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With Saddlebreds or National Show Horses: Bob Phillips is a Winner



 

by Ann Bullard

 

From Arabians to National Show Horses to American Saddlebreds. In a nutshell, that highlights Bob Phillips’s career. The owner and trainer at Victory Lane Farm in Wellington, Ohio still trains Arabians but now concentrates on Saddlebreds and National Show Horses as well. He has won world’s championships with each of the three breeds.

 

People ask the man who trains Albelarm Radiant Lady, It's Tea Time and other Saddlebreds how working Arabians has helped him make the transition into Saddle Horses. His response?

 

“I’ll have to say trying to make an Arabian look like a Saddle Horse has helped me make a Saddle Horse look like a Saddle Horse,” he said with a smile. “We spent our whole [Arabian] career trying to make other horses look like American Saddlebreds.

 

“We had to teach them to trot high, bend their necks and use their ears,” he added, pointing out that Arabians now can wear pads. “Some got pretty close.”

 

Phillips grew up in Olympia, Wash., at a time when “they had some pretty good Saddle Horse people out there. The late Ellen Scripps Davis [Michele Macfarlane’s mother] was alive. The late Lurline Roth [of California’s renowned Why Worry Farm] and Chuck Court [who now lives in Canada] were there.”

 

Saddlebreds were strong on the West Coast during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Exhibitors often showed at open events including the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That’s when Phillips developed his interest in show horses.

 

“My dad got me interested in horses in general. His father was a Washington State land developer who logged with horses in the 1930s and ’40s. When we were kids, our dad bought us ponies and horses,” Phillips said, pointing out he had liked the animals since he was in the third grade.

 

Phillips ‘went through’ all the riding places in his hometown, working for several barns and taking lessons. He began training when still a teenager.

 

“Dick Balch, owner of a Chevrolet dealership, had American Saddlebreds and Half-Arabs,” Phillips said. “Chuck [Court] trained the Saddle Horses; I worked and showed the Half-Arabs. I was still in high school and showing at an Arabian regional show when Gene LaCroix asked me to come to work with him.”

 

After graduation, two and a half years later, Phillips moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., to work for LaCroix at Lasma Arabians. LaCroix, his physician father and brother, Ray, owned and ran the most successful Arabian training and sales operation of the day. Phillips is one of many world champion trainers who came through their apprentice program.

 

“I was like 17 when I went there. It was different. Gene was very articulate and did teach me a lot. We trained a lot of horses,” Phillips said quietly. “And I learned how to sell a horse.”

 

Misdee Wrigley, her mom, the late Dee Dee Wrigley Hancock, and step-father, the late Tom Chauncey, had horses with Lasma. Wrigley recalled one memorable summer excursion during the mid-1970s.

 

“I was about 14 or 15 when I first knew Bob at Lasma,” Wrigley said. “He was grooming at that time. He was so attractive and I had huge crush on him. I think every girl in the barn did,” she said, recalling Phillips as a hard-working, fun-loving person.

 

“That crazy summer we went on the show circuit to Canada and back with an unbelievable number of horses and all these kids. Mom said she felt like she had adopted 20 kids. That was one of the best summers of my life.”

 

Wrigley said they started their journey in Phoenix, Ariz. They showed in California and at one little outdoor show in Oregon.

 

“To get the horses from the stall to the ring, you either had to drive 15 minutes with truck and trailer or ride 10 minutes through the forest. We warmed up on these beautiful forest trails and went into the ring,” Wrigley said.

 

She particularly recalled the trip through Canada. “We had the old Lasma bus which broke down. We limped into a little town about nine at night. Our caravan was all these long-haired kids wearing headbands and beads and my mom. The townspeople were so concerned they called the Canadian Mounties. We finally had to unload one trailer on the side of the road, hitch it to my mom’s station wagon and go on to the show grounds.”

 

Today it may be a little difficult to imagine the conservative Phillips with a headband and beads. He does concede that was his dress. “I was a groom and making no money. You’re darn right I had long hair.”

 

Wrigley says Phillips’s success was destined. “I could tell even then that Bob Phillips never was going to remain a groom. He was willing to put in the time to work his way up. That’s why he’s such a good horseman today.

 

“I think his move into Saddlebreds was inevitable. He moved up the ranks and became a junior trainer at Lasma. He always was really good with high-powered English and park horses. It was obvious those would be his forte.”

 

Lasma was one of the leading Arabian breeding and training operations in the country at that time. It arguably was the most successful sales and auction company, with their premier event being in February. Phillips and other assistants remained home to work client horses.

 

“We sold horses to people all over the country,” he said. “We had sold a bunch to people in Ohio.”

 

In the mid-1970s, Phillips left Lasma to open a barn in Cleveland, Ohio and serve that ready-made clientele. He named his Arabian-Half Arabian operation Victory Lane Training Stables and produced many top horses. Bay Korrabi, his first national champion, was a Half-Arab park horse by an Arabian stallion and out of a Hackney Pony mare.

 

“He wasn’t very big but was pretty talented and could wave his legs,” Phillips said. “I’m not very tall but still I almost didn’t take him in training because he was so small. A year later, he was national champion.”

 

In early 1982, the National Show Horse burst onto the scene. Saddlebred and Arabian crosses had been in the show ring for years, but this new breed opened a myriad of opportunities. Lasma brought Phillips back as an assistant trainer. He remained with them until the farm closed in 1988. He then returned to the Cleveland area.

 

Phillips took a quick look at the different breeds. “Arabs are a very high-energy horse. You must release that energy before you can concentrate on working them. We did a lot of long-lining and longeing before we could train them. The National Show Horse is more similar to the Saddlebred. You can get on and go to work.”

 

While Phillips began to focus on the National Show Horse, he continued his success with pure-bred Arabs. According to an article in one of the Arabian magazines, Phillips holds the 1990s record for the most national champion purebred junior English pleasure horses. During that decade he trained three national champions, one reserve national champion and “two or three top tenners.”

 

“I started breeding Half-Arabs in the 1980s and had always bought a lot of Saddlebred mares. After the National Show Horses got pretty hot, I probably bought 100 Saddlebred mares from breeders such as Bobby Ruxer during those eight to nine years,” Phillips said. “I was splitting my business between Arabians and National Show Horses.”

 

Sandy Witter of Live Oak Stables in Baton Rouge, La., and trainer Brian Chappell (Grand Meadow Farm, Perryville, Ky.) helped nudge Phillips towards the Saddlebred. Chappell was training several of the Witter’s National Show Horses and brought them into the Saddlebred world.

 

“Sherry Ballah, Witter’s daughter, won a couple of Arabian national championships with me in 1992 or 1993. I would go and look at Saddlebreds with Brian. He would let me ride them,” Phillips said. “That was fun.”

 

Exhibitors and spectators at the 2001 Tampa Charity Horse Show got the initial introduction to Phillips with American Saddlebreds. Chappell had asked him to show two of the Witter’s horses. Caramar tied reserve in the Junior Three-Gaited class.

 

“I was hooked,” Phillips said. “I bought a few [Saddlebreds] to show around here. I knew I had to get a lot of pink, yellow and white ribbons, to be happy to take those ribbons and go home.”

 

To say Phillips had fun showing Caramar would be an understatement, according to Sandy Witter. “He came out of the ring at Tampa with a big grin on his face, saying ‘I’ve never in my life had so much fun.’ The more Saddlebreds he works, the bigger the grin becomes. He still comes up to me to say how much he enjoys them. Bob is plain excited about working his horses.”

 

Jim and Jenny Taylor of Memory Lane Farm in Medina, Ohio first knew Phillips during his Lasma years. Jim Taylor talked about his friend’s transition into the Saddlebred world.

 

“He went about it about as correctly as anyone could. He wanted to learn how to gait a colt. He said, ‘I’m probably going to ruin these things but the only way to learn is to do it. You can watch someone forever and still not know what to do.’ Bob approached this business about as objectively as anyone I’ve ever seen. He was absolutely perfect about taking advice. So many trainers don’t want to admit they don’t know. He has been exactly the opposite of that.

 

“Bob would get on the phone and ask questions,” Taylor continued. “He would invite us over to watch what he was doing, to ask what we thought and what he should try. There’s no question he’s always been a good horseman. He got some advice not only from us but from anyone who would let him pick their brain.”

 

“I was very cautious about [the move],” Phillips said. “I’ve seen people try to do things and do them too fast. These people have been doing the American Saddlebred business their whole lives. I don’t want to be a big deal. I love the [Saddlebred] people. I’ve been in the show horse world over 30 years and they’re the smartest, nicest people I’ve dealt with.  Win, lose or draw, for the most part Saddle Horse people enjoy the ride, not just the result. They’re very knowledgeable about horses and are the best caretakers in the world. They’re simply a small group of people that like good horses. That’s very rewarding in this business.”

 

Phillips had gone through a stormy personal life until he made the last Ohio move. He became better acquainted with a young lady who had been teaching and training in Des Moines. Lyric Laughlin had already trained national champion Saddle Seat equitation and amateur English riders, winning the national championship in the 14-17 age group and a reserve championship in 13 and Under Saddle Seat Equitation the same year. She has added stability to Phillips’s life and a new dimension to Victory Lane Farm.

 

Lyric’s equitation riders hold their own today. Alexa Scott, from Des Moines, Iowa won the 2005 UPHA National Show Horse Senior Challenge Cup Championship. This summer she earned a place on the World Cup Saddle Seat Equitation Three-Gaited Team. Her family has purchased a Saddlebred for her to begin showing in pleasure equitation.

 

“Lyric is an absolute angel,” said Dr. Louis Novak, the first of Phillips’ clients to step up and buy a Saddlebred. “They have a wonderful relationship, a partnership that can be productive for both of them. He schools the horses and helps her with the amateurs and equitation. It’s interesting to watch him take a back seat to her when working with the kids. It’s certainly been productive for us. Bob trains the horses and Lyric teaches us how to ride them.”

 

While his National Show Horse clients watched, Phillips stepped more deeply into the Saddlebred world. He and Lyric purchased the Radiant Sultan son, The Grand Master, from Tom Ferrebee when the horse still was a colt. He showed once in two-year-old fine harness. In 2004, the three-year-old made his under saddle debut.

 

“I showed him at the Cleveland Classic and won the UPHA Park Pleasure Classic. I didn’t think I was ready to show at Louisville,” Phillips said. “I was really cautious about not coming and making a scene. I had wanted to do this a long time and thought the respectful thing to do was to send him out and let someone else show him.”

 

Chappell picked up the story. “Bob wasn’t going to show the horse down there himself. He told me, ‘They’ll never tie me, an Arab trainer.’ I told him, they won’t tie you if you don’t win the class. If you go in and win it, I think they would. He had Jenny Taylor show in the first section. She got kicked and couldn’t show again. The horse came back with Bob and won it in a big way.

 

Chappell evaluated the man he considers one of his very best friends. “As a person, I find Bob very intelligent, interesting and someone with a great sense of humor. As a friend, he is the kind of guy who is right there for you through thick and thin. As a start-to-finish horseman he goes right to the ‘A’ list, as good as any of them and better than most. About all the instruction I gave Bob on racking a horse was to get it racking with its head down. And as a showman, he’s an absolute master.

 

“UPHA Chapter 13 named Bob its 2005 Horseman of the Year. For most people, that honor (so early in his Saddlebred career) would be almost unheard of. For Bob Phillips, I find that pretty much what you would expect,” Chappell said.

 

“I’m here. What can I say,” Phillips commented.

 

Phillips’ Arabian and National Show Horse customers have more than gone along for the ride when he spread his interests into the Saddlebred world. They were excited about The Grand Master and many came to Louisville to watch his world’s championship performance. Since then, many have added Saddlebreds to their show strings.

 

Novak has owned and shown Arabians for 30 years. National Show Horses caught his attention because of their size and agility.

 

“My partner and I are both good-sized men. We were outgrowing [purebred] Arabs,” the Newbury, Ohio physician said. “I never had any access to the American Saddlebred world until I started going to shows. I got to know Tom Ferrebee and Mrs. Robson. Strike The Colors, the first Saddlebred broodmare I owned, came from Mrs. Robson. She produced three national champion National Show Horses for me.

 

“I had the opportunity to cross to Saddlebred stallions and bred to Captive Spirit and Supreme Heir. We got good half-Arabs going the other way,” Novak said, explaining how he became involved with Joan Lurie and George Hayden. “I got a little closer to whole [Saddlebred] thing.

 

“I went to Bobby Phillips and then bought a half-Arab from him,” Novak continued. “He had a couple of Saddlebreds. Bobby was very enthusiastic about it and getting my hands on one from a show standpoint became more interesting.

 

“Two years ago, he called me on my birthday telling me he wanted me to buy an American Saddlebred mare. When I said I was too old, he told me I had to buy this horse. I went to see her and had to buy her.”

 

He purchased the 2003 Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited World’s Champion Albelarm Radiant Lady. He initially planned to breed her.

 

“I still wasn’t really into showing Saddlebreds. Bob said he thought we ought to show her,” Novak said. “I saw her come into the ring at Tampa Charity and couldn’t believe what we had.”

 

Novak says his perception of Phillips has changed. “I always was kind of afraid of him. He can be a lot more abrupt with people than with horses. That’s because he is concentrating on what he is doing.”

 

Jim Salerno quickly expanded his interests into Saddlebreds as well. The New Jersey automobile dealer not only is Phillips’ client, he is a partner in the Victory Lane Land Company, a real estate company that is separate from the farm.

 

“About 10 years ago, I was looking for a good trainer for a National Show Horse I had,” he said. “I asked a friend who had been showing Arabs a long time to steer me to a trainer I could talk to and wouldn’t rip my eyes out and who is honest. He told me he knew only one trainer like that, Bob Phillips. Bob agreed to take the horse, telling me he would give it three months. If he couldn’t turn it around, he would tell me exactly what he thought I should do.”

 

The often brutally-honest Phillips did exactly that. He told Salerno that horse never would be right, to keep him as a pet but not to put more training into him. The next Arab Salerno purchased went to Phillips. That started their long-term relationship.

 

When Salerno was ready to step into Saddlebreds, he purchased the then three-year-old fine harness horse It’s Tea Time. He later bought Roseridge’s Tip Top from the late Randy Tabor.

 

“Tea Time is my favorite. I’m having a great time with him,” Salerno said of the horse he and Phillips share. Tea Time won both the Amateur Fine Harness and Fine Harness Championship classes at the recent Cleveland Classic. At River Ridge, Salerno was reserve with the gelding in the Show Pleasure Driving Championship.

 

Salerno’s granddaughter, Alexis, still shows National Show Horses and pure-bred Arabians. She already has stepped up on Roseridge’s Tip Top, who alternates between the five-gaited and park divisions.

 

Still, Salerno’s favorite Phillips memory to date concerns his National Show Horse, J.M. Marquis Spirit. “I went through open heart surgery near Memorial Day 1997 and couldn’t ride almost the entire season. When I could ride, only one show was left to qualify for the Regionals and Nationals. Bob and I took the horse to Toronto and won the qualifier and Regionals. That particular night was the highlight of my career.”

 

With two performances behind them, Salerno and Marquis Spirit headed to the National Show Horse Nationals. They left as English Country Pleasure Champions.

 

Salerno expects Phillips’ business to gravitate more toward Saddlebreds. About half the horses in the barn now wear tail sets. Other friends who still have Arabians and National Show Horses have joined the group of Victory Lane Saddlebred clients. Novak is one who is expanding into Saddlebreds but not leaving the Arabian industry.

 

Novak says Phillips “is an absolutely phenomenal horseman. I’ve never seen horses respond to a human being like they respond to him.

 

“I had never been around people who smoked. At first, it was kind of a turn-off for me with Bobby,” the physician, who specializes in treating cancer patients, said. “He never smoked while he was on a horse. I thought the horses focused on him because of the smell. They never take their eyes off him. I got him to quit smoking and they still watch him.”

 

“Bobby treats horses with extraordinary respect and rewards them in an appropriate way that works. When they’re good, he talks to them and they get patted. They respond to that. He has taught us a lot about rewarding good behavior,” Novak continued, adding Phillips disciplines his horses when necessary.

 

“He says, ‘I’m the sheriff and they’re going to lead, tie, etc. my way.’ He is a very knowledgeable, dedicated, consistent horse trainer. He’s not in it for the quick turnaround. He’s such a technician, it takes him forever. He won’t take a horse to the ring until it’s perfect.”

 

Phillips also loves to work colts. “I think that’s why I fit in this business so nicely. In the Saddlebred industry you have to start your own colts. I can’t afford to go out and buy [made] horses.

 

“My goal isn’t to win the Open Five-Gaited Stake but to have nice Saddle Horses in whatever division we compete, whether it’s an amateur showing something I started or my showing a colt. The walk-trot over 15.2 stake at Louisville is the most exciting class I’ve ever been in in my life.

 

“Saddlebred trainers take good care of their people and their horses. They turn out a respectable product. As an outsider looking in the last five or six years, I’ve tried to figure out how to run a business and show. There’s a lot of quality work out there. And Saddlebred people are looking for that one great ride. They don’t over-show their horses. Arabians show four or five times at a show.”

 

His friends say Phillips “absolutely loves going to horse shows. He thinks they are the greatest thing.”

 

The trainer is fanatic about any prizes or ribbons. Even if a horse is sixth out of six, their ribbons hang on the stalls, not to be taken down until the tack stall comes down.

 

“He considers that bad luck,” Novak said. “Taking ribbons home is a big deal for some of the kids who fly in to show. They’re not allowed to touch them until the show is over. Bobby tells us that we are going in to win classes, but anything we get is an achievement.”

 

Horses are the Phillips’ livelihood and passion. Lyric’s goal is to help her husband find a balance between the horse world and their personal life. Tessa, his seven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, spends a great deal of time with Lyric and her dad.

 

“She loves life,” Lyric said. “Tessa is a fun little girl who has a toad, a rabbit and all kinds of varmints. We’re on a farm with horses and critters everywhere. We fish together quite a bit. She is into gymnastics, dance and horses. She made her debut at the Cleveland Classic, where she earned a reserve in the Academy Walk/Trot Seven and Under class.”

 

Lyric spends time in her garden. Her husband likes to play golf. He also is vice-chairman of UPHA Chapter 13, and was one of the key volunteers for this year’s Cleveland Classic Horse Show.

 

She calls her husband’s best attribute his knowledge of the horse industry. “There’s an unending wealth of horse knowledge in his brain. He doesn’t try to train every horse the exact same way. There’s not one mold.

 

“He is one of the most determined people I’ve ever met in my life,” she continued. “He doesn’t assume he knows everything. We’re comfortable talking about ideas with each other and other trainers.

 

“Bob has a pretty tough exterior but actually is a lot more patient and willing to listen than some think. I always thought he was a ‘my way or the highway’ person. That’s not true at all.”

 

The farm boy who used to harness broodmares in the field with a rope harness and double snaps, who came up with his own homemade bridles has come a long way. He says he attended the school of life. And he has graduated with honors.

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