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Sallie Wheeler Lived Life To The Fullest

Posted October 2, 2001

by Bob Funkhouser

Steeped in equine tradition more so than any other owner our show rings have ever known, Sallie Wheeler, 70, peacefully passed away Friday, September 21 with her family by her side. The matriarch of the Wheeler family and her extended equine family, the tall, slender woman with a distinct voice had a far reaching influence in her household and in the show horse industry.

"There are less than a handful of people who are larger than life in this industry and we lost two of them in the same week, Tom Moore and Sallie Wheeler," said Jimmy Robertson. "She put the P in philanthropist as far as horse shows go. In fact, the UPHA Distinguished Service Award was renamed in her honor. She was willing to go the extra mile."

Mrs. Wheeler was the only child of the late Catherine Milliken Busch and Adolphus Busch, III (past president of Anheuser-Busch Companies) as well as the niece of August A. Busch, Jr., the man who built Anheuser-Busch into the world's largest brewing conglomerate. Both men played a key role in her life and both were extraordinary horsemen.

Sallie Busch grew up riding and driving the woods of her birthplace, Grants Farm, St. Louis, Mo. It was a fairy tale childhood, but one that would develop the young girl into a world class horsewoman and a stalwart family member.

"Every afternoon after work, from the time I was about three, he'd [Adolphus Busch] take a four-in-hand and we'd drive together, either as a pair or all four. Later my 'job' around the farm was to keep the coach horses exercised. We'd ride the hunters in the morning and we'd exercise the coach horses in the afternoon and keep them fit. I can't remember any of the men in my family that didn't drive and ride, " said Sallie Wheeler in a Horse World Magazine interview from the early 1980s.

Adolphus Busch died when his daughter was only 15 and August A. literally took over raising Sallie. There was a natural bond there that became even stronger.

"After daddy was gone, August A. just really took over. He was wonderful to me," said Sallie in that same Horse World interview. "Both men [Adolphus and August A.] were the kind of people that took their kids everywhere with them. They went to all of the horse shows with us, took us on all the business trips. It was just a family thing from the word go and it looks like it's ended up that way pretty much around here. We drag the children everywhere. I never go to a horse show in the summertime without the children. The whole entourage goes. I even went so far this past summer as to take the pleasure ponies with us when we go to one of Kenny's hunter shows."

As Sallie grew up in the surroundings of Grant's Farm there were animals everywhere. Besides the horses there were deer, elephants, monkeys, and camels. When the family summered in Cooperstown, New York, the animals would go too. That's how Busch Gardens started.

Sallie's mother wasn't sure she should be spending all of her time with the horses. She was sent to a private girls grade and high school outside of St. Louis and later to private school in New York. While Catherine Busch thought she was separating Sallie from living and breathing horses, she only added fuel to the fire. August A. would send the horses off to Madison Square Garden in November so Sallie could see them before Christmas. It was that situation that began her close affiliation with the National Horse Show, a relationship that remained until her death.

Uncle August Busch was Master of the Hounds at Bridlespur and his niece followed suit, showing hunters extensively. Yankee Doodle, a champion conformation hunter was her first top mount and from there she never looked back.

Following school, Sallie married Bobby Motch an amateur horseman with an affinity for the aristocratic hunt country surrounding the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia. The young couple bought a farm in Keswick, Virginia and had two children, Sallie and Burt. Although the couple showed hunters and jumpers, Motch had always had an interest in American Saddlebreds. They hired Saddlebred trainer Tommy Lavery and also purchased a young three-gaited mare named Roses Are Red. With virtually no background in the Saddlebred world, Motch showed Roses Are Red at Louisville, winning a world's championship. That same night he sold her to native Virginian, Jean McLean Davis, who went on to many, many world's titles with the mare.

"I'll never forget it," said Sallie in an earlier interview. "It was at the Louisville horse show party and I piped up and said, 'Well, if you're all going to do that, I'd like to get something and drive it.' Tommy Lavery bought Thunderbird for me that night. We brought him home and Bobby and I separated a couple of months after that and Tommy left. Well, there I sat with Thunderbird."

Thunderbird was sent to Dick Hadley in Oklahoma City and he won numerous amateur and open titles. It was a great beginning, but only the beginning.

Sallie married prominent hunter/jumper horseman Kenneth Wheeler in August of 1965 and a dynasty known as Cismont Manor was built. Over the next two decades an endless string of hunter champions represented Cismont Manor. Among them were Isgilde, Ruxton, Gozzi, Henry The Hawk, Super Flash, Patriots Way, and Celebrity. They collected more AHSA National Horse of the Year awards for Cismont Manor than any other single owner in the history of the breed.

In 1967 a trip to Lexington Junior League to show their hunters in the infield during the afternoon turned out to be an event that would change their lives and begin a close relationship with Jim B. Robertson that continued until the Hall of Fame trainer's death.

While watching the show, Sallie saw a pony that she liked named Lady Kenmore. They found out Jim B. Robertson had the pony and went to him to try to buy her. Jim B. informed them that Lady Kenmore was not for sale, but if they wanted a show horse to drive maybe he could get them the world's champion harness mare Tashi Ling.

"The next morning I found myself sitting in the buggy behind Tashi Ling," said Sallie in an earlier Horse World Magazine interview. "I was sort of panicky, because Tash would take a little hold of you. Thunderbird was a pet compared to what I had seen of Tash. I remember saying to Jimmy, 'For goodness sakes hold onto those reins. I can't cope. We don't want both of us to go down the track and break all the records.'"

Robertson and Tashi Ling's trainer Art Simmons convinced Sallie that she could drive Tashi Ling and two months later the pair won the Amateur Fine Harness World's Championship under Robertson's direction. In '68, '69, '70, and '71 Tashi Ling was the Fine Harness World's Grand Champion with Robertson at the whip.

In 1973, Robertson again found a harness horse for Sallie. Unlike Tashi Ling, this was an unknown. She bought Special Entertainer sight unseen and showed up at Devon to drive the five-year-old, who as far as they knew, had never been in the show ring. He won the amateur class at Devon. The next year the son of Mountjoy's Denmark Jewel won at Phoenix and Devon before winning the World's Champion Ladies Fine Harness title. They would finish the year with wins at Eastern States and the National Horse Show. The following year they would repeat wins at all of those shows and add the Amateur Fine Harness World's Championship to go with their ladies world's title.

"Jim put him together and I had real good luck," Sallie was quoted as saying in the Horse World interview. "I think that horse went maybe 22 or 23 classes undefeated for a couple of years."

It was also during that time that Sallie told Jim B. she wanted a pony. So while at Devon he went to Gib Marcucci and bought Terry Jean's Souvenir for Cismont Manor. They went on to win at Louisville that year and then added seven more amateur world's titles to their record a well as five AHSA Amateur Hackney Pony Of The Year awards.

Apollo Sand was the next great pony to represent the Wheeler family. Sallie purchased him from Gib Marcucci in 1974 after Marcucci had just won the Hackney Pony Stallion/Gelding Stake at Lexington. At Louisville that year they won both the stallion/gelding qualifier and the Hackney Pony World's Grand Championship. It was at that point that Sallie had Marcucci train her pony string. Apollo Sand would win nine world's titles, including four world's grand championships.

"I had already sold Terry Jean's Souvenir to Sallie," Marcucci said. "Apollo Sand was the Junior Hackney World's Champion for the Armstrongs [Charles Armstrong family of Canada] and I told Sallie I thought he would make a nice pony for her.

"She also had a great one named Cover Girl. I wrote the check out for her on Terry Jean Souvenir's hip. We bought her from the Philpots where Ronnie Graham was training. Sallie was a wonderful lady who always tried to buy nice ponies. She was never at my place and she never practiced. She would show up right before the class and you never knew who was going to drive. Sometimes she would show, sometimes it would be Mr. Busch or Rick Pinkney. You just never knew."

Terry Jean Souvenir's replacement, Second Souvenir kept the winning streak alive. She was the ladies world's champion in '79 and '80 and well as the amateur world's champion in 1980 before being sold.

Sallie wasn't the only family member to enjoy the Saddlebreds and Hackney ponies. Kenneth Jr., Gordon "Cappy" Lee and Douglas Busch started making waves of their own. All three of the boys had shown hunter ponies but then Ken-Ken, as he was called in those days, took an interest in road ponies and with all the time he spent at the Jim B. Robertson household he started driving Chet Cable's pony Superfly before purchasing Speed Limit. They would go on to win the Junior Exhibitor Road Pony World's Championship. Kenny has never lost his fascination with the speed horses and eventually drove Autobahn to several world's titles in the roadster to wagon division.

Cappy showed several horses and ponies while growing up including the walk trot mare Love Them Roses and he currently has his own training facility in Harrodsburg, Ky. Douglas showed a few ponies for the family and now he owns a ranch in Montana.

The list of horses and ponies owned and shown by the Wheeler family goes on and on. So many world's champions, so many divisions. Sultan's Commander, High Spirit, Tijuana Starlet, Flamethrower, Gotta Lotta Pzazz, Mark Of Success, Brass Lass, Heartland Classic, One For The Road, La Louisianne, Radiant Success, A Daydream Believer, and A Sweet Treat were just a few of the memorable entries representing Cismont Manor.

Sallie was back in the ring this year under the direction of Nelson Green winning the Ladies Fine Harness Class at Lexington Junior League with the recently purchased CH Boutonniere. It would be her last show ring appearance. Unable to attend the World's Championship Horse Show, Mary Gaylord McClean drove Boutonniere to the Ladies Fine Harness world's title for Sallie. Also John Shea completed a fabulous year winning the Hackney Pony World's Grand Championship and qualifying class with Fancy Ribbons for the Wheelers.

"Sallie was the fairest person I've ever dealt with. I was proud to say I kept her horses," said Nelson Green, trainer of Boutonniere, Radiant Success, A Daydream Believer, and A Sweet Treat for the Wheelers. "The best thing about having horses for the Wheelers wasn't winning blue ribbons, it was the personal relationships that were built."

Besides Jim B. and Jimmy Robertson and Gib Marcucci, Sallie had horses and ponies with a number of top horsemen over the years. Bill Robinson was her long-time trainer. Mike Dumas and Randy Harper also managed the Cismont Manor string at home in Keswick. She also had ponies with Dr. Alan Raun and most recently John Shea.

"She was a perfect owner and a unique lady," said Dr. Raun. She was always a lady, never flaunted her money. Sallie treated everyone the same. You just can't say enough nice things about her."

"Sallie was wonderful about everything," added Jimmy Robertson. "She was a busy person. The only time we saw her other than at horse shows was when Lexington Junior League was in town. She enjoyed showing horses and ponies but she was one of the few people left who enjoyed just as much having some one else show her stock. She was willing to have a stake horse or pony.

"She was just as unassuming as they came. I'll never forget at Devon while waiting around for the hunter classes you would find her sitting on the tack trunks playing tonk or gin with the grooms."

Unassuming, generous, wonderful. Sallie was all of that, but she was also competitive. While having won more titles that any owner in the history of Saddlebred, Hackney, and hunter breeds, she was well respected by her competitors. You didn't find jealousy among her peers.

"She was a gracious exhibitor," said Isabel Robson. "She always had top stock and you knew you were in for a fight if you were going to try and win that blue. Sallie appreciated every drive she had.

"The most memorable story I have about Sallie was the year it was raining so hard on stake night at Louisville. There was lightning everywhere and there sat Sallie, Mary Gaylord McClean and myself out in the middle of this storm warming up for the championship. Someone came up to us and said, 'If lightning hits here, the pony business will be over.'"

Showing champion horses and ponies was only a small part of the existence of Sallie Wheeler in the horse industry. She was a hands on person serving on many, many boards and horse show committees. She will be forever remembered as the person who single-handedly saved the National Horse Show from extinction. Sallie sponsored classes at shows she had never attended. She cared greatly about the horses, ponies, and people involved in those industries and they cared about her.

"Being Sallie Wheeler's friend was like being sprinkled with fairy dust," said Josie Forbes. "She made you a Wheeler. There are a few things about Sallie that I will never forget. She knew how to get things done. She had so much going on, but she knew how to get it done and how to treat people. Also, no matter what bad happened in her life she knew how to not let it overcome her. I will never forget that as long as I live.

"Her generosity was amazing. We would go places and people that worked for her, chauffeurs, cooks, whatever, they all had stories about how Sallie had arranged for a family member to be sent to the best hospital or given the best care."

The honors bestowed upon her are many. In 1981 she was presented the AHSA Perpetual Sportsmanship Award; in '87 she was the AHSA Horsewoman of the Year; in '92 was presented the UPHA Distinguished Service Award, an honor that was since renamed the Sallie B. Wheeler Distinguished Service Award; in '97 she was inducted into the World's Champion Horse Show Hall of Fame; and in '99 maybe her highest honor, the AHSA Lifetime Achievement Award along with her husband Kenneth.

It's hard to find words that can sum up the life of such a wonderful human being. She covered all the bases: family, self, and others. It is only fitting that she have the last word. The following is from her acceptance speech at the 2000 AHSA Convention.

"It's a humbling experience to be chosen for the AHSA Lifetime Achievement Award. We have been blessed with the love of our wonderful children, close family and friends. It is rare that two people have so fully enjoyed a career in a profession and a hobby in a sport such as Kenny and I have been privileged to do. We both realize that none of this would be possible without the fabulous animals we do dearly love and appreciate."

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