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UPHA Hall of Fame - Merrill Murray

(Editor’s Note: the following presentation was given by Randy Cates on Saturday, January 9.)

"He’s the John Wayne of the horse business," is the way David Cunningham describes this year’s UPHA Hall of Fame honoree. "By golly, he’s tough, can ride anything and he’s competitive as all get out."

We’ve got a few other descriptions of this most capable cowboy and not all of them make him out to be a super hero. I remember Merrill a little differently. Every payday I would say, ‘Merrill, do you hear that?’ And he would say, ‘What?’ I would say, those little birds flying over the barn going..... "cheap-cheap, cheap-cheap, cheap-cheap."

Being a big spender isn’t a pre-requisite for induction into the Tom Moore UPHA Hall of Fame and thank goodness for this year’s honoree, it’s not. What is required for passage into this most prestigious fraternity is a lifetime of bettering the show horse industry. That can be accomplished in a number of different ways and tonight’s guest of honor has most of them covered.

Skilled trainer, showman, salesman, mentor, and gentleman, his fellow horsemen hold the 2009 UPHA Hall of Fame inductee in the highest esteem. In fact, many times over his storied career a trainer has called, asking our honoree to please take a horse he or she was having problems with. He would, and more often than not, the results range from good to great.

It has been said that our guest of honor possesses undying dedication to the horse that he has at the moment in spite of its faults or lack of ability. That’s the reason he’s beaten all of your all’s butts at one time or another with some mediocre type horses. And when there is a good one underneath him, look out it’s almost impossible to beat him.

This gritty Canadian grew up thinking he might want to be a star in the National Hockey League; his father envisioned him behind Standardbred race horses as a hobby; however, his love of training horses eventually overpowered those notions. In 1965, while working for Andy LaSalle, the aspiring trainer was noticed by Mark Dickey who hired him to work at his Grape Tree Farm with the great UPHA Hall of Famer, Marty Mueller. According to Mueller he came there nervous as a cat and with a lot of refining to be done, but Marty had never seen anyone with such a strong desire to learn.

From Canada, Grape Tree Farm moved to French Lick, Indiana and Mueller and his young apprentice went with it. Having learned his lessons well, our honoree had success with stars like Northern Lights, A Lovely Sensation and Follyrama. Like a sponge, he soaked up every bit of knowledge the master shared with him and he maintained a close relationship with Marty until his death not long ago.

By now you know our Tom Moore UPHA Hall of Fame honoree is our good friend Merrill. Merrill Murray worked eight years with Marty before setting out to make his own path. After a few different stops he attracted the attention of Tom Galbreath after beating one of Galbreath’s world’s champion harness horses with a horse Merrill described as "probably not being worth as much as the harness and buggy."

His relationship with Galbreath’s Castle Hills resulted in Merrill’s first world’s champion; it was Rebel Yell, in 1975. A string of world and national title-holders would follow over the course of five years before he made another move. This time, it was a short move - to Huntertown Road there in Versailles. The sign read Merlin Farm and from there the champion Saddlebreds, roadsters and young trainers continued to flow.

"Merrill is the most wonderful trainer to work for," said Bret Day. "He is very patient and understanding. He gives you enough rope to hang yourself or make something of it."

I’d [Randy Cates] like to add, almost, too much rope. You have to beg him to take a horse back. He wants you to figure it out.

"What a master he truly is with a curb bit," added Bret. "He can do things with a curb that most people can’t because has a feel that you can’t teach. Merrill also has the ability and the sense to get into a horse’s mind and understand what it’s going to take for that particular horse."

I [Randy Cates] can also tell you Merrill is one who lives in today and doesn’t often look back. His tack room walls are not adorned with pictures of champion after champion from past decades. He has great appreciation for the past, but his focus is on today and what he’ll have in the ring next year.

Although Merrill doesn’t like to look back, I think we have to take a quick peek into the history books. Just this year he joined the likes of Lee Roby, Earl Teater, and Redd Crabtree as the winner of the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship with three different horses. He did a masterful job with Bill Carrington and Marsha Shepard’s 2009 Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion Courageous Lord, joining 2002 World’s Grand Champion S.S. Genuine and 1987 World’s Grand Champion CH Our Golden Duchess.

You also can’t mention Merrill Murray without mentioning Rose Of York, The Godfather, Monti Scott, Exciting Evening, Sultan’s Desert Prince, Merlin’s Magic, Day To Remember, Santana Santana Dana, The Homecoming Hero and Breaking News.

Merrill has not only made the horse show industry better by training and presenting so many nice horses, he also given back many times over whether it be helping a young horseman, serving on the roadster committee, giving clinics at colleges and other stables or judging major shows across the country. He would be the last to tell you, but Merrill is also a great friend to many. He goes the extra mile like when worked S.S. Genuine for Debbie Foley when she was hurt. It took some trickery to get him to take the horse as he feared it was a no win situation for his friend Debbie, however, when push came to shove he obliged his good friend and we all know the results.

Debbie said of S.S. Genuine, "I didn’t think twice about where to send him once I couldn’t work him like it took to get the job done. Merrill’s the first to give me credit for how far I brought the horse before I got hurt. Someone else might have used the same opportunity to criticize or try and take my customer. Not Merrill!"

The two good friends have had many great times, great deals and great stories over the years. Once Merrill asked Debbie to show a gaited horse for him at Lexington so about a week before the show she goes to his barn to ride this horse. They get along well in the barn and she asked Merrill if he thought they should go outside and Merrill responds, "Oh, no!" When she showed up at Lexington before the class Debbie asked Merrill if there was anything she needed to know and his only response was, "I hope those lights at the ring of the ring back him up." When Debbie goes through the gate this sucker tries to take off with her. Someone had a quick timeout and she rode up to Merrill and asked if he had any suggestions. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I told you, I HOPED those lights at the end of the ring would back him up."

Well, a few weeks later Merrill shows this same horse at Shelbyville and Debbie notices that he has an entirely different curb bit on and what a difference it was making. Debbie asked Merrill what the deal was and he grinned, "I was trying to benefit from your experiences." He had Debbie be the guinea pig and then he cleaned it up. As she said, "My friend Merrill."

Merrill Murray the Hall of Fame horseman has been well documented and tonight we’d also like to let you know a little bit about Merrill Murray the person. He’s the same one who loves Heinz ketchup on everything; so much that some of his friends actually bought some stock in the company and gave it to him as a gift. His son Marty Murray will also tell you the self-proclaimed "truck-driving son of a buck" collects speeding tickets like curb bits. In fact, the story goes he actually got a speeding ticket in his own driveway. Other than that, Marty thinks of him as a great dad and an incredible human being.

We asked another of Merrill’s good friends to give us a little insight on our famed honoree and Rob Tanner shared this story that involved a trip with Merrill to visit Marty Mueller for one of the master’s birthdays. As they were driving through French Lick, Indiana, Merrill showed Rob all the sights - L.S. Dickey’s barn, Marty’s old barn, the hospital, West Baden Springs Hotel and Casino and the railroad tracks where all the gamblers arrived in town.

Once at the party, Rob told Marty about his sightseeing excursion and Marty informed him that that was a bunch of crap. The reason Merrill thought the railroad tracks were so important was not because of the gamblers, but because the nurses used to arrive there. Merrill would get himself all fancied up and meet the train whenever he heard a new group was coming in. Marty said that Merrill was such a ladies man that when horse show season came around he had to be very careful about mentioning if Merrill was going to show because half the girls in town would come to the show to see him. "By God, sometimes there were so many hanging around we couldn’t even get the horse shown," Marty used to exclaim.

Now Merrill might have thought he was a ladies man but he finally got it right when he met Bonnie. What a partner she has been through the ups and downs, a few tears and many, many great times.

Bonnie told us that one night after an obviously bad day at work, Merrill came home and advised her he was quitting the horse business and selling the farm. She told him that whatever he decided to do - knowing this would pass - that she was 100% behind him.

Bonnie recalled, "The very next night at dinner I asked Merrill how his day went. ‘Oh honey, I had the best day ever! The horses trained great, all the help was there and I’ve got this new two-year-old in that you’ve just got to see.’ I responded with, ‘I guess we’re not going to sell the farm this week?’ At that he broke into his wonderful laughter that we have all come to know."

Bonnie also had this to say, "Merrill, you are the best husband and father ever and yes, I am extremely proud to be ‘Merrill Murray’s wife.’"

I hope you have a little better picture of Merrill Murray the Hall of Fame horse trainer, husband, father and friend. My father, the late Royce Cates, was just inducted into the UPHA Hall of Fame at the American Royal and he was a true character who had lots of sayings. In closing I’d like to leave you with one of his favorites as it without a doubt, describes our 2009 Tom Moore UPHA Hall of Fame inductee.

I would ask him, ‘Daddy, what’s the difference in a horse trainer and a horseman?’ He would say, ‘Boy, a horse trainer will make a horse perform an act. A horseman will make a horse WANT TO perform that act.’

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present this award to a true horseman - Merrill Murray.

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