said. "We make sure our co-sponsoring charities are recognized and get funding."

Through the years, such groups as the Boys Club, Ansar Shrine, Chamberlain Park, The Service Club and St. John's Hospital Guild have benefited from the show’s largesse. In 1988, they affiliated with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Foundation, establishing an endowment fund for Camp COCO. Through contributions directly from the show and individual contributions from event supporters, they have raised more than $900,000 for the group which sends children with cancer, leukemia and other blood disorders and their siblings to summer camp.

In speaking with exhibitors, it’s obvious Midwest scores at the top in the horse show category.

Scott Matton and his clients have been attending Midwest Charity since the mid-1970s. He sang the show’s praises in a 2006 interview with The American Saddlebred. "Midwest quite simply has the best facilities of any other show in the country. The stalls are nice, and the warm-up rings and footing are exceptional. The horse show office is a breeze to deal with, and management will listen to reason and does its best to accommodate the needs of the exhibitors. Not to mention the quality and caliber of the competition! It is just a wonderful place to show."

Kim Crumpler rarely has missed being part of the Midwest in some capacity since he showed a Morgan there at age 10. "I missed one year when Fran [Crumpler] judged and there might have been one other," he said, pointing out that he and Fran will be marking judges’ cards this year. "During my college years, I usually groomed for someone. I don’t remember when it wasn’t a good show."

When you speak to Midwest exhibitors, hospitality ranks right at the top of their highlights. And well it should. What began as one ‘simple’ exhibitors’ party has evolved into an every-night dinner catered by board and association members.

"My husband thought having a party here would be a good way to begin the show," said Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Antonacci of her late husband, Patrick, a 25-year Midwest board member. "Phil Bish got a band and we had dancing on the patio. They grew so much, the house couldn’t handle it, and so we moved to the Ag Building at the Fairgrounds. When the Ag Director wanted us out of that area, we moved across from the coliseum to Barn 13 or 14, which had a small kitchen in its little apartment. The sink was about the size of a watermelon; it had a little four-burner stove but only two worked. You wouldn’t believe the food we prepared from that little kitchen!"

Later, parties move into the milk barn or the ‘party barn’ as it’s known at Midwest. "We had chandeliers and I don’t know how many hundreds of lights that my husband bought," Antonacci said.

"The way the nightly after-show parties started is because Springfield, Ill., rolls up the sidewalks at night," Crumpler said. "For years there only was one place that stayed open, and all the horse people went there. When Southernaire closed, there were no late night restaurants. Pat Antonacci and other board members said that was all right. If they couldn’t get restaurants to stay open, they would feed everyone."

Tuesday nights, Susie Kerr and a group of volunteers prepare chicken salad for 600 to 700 people. Kerr’s salad and Honey Baked Ham are centerpieces of the first of the volunteer-catered dinners. Wednesday and Thursday are sponsored catered meals.

Pat Antonacci and the late Al ‘Doc’ Strano and their families took charge of Friday night’s spaghetti dinner. Marj Strano and their daughter, Margaret, learned the art of spaghetti-sauce preparation before ‘Doc’ Strano’s death. They spent several days in May cooking and storing the sauce for this year’s party.

The key to Midwest is its volunteers. Many are second and third-generation board members. Paul Briney served on the Midwest board for more than 40 years, serving as treasurer almost from the time he joined the group and as president for more than 12 of those years. As show manager and chairman for 35 years, he took charge of the ring and preparation of the footing.

Briney smiled as he recalled some of the early parties. "Pat Antonacci helped start the every-night dinners when he was president," Briney said. He and the Stranos really went into doing the party thing here. I remember one night we had a lot of cookers and sparks flying off the old wiring in the 13 Barn. We had a band and everyone danced in the streets. Late in the evening, they’d pass the hat so the band would stay and play some more. Those are the kind of fun things that make this show work."

Briney and his wife, Sally Jo (Lockwood,) were competitors before they married. Among her horses was CH Sensational Princess, a mare she won the 1964 Amateur Five-Gaited World’s Championship and Grand Championship. The late Lloyd Teater had her horses.

"Sally was with Lloyd for a lot of years. When we married and went to the Minnesota State Fair, he told me ‘If she is ever late for a class, I’m going to be after you and it ain’t going to be pretty. We’ve been going to shows on our anniversary ever since."

Teater is but one of the ‘greats’ who has been a part of Midwest history. "Earl Teater, Donna and Tom Moore, Art Simmons, Rex Parkinson, Pres Oder, Lee Shipman," Briney paused. "So many great showmen, many of whom are no longer here… and so many great horses, too. If they were good enough to be here, most of them were."

The early June dates worked well. "June is ‘early enough’ in the year for people in the Midwest," Briney added. "A lot of people didn’t have inside facilities. This is where they brought their young horses."

Rick Wallen agreed. "You go to Midwest to see young stock; the two and three-year-old and junior classes. If you’ve got a horse good enough to win there, you know you have Louisville stock. And it’s where a lot of people go to shop."

Wallen agrees with all the whoop-la about the parties, but says it’s the show ring that attracts many of the top horses that show there. "It is such a fantastic show ring – high on the rail and low in the center. The footing usually is so solid… it’s a horse ring for show horses and is the same all year round. It’s an oval with long straight-aways and high turns. There’s a concrete wall that you can get right up against. You can lay into corners and come out racking and trotting and high speed. The horses love it. The acoustics… the crowd… the place comes alive!"

As for the footing, Briney and his crew work add footing to the arena just before the show, watering and working it throughout the week. They also lay a footing path from the warm-up barn across the street to the arena, so horses don’t have to be on concrete or asphalt.

The Treiber family has many fond memories of Midwest. CH Stonewall’s Crimson And Clover continued her assault on three-gaited young horse championships, winning Midwest’s Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited and UPHA Classic titles after being introduced to the show ring with a Milwaukee blue. She and trainer Dave Patton had an unblemished record in three-year-old and junior competition, winning the junior stakes at Lexington and Louisville. When Susan Treiber stepped into the irons for ladies and amateur competition, the story was much the same. They won seven Midwest blues and tricolors between 1988 and 1993.

"Midwest is all about family," said Paul Treiber, who began showing there as a youngster. It’s also where he and his wife, Thea, first met. "It was my father (the late Phillip Treiber’s) favorite show."

Not only does the Illinois State Fairgrounds host outstanding horse shows, it boasts a Standardbred racetrack on the grounds. "I get to spend the mornings at the racetrack with our Standardbred customers," said Treiber, who is president and CEO of the Walsh companies. "I work in the mornings, enjoy the show in the afternoon and have fun at night."

Jeff McClean considers Midwest his "hometown show," although Quincy, Ill., is 100 miles from Springfield. He’s been going there since a boy, and has been on the board for "five or six years."

McClean is credited with the idea for the "Best In Show" Award. Instituted in 2005, the first award went to Can You Hear Me Now, winner of the Three-Year-Old Fine Harness class with Raymond Shively driving for 926 Park Lane LLC. In 2006 it was Betsy Thomas’s New York’s Perfect Gift. Judges voted Glenview’s Excelalante! the best in show for 2007.

World’s Champion Glenview’s Excelalante! is but one of the outstanding young horses introduced at Midwest that went on to greater honors. Bred by the estate of the late Katerine Sinclair and introduced to the show ring under Roy and Judy Werner’s Redwing Farm’s banner, the black daughter of Designed and Tra-La-La won the Two-Year-Old Fine Harness Classic with Bob Brison.

"We by-passed several shows as we wanted to bring her out at Midwest," Judy Werner said. "That’s the spot to set a horse up to do better things down the road."

Glenview’s Excelalante! remained undefeated in her two and three-year-old age groups and earned a Three-Gaited Reserve World’s Grand Championship with trainer Chuck Herbert in the irons.

A newly-trimmed CH Radiating! won the first of her many championships at Midwest. "She won the Junior Three-Gaited class; it was just a thrill," Werner said. "In my mind, Midwest is one of the most competitive shows we have. I always go knowing I am going to see wonderful horses and see a new star come out. And it’s also like going on vacation. Springfield is a wonderful city and the people are so nice. They do everything correctly. I wish we could clone it and put it around the country."

Reedannland’s Dr. Alan R. Raun agrees. "It’s a good barometer of what kind of stock you have," Raun said. "It’s even more so with horses than with ponies, but ponies are tough, too. Gib [Marcucci] often is there and a few backyard people come in and slap you around. You think you have a good one until someone comes in with a barn pony they jog three miles a day and looks pretty.

"They show Midwest values: everybody does a little extra to make sure things are right," he continued. "The only thing they don’t have is people in the seats."

For the Fergusson and Pettry families, Midwest was a ‘home show.’ Marge Fergusson recalled helping Susie Kerr make food for the show. The show always was one of her favorites.

Jeanne Pettry has many fond memories: her father, Don Fergusson, and Tijuana Brass, each of her children posting many wins. Yet one of her favorite recollections traces back to when her son, Tommy, was five or six and in lead line. Kristen was in walk and trot and Donna showed junior equitation.

"Getting them all in the ring was a really great memory," she said. Incidentally, each won their class.

When talking with long-time Midwest goers, the inevitable question is: what matchups, what teams do you still remember.

"I remember the showdown between Tom [Moore] and Chat [Nichols] on Hallelujah and Rebel Aire. That really was a great class," Crumpler said. "Pres Oder with Hurricane Donna and Lloyd Teater driving Miss Dean Key was an outstanding Roadster to Wagon class. And Lloyd won with Bombsight several times."

Doc Raun’s ‘unforgettables’ include Owen Hailey’s rides on Delightful Society. "She acted up real bad in the qualifying class. I watched him that night when no one else much was around. He had his cigar sticking out of his mouth; that mare went to leaping and diving. He stayed with her until she quit and didn’t even lose his cigar. The next day, he won the stake."

Raun and Liz Kinney never will forget One For The Road’s performances as a junior three-gaited horse. Reedannland’s former trainer remembers.

"We had just trimmed him that morning," Kinney said. "Bonnie [Byrne] wanted him before the class. At that point, we thought he would make a really nice equitation horse. We had no idea what we had!"

One For The Road showed what he was made for when he hit the ring. "We had to strip our horses," Kinney recalled. "He started pulling back after we lined up. I knew if he pulled enough against me… I was so scared, afraid he would go over. I turned him loose. We did that big trot around the ring and went up to Skip [Shenker], one of the 1990 judges.

"We saw some of the big Hackney shows when Dodge Stables was there. Mrs. Loula Long Combs [of Longview Farm, Lees Summit, Mo.,] brought her string of great horses and ponies."

Rick Wallen never will forget seeing CH Callaway’s Mr. Republican at the 1984 Midwest show. "Polly [Holm] had seen him in the stall and just loved the horse," Wallen said of the gelding that would carry him to many championship honors. Ellis Waggoner showed his young stallion, Trink To Me Only, in the UPHA Classic, and went on to win blues at Louisville.

From 1987 through 1990, Wallen and Callaway’s Mr. Republican dominated Midwest’s five-gaited division, winning four stallion & gelding qualifiers and four grand championships.

Ray Krussell began his Midwest career at age 12 or 13. "It was so nice because all the nice horses I saw at Louisville had been there also. Onion made a heck of a show there as a junior horse with Jim Koller."

Perhaps the shootout that stands out, not only with Krussell but with many of his peers, occurred in the amateur division in 1991. Scott Smith (Kenny Smith’s father) showed Callaway’s New Look. Andrea Walton de Vogel was up on Rage Of The Stage. The qualifier went to the Crabtree-trained Rage Of The Stage. In the championship, Smith came back to win the tricolor in what Krussell recalls as a two-horse workout. Smith later sold Callaway’s New Look to Bob Gatlin, who quickly transferred the white-faced gelding to Susan Shepherd. They tied reserve in Louisville’s gelding stake and came back on Saturday night to wear the roses.

A fixture at Midwest and in the winner’s circle is the way some describe the late Chat Nichols. Mary McLellan Williams knew him because he had other clients in her hometown of Seattle, Wash. She and her mother called Nichols in 1973, keeping several top horses with him over the years. The most successful: CH Mountain Highland Encore. The two had a great career in the amateur five-gaited division – except for the 1978 and ’79 seasons.

"I asked Chat if he thought Encore would be a stake horse. I said I would give him to Chat to show," Williams said.

In 1978, Encore tied reserve in Louisville’s five-gaited gelding class. The following year, they were reserve to CH Imperator and Don Harris in the qualifier and on Saturday night left Freedom Hall wearing the roses.

A stranger to the Midwest, Williams soon felt at home with Nichols’s clients, including the Urban Palmers of Chicago, and the rest of the Midwest family. "They were very friendly right from the beginning," she recalled. "Tom [Moore] came with Jean McLean Davis and her horses. Dick [Boettcher] showed there. We all had lots of fun, staying up and watching horses work at night. It was the beginning of the season for us – full of promise and excitement."

"Promise and excitement" might be a good way to describe the Midwest experience. From young horses and young riders to the most experienced, it’s one of the places to test your skills, evaluate your position and make plans for the rest of the summer.

Simply put: it’s a show to enjoy.

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