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Royally Entertaining!!!

by Bob Funkhouser

It's one of the best stories to come out of the Saddlebred/Hackney industry in quite some time. Over the past decade or two a group of traditionally strong shows have either died or dwindled to a mere shadow of their former selves. It wasn't that long ago that the famed American Royal was on the doorstep of being another casualty along the lines of Montgomery, Pin Oak, Rock Creek, Devon, the Cow Palace, Baton Rouge, and Eastern States.

Through the intervention of the United Professional Horsemen's Association (UPHA) and a renewed commitment on the part of the American Royal board, a wonderful relationship has been formed and instead of withering away, a beloved jewel of the industry has evolved to an even higher level.

When it was first announced a few years back that this would now be the UPHA/American Royal National Championship Horse Show this writer was among many who thought, "What's the difference? Why call it a National Championship Show?" Thankfully, problem by problem, year by year, step by step, the American Royal has been reborn. It has earned every letter of National Championship.

Gone are the glory days of thousands of Future Farmers of America (FFA) children filling the seats along with townspeople there to see the big name acts which performed during the horse show. This novel idea and unique mix of the general public kept people coming back to the century old celebration of livestock for years. Missouri and Kansas also had a very strong Saddle Horse population that when combined with a good group of top barns from back East, made for a highly competitive event.

"I wish we could get more people in the seats," said manager Fern Bittner. "I remember the days when it was packed. I also wish the Kansas City Star would give it more coverage than they do. We used to have a lead picture and story in the paper every day.

"I was, however, very, very happy with this year's show. There were a lot of new barns, particularly several young trainers from the Southeast. I know it was the best Royal I've ever seen and many people told me the same thing. This was the first year we ever had a waiting list. Trainers were good to give me back a few stalls and tighten up where they could so we could get some others in."

What turned it around from people leaving and vowing to never come back, to having a waiting list to get in? With the guidance of the UPHA it started from the grounds up. No longer are there horses standing on trucks in the parking lot for hours waiting to get into their stalls. No longer is the place a filthy mess. No longer do trainers and owners worry if their horses and ponies will bow a tendon on terrible footing. No longer do Kemper Arena workers drive heavy machinery down the aisleway during the middle of a session.

"Each year we try to do something that will be a visible difference to the trainers and owners," said Steering Committee member Sarah Rowland. "This year we focused on the arena. There's only so much you can do to help Kemper Arena but we added box seats and dressed up the area around the arena. We want this to be a nice, clean place in which we can hold a lovely event. I'm very pleased with the response we got to the improvements this year."

"I think there will be even more box seats added next year as these sold out," added Bittner.

The physical improvements and visible efforts by the Royal officials coupled with events like the Equitation National Finals, the Dabora/UPHA Classic Grand Championships, the AHHS Youth Medallion National Finals and high dollar open championships have parlayed this into the second best horse show of the year next to Louisville.

One thing Bittner and her group couldn't control was the Kansas City weather and while it started the week flat out cold and miserable, the weather warmed up just as the competition inside Kemper Arena did. The temperature on the upper level of the stabling area has been another area of concern in recent history. This too was taken care of this year.

"I finally talked to the right guy about what we needed upstairs to be and he said, 'No problem,'" explained Bittner. "I was happy that was another thing we were finally able to correct."

Besides keeping the temperature controlled, upstairs at the American Royal was no longer a place for the "smaller barns" to reside. Those without tenure are stabled on the upper level but the champions that emerged from level two were an even greater testament to the quality of new barns that are now attending. The Five-Gaited National Champion came from upstairs. The Amateur Road Pony National Champion was on that floor. The UPHA Road Pony Classics Grand Champion called that space home as did the Amateur Park National Champion. The Amateur Road Horse Reserve National Champion bedded down there. They were joined by two AHHS Medal National Champions. Stablemates from the Amateur Harness Pony National Championship and Harness Pony National Championship also made the walk down the ramp.

National Champions in the Saddle Horse and roadster divisions were determined by Johnny Lucas, George Knight and Gene van der Walt. Randy Harper held the pen in the Hackney classes. The three judges from the Saddle Horse panel rotated with Harper in the UPHA Hackney Classic Grand Championships and AHHS Medallion National Finals. Serving on the equitation panels were Lewis Eckard, Brent Jacobs, Lonnie Lavery, Sally Lindabury, Lisa Richardson, and Sandy Sessink.

Also officiating in center ring were ringmasters Bill Whitley and John Franzreb. Vern Serex was part of the mix as horn blower and ringmaster. Kent Moeller had been among the ringmaster core but this year assisted Fern Bittner as technical coordinator.

"I really enjoyed working with Kent. We made a good team," said Bittner. "I took care of things inside and he ran everything on the outside. It made for a nice week."

Peter Fenton was again the voice of the UPHA/American Royal and what a bright spot he has been for the show. The Royal has been a show known for thinking outside of the box and it tries continuously to be spectator friendly. With the blessing of those in power, Fenton has turned into more of a master of ceremonies than a standard horse announcer who only calls the gaits, reads the sponsors and announces the winners. The best touch of all is walking the strip portion of the open championships with the judges and giving the audience information on each individual entry while the judges are viewing them. For once, the guy off the street in the stands had some sort of connection as to what was going on in the ring.

Also, if a horse or pony was making a victory pass he let the crowd know if that animal was a current world's champion and who the trainer was it if was an amateur or juvenile.

The fact that Fenton had an audience to work with on Saturday night made it much easier. This was a lively audience and they really responded when hometown girl Sarah Rowland made the victory pass in the $25,000 Three-Gaited Championship, beating the professionals. It was one of many Saturday moments for which this show will be known.

Another official bringing a different concept to the ring this year was photographer Howie Schatzberg. For this year's show he added Shane Shiflet to his staff and it was his job to shoot the many different "candid" angles from outside the ring as so many others are doing these days. His shots, along with Schatzberg's in-ring photos, were all available at Schatzberg's booth in the vendors' area and exhibitors were greatly appreciative of the different choices.    

"We were very pleased with the response. It was fun working with Shane and I think the exhibitors were the ones to benefit by what we could offer them," said Schatzberg.

Piece by piece this show is setting the example for others to follow. It is a work in progress and no one is satisfied that the job is done. The committee will focus on yet another area of the show for next year.

They were, however, satisfied with the depth and quality of class after class. From the approximately 850 horses and ponies, there was an abundance of world and national titles holders. From the longstanding Mo/Kan classes to the open, amateur and young horse events, there wasn't an easy spot on the schedule.

Peter Cowart wrote the final chapter of the 2005 edition when he put the heat on in the $50,000 Five-Gaited Championship. Always popular with the crowd over the past two seasons, She's A Red Hot Chili Pepper has finally matured and what a spicy performance it was to take the title for Sharyn Lackey and Stefanie Sanchez.

Peter and Kim Cowart benefited from She's A Red Hot Chili Pepper's winning performance. The American Royal provides Trainers Awards in the Five-Gaited, Three-Gaited, Fine Harness, Park, and Three-Gaited Pleasure Championships. The Cowarts received $5,000 for the Five-Gaited Championship; Hoppy Bennett took home $2,500 for the three-gaited title; and John Conatser, Melinda Moore and Andy and Lynda Freseth collected $500 each for their respective championships.

Mr. American Royal in 2004, John Conatser came back to have a pretty strong show again in '05. He was extremely popular with the audience when he won the $5,000 Fine Harness National Championship for the second consecutive year with the powerful, black gelding Gone Platinum. Gone Platinum was part of a daily double for owner Mary Sally Aylward as she also won the Amateur Fine Harness National Championship on Saturday evening for the second consecutive year with Metro Heirea.

Barbara Goodman Manilow was another owner/exhibitor who enjoyed consecutive years at the Royal. Her Callaway's Sugarplum completed her second consecutive undefeated season with her second consecutive Amateur Three-Gaited National Championship. Stablemate Boo! topped a world class field for the Amateur Five-Gaited National Championship. These titles were again directed by the stoic Richard Obenauf.

An undefeated season was what Bono also ended up with. His final 2005 paycheck came as the Dabora/UPHA Three-Year-Old Five-Gaited Classic Grand Champion with Bret Day aboard.

Year after year Andy and Lynda Freseth close out their season with a string of National Champions and 2005 wasn't much different. Andy and world's grand champion Calvin Hobbs captured back to back Road Pony National titles. Lynda claimed her first UPHA Challenge Cup National Finals as she directed Rachel Machamer to the junior title. Then to top if off, Machamer piloted the legendary CH Blackberry Delight to their second consecutive Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited National Championship.

Adding to that Hollow Haven success was the fact that the dynamic driving duo of Bob and Nancy Anderson each won a National Championship for the fourth consecutive year. Pacifico's Standing Ovation and Callaway's Pretty Penny were their respective champions. Not to be outdone, stablemate CH The Shadow Knows was Adult Country Pleasure National Champion for the fourth consecutive year. This was, however, the first for new owner Sherry Frankel Deal.

Then there was Hollow Haven's Alice Unger. There have been a lot of great things going on in the Fisher/Unger households over the past few years, but Alice and her boys slid in there this year and did what has never been done before. In August she rode CH Ninety-Eight Degrees to the Adult Show Pleasure World's Champion of Champions title and followed it with CH Heir's Town winning the Adult Show Pleasure Driving World's Champion of Champions honors. Kansas City was an exact repeat to go into the record books as the only exhibitor to ever win the pleasure riding and driving world's and national championships in the same year.

"I can't compare myself to what mom has done, but it was pretty amazing what my boys were able to do," stated Unger. "I never thought this could happen. George [98 Degrees] had a winning reputation and I knew if I went in mentally prepared and had a good ride that I had a good chance of doing well. With Cappy [Heir's Town], we just took him along for fun. I have gone through so much with him that I was blown away by what happened. The best thing was mom told me coming up the chute after the first class that we could keep him forever. We have had our ups and downs but that horse has done so much for me, I just love him.

"I wasn't aware that no one had ever won those two classes at Louisville until after the fact and I really wasn't thinking about it happening here, I was just glad I got to show my boys one more time this year. I'm so lucky to be a part of their lives and grateful for all the work Andy and Lynda [Freseth] have done."

It was a good year for horses defending their titles. Pas de Deux claimed the Ladies Three-Gaited National Championship for the past two years and this made it three. Sarah Byers made the championship ride for Louis and Rosemarie Fernandez. Another champion with three in a row was Callaway's Sunday Edit, Mo/'Kan Amateur Three-Gaited Grand Champion for '03, '04 and '05. This year Jackie Ware was catch riding for Dawn Fire.

Heartland Carolee won the Junior Road Pony class for the second consecutive year. This time it was with Steve Old for Delton Farm, however. Also with a new owner, New York Style went from winning the Three-Gaited Park National Championship in 2004 to the Junior Exhibitor Three-Gaited Show Pleasure National Championship this year. Maguire Hall was the new owner/rider under the direction of Patty Milligan.

Judy McNeish is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the roadster to wagon division as she repeated the National Championship title with her Invincible Summer. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mike Bacon had the pleasure of making his very first show appearance with a road horse to take reserve with The African Queen.

Another exhibitor making back to back drives for National Championships in their division was Muffy Ernster. She guided Royal Canadian to the tricolor streamers. Her trainer Gib Marcucci had one of the stars of the show in Hackney Pony National Champion Nabucco. Owned by Mary Campbell, the current world's grand champion has amazing athletic ability to go with a chess piece-like head set.

Other individual standout performances included Boston Legal in the Junior Three-Gaited Stake, Castledream in the Dabora/UPHA Three-Gaited Classic Grand Championship, Heartland Beautiful Dreamer in the Dabora/UPHA Harness Pony Classic Grand Championship, CH Justa Rascal in the Amateur Park National Championship and Callaway's Independence Day winning the 15-horse Junior Exhibitor Five-Gaited National Championship.

If there was an award for leading trainer by money won that would have probably gone to Todd Miles. On Thursday evening he won the Dabora/UPHA Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited Classic Grand Championship and was second in both the Five-Gaited and Park Pleasure Classics. All three were well filled making for even bigger payouts.

Breaking new ground, the UPHA/American Royal honored the first-ever Country Western Pleasure National Champion. Autumn Hunt rode In Your Honor to that honor and she had to beat a large group of the very best to do so.

Long the mainstay of the American Royal, the Equitation section was filled with intense competition. Knollwood Farm's Kelsey Nicole Smith was the star of stars winning the UPHA Senior Challenge Cup National Finals and the American Royal Saddle Seat Equitation Championship to close out her equitation career.

"Equitation has been mentally and physically demanding but I wouldn't trade it for the world," exclaimed Smith after it was all over. "There have been a lot of great times and experiences, but now I'm going to give showing a break and focus on school for a while."

Royal Scot's Ashley Alden also wrapped up her equitation career with a tricolor ride in the prestigious USEF Medal Finals. She put it all on the line to win the national title in addition to her National Championship catch ride aboard Tamale Wally in the junior exhibitor country pleasure division.

Again sponsored by the Mary Gaylord Foundation and Elisabeth Goth, the UPHA Exceptional Challenge Cup National Championship is still one of the most heart warming events at the Royal. A group of exceptional individuals from across the country starred in front of a most appreciative audience. The connection between the horse and humans knows no boundaries as rider after rider proved. For the second consecutive year Brittany Rock received the Cedarledge Farm Perpetual Trophy as the National Champion. She was again instructed by Kelly Hulse.

Trying to help the pony industry stay afloat the AHHS Youth Medallion program was created to encourage junior exhibitors to show ponies and hopefully carry that love into their adult life. For the most part those national finals were well filled and it was Jessica Randall emerging as the star this year winning two of the titles under the direction of Chuck Browning.

The 2005 UPHA/American Royal sent owners and trainers home for the winter with a good feeling about the industry. It started on Tuesday evening by honoring Dr. Alan Raun as the American Royal Horseman Of The Year and continued night after night with parties and celebrations held in the comfortable exhibitor's lounge. Thrown in the mix for the second year was the Friday morning UPHA Classics Incentive Yearling Sale. And for the second year a yearling brought $100,000 or more.

Saturday night was another special presentation. California exhibitor Kathie Dunn had presented the American flag each night aboard the storied American Saddlebred I'm W.O. Bentley. On Saturday, however, she turned the reins over to his breeder Bobby Ruxer. Ruxer made his final show ring appearance in the silver saddle during a touching ceremony which kicked off the stake night program. This also happened to be Ruxer's birthday.

Long live the UPHA/American Royal!!!

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