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Virgil Helm: A Successful ‘Quiet Man’



by Ann Bullard

At first glance, he seems like an ‘awwww, shucks, mam,’ kind of guy: one who would blush and kick the dirt with his cowboy boot in a Gary Cooper manner. Beware, underneath that shy exterior beats the heart of a sharp businessman and a trainer who not only can ‘make’ a Saddle Horse but has an outstanding eye for a colt. Long before he was standing a stallion and raising his own four-legged youngsters, Virgil Helm, of New Bloomfield, Mo., had proven those abilities.

Looking at Helm’s record as a world’s champion and breeder of world’s champion horses, it’s hard to imagine training wasn’t always his goal. Yet, despite growing up in Southern Indiana, not far from a young Don Harris, he had no interest in riding lessons.

The son of Garland and Betty Helm grew up on a farm, showing livestock with his dad. "He started out in the registered hog business. I showed them in 4-H," Helm said.

Although his father had Saddle Horses, Helm had little interest. "I was more of a western horse kid growing up. I got into barrel and contest horses when I was a teenager. I’d go to smaller shows and was no super star."

Helm graduated from high school and headed to work as a roughneck in the oil field. "I didn’t know exactly what to do when I started. I was making good money and thought I would get rich. I stayed busy, busy."

Working oil field hours was rough, particularly on a young marriage. He and Sandy had been friends since third grade: they married shortly after high school graduation.

"By then, my father had a small barn," he recalled. After three years in the oil fields, Helm joined the family enterprise.

He is nothing if not serious about his work and about his future. And he knew who to consult: the late Marty Mueller.

"He didn’t know much about me, but offered me a job," Helm said, pointing out that he worked with Mueller at the Ruxers’ for two years. When his dad took ill, he returned home "to help him out."

Meanwhile, Mueller had returned to French Lick, Ind.; Bill Blackwell of Singing Hills brought him to Oregon to discuss a possible job. The Hall of Fame trainer had no interest in moving but recommended Helm.

Bill Blacklaw spoke of the man who trained for him for 13 years. "We had a trainer before that. When I got ready to make a change, I talked to a lot of people. Marty gave me a couple of names and Virgil’s was one of them. Marty told me, ‘This young man is just starting out. I think he can be pretty good.’

"We talked on the phone," Blacklaw continued. "Marty’s say-so as far as character and what I could expect was all I needed. Virgil [and Sandy] moved out without ever coming here."

Actually, he and Sandy piled their things in an old pickup truck and took off for Oregon: a real leap-of-faith for the young man who had never been west of St. Louis.

"The Blacklaws were like my second mom and dad. They took me in and gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Later, they hired my dad as manager. Tanya was just a baby when he, she and Mom came out here."

"We had an old farm house on 40 acres about 12-miles away, near the broodmare farm," Blacklaw said. "We set up shop and he started training and breeding horses. At one time we had over 100 head, including 27 mares. We had foals all over the place."

The Virgil Helm most people see is very quiet. Blacklaw says he was even quieter then than now.

"I had to wrestle him around some to get him to open up," Blacklaw said. "He has done so a lot, but still has to get to know you a little."

During this time, Helm hired a young man named Bob Brison, who had come down from Oregon to apply for a job. Brison started out grooming, then breaking colts. Today he is married to Helm’s sister, Tanya. They own and operate Fairview Farm, not far from Helm’s New Bloomfield barn.

Among other things, Bill Blacklaw is known for the road horses he has shown. He concedes he also liked to take a drink now and then.

He told one story on himself as well as on his trainer. "At Yakima (Wash.,) I was supposed to show a road horse. A good friend of mine and I acted kind of ‘plowed.’ We came back staggering; Virgil thought we were drunker than skunks," he said, smiling at the memory. "We hadn’t had a drop. Virgil was scowling and ticked that Sandra wasn’t going to drive that horse. We had a terrible time convincing him I wasn’t drunk."

During these years, Helm encountered what Blacklaw calls, "A little problem with an artery. He went through heart surgery with us, got it straightened out and has gone on.

"One day Virgil came to me saying, ‘Bill, don’t get me wrong. The job is great; I enjoy and love it. But I’d like to try something on my own.’ That’s when he moved back to Missouri. He wasn’t sure where to go, but found some land and has done pretty well."

Why New Bloomfield? John T. Jones was at Callaway Hills; Dale Pugh and Art Simmons had nearby barns.

"I just happened to be driving along one day and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign," he recalled. "The only thing here was the house and 40-acres. We built the barn."

That was April 1986. The Brisons followed a few months later, with Bob working for Helm until he went to Callaway Hills.

Blacklaw thought enough of Helm that he sent a number of horses with him to Missouri. Helm picked out what he thought were the best. And to help the young trainer get started, Blacklaw loaned him bridles and other tack as well.

The stallion, Mr. Wonderful S.H., was among that group. He was the first to stand at Virgil Helm Stables.

While in Oregon, Helm had met Walter Bush of Desert Oasis Ranch in Buckeye, Ariz. Bush owned the factory that produced numerous champions by his stallion, Mountain Highland Memories. Helm developed a direct line into that factory. When looking for a walk-trot prospect, he called Bush. The breeder sent him a tape.

Five or six youngsters turned out in a lot appeared on that tape. CH Memories’ Citation caught Helm’s eye.

"I went out there to see that horse," the trainer recalled. "Walter showed me some others along with a filly he thought would be a good walk-trot horse. I was after Memories’ Citation but kind of hung back. I bought him and a weanling at the same time."

Bobbi Rassieur (Williams) picked up the story. "I remember when my late husband, Charlie, was alive. Virgil said, ‘Oh my God, this horse’s leg is higher than anything but he has a very low back.’

"Charlie saw him in long lines at that point. He said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the worst-looking thing I’ve ever seen with that big ole dip in his back.’"

Helm got him trained. Seven months after the Rassieurs purchased the gelding, Helm took him to Louisville either to show in the two-year-old class or simply to work. He kept the big chestnut in the back ring for his first two workouts. Needless to say, people already were talking.

"I’ll never forget that night," he said of the evening Memories Citation first trotted down Stouffer Walk. "I’d been up the chute a time or two and sent someone to the ring to see if there was a lot of commotion. Somebody was up there showing a horse with quite a barrage of people watching.

"Just as I started down the chute, Michele, her mother [the late Brownie Davis] and Dr. [Don] Trunk were on the way out. We started down the ramp; [the horse] saw big, bright green. He was a sight! As I rode by, they said Michele’s mother turned to her and said, ‘There goes the one I want.’"

"It was kind of a strange thing," Helm went on to say. "We went one round each way; he was just exceptional. We came out and people were hollering, ‘Stop! Stop! A bunch came running down the chute. Thank God [John] Conatser was so fast. He caught up before we got to the other end and asked me about the horse. Others were coming behind him. I think I priced him; John said something. I told him, ‘If you want the son of a buck, take him or he won’t last until we get to the end. He called, ‘I’ll take him! I’ll take him!"

Macfarlane and her mother bought him three months later. Mitchell Clark brought him back to Louisville at three, winning the Three-Year-Old Three-Gaited Stake and tying reserve to Hometown Hero in the championship. He would retire with two Three-Gaited World’s Grand Championships, another reserve grand championship and Five-Gaited World’s Grand Champion. Macfarlane rode out with the 1996 red roses emblematic of that win.

Memories Citation was the first, but the Helm/Bush connection produced many more champions. CH Chandler was another, and of course, Desert Supreme Memories.

Helm’s getting Chandler was a happenstance. He had seen him on a trip to Arizona but didn’t buy as he was concerned about the colt’s having a crooked foot. Before he could move to buy the coming two-year-old, Bush sold him.

The culprits: Lisa and Robert Duncan, Arizona vacationers. Despite her husband’s (a Thoroughbred man) misgivings, she had to have that colt. They shipped him to Kentucky.

"I had made up my mind I had to have him," Helm said. "I called three or four days later but Walter told me he’d sold him."

"We brought Chandler to Kentucky," Lisa Duncan said, explaining that several months later she was ready to make a move. "I knew Virgil had his full brother (Desert’s Supreme Memories) and liked the family."

Duncan contacted Helm, later spending a few days at the farm. Simply put, Chandler moved to Missouri and started on the road to championship honors. Challenges, including the horse’s health, had to be overcome, but by fall of his three-year-old season, Helm began showing him in smaller, Missouri shows.

The ‘big’ Missouri show loomed ahead. Chandler had qualified for the UPHA Fine Harness Classic. Chandler wasn’t ready; when Helm worked him through the week he "just ambled along." The trainer called the Duncans to say they weren’t going to show. However, on Saturday night, a three-year-old class beckoned.

Brison agreed to help his brother-in-law. Warming up, he was dubious about the colt’s chances. Helm said just to check him and they would see what they had. As they headed down the ramp, "He was just perfect; he never missed a beat."

They drove out with blue silk and a trophy.

Helm gaited Chandler over the winter. At home, he "wasn’t right. But he would go to a show and win," the trainer said.

Ten years have passed. Chandler earned top ribbons with Helm, Duncan and Lisa McClaren in the irons. Duncan sold the horse to Lisa McClaren. In 2003, it all came together with a pair of Louisville titles for the teenager and Chandler in Five-Gaited Junior Exhibitor 14-17 competition. The last two seasons, McClaren and the gelding have been at or near the top in Five-Gaited Show Pleasure.

"Virgil and I like the same type of horse. We have been a good fit," Duncan said, calling Helm not just a horse trainer but a horseman. "We consider Virgil and Sandra to be some of our very best friends. I put all my faith and trust in him. I don’t worry about the horses, but know they are getting the best of care. That’s what makes him special to me. I don’t mind driving seven hours out there; it doesn’t faze me a bit.

"I like to buy young horses. Virgil trains them and gets them ready for me to show. That’s not the easiest feat," she continued, explaining she doesn’t get to Missouri too often.

The Duncans have had several other top horses with Helm: She’s Gone Blonde, a horse the Shivleys selected for Callie Smith, and Bravo Blue. The gelding recently moved down the road to the Brisons' farm to become part of Theresa Vonderschmidt’s show string.

Those who know Helm well speak of his dry and sometimes wicked sense of humor.

"All we do with them is laugh all the time," Duncan went on to say. "I think Virgil likes to play tricks on me. I hadn’t been there for four months. He knew what time I would be there, and he was riding this solid chestnut horse up and down the aisle. He stopped and asked, "How do you think he looks. Old Blue looks pretty good doesn’t he?’

"I said, ‘Virgil, just stop this! This cannot be Blue!’ He just died laughing; he had me for a few minutes. He got me good that day," Duncan said.

Helm does well for his clients; Roberta (Rassieur) Williams would be right at the head of that list. Although (as she puts it) she is getting older and doesn’t get to Missouri quite as often as in earlier years, she enjoys the times she and her husband can do so. And, as the owner of Desert’s Supreme Memories, a number of broodmares and foals, she remains deeply involved. Her broodmare band includes Memories’ Citation’s dam, Columbia’s Cherry Blossom BHF, purchased in 1982.

"Virgil is the master of all things honest," she said. "I do totally respect his judgment. His greatest passion is young horses. He is a master at picking out a colt. He studies them, watches them move. He [usually] can tell if they are going to work out or not."

One that has worked out and worked out well is Desert’s Supreme Memories. Helm saw him as a weanling turned out with his dam at Desert Oasis Ranch. He put the sight of that beautiful foal running around the paddock in his memory banks. When he bought the stallion for Sydney Eden Smith, [a Canadian customer] ‘Arizona,’ as he is known at home, was a four-year-old. Bush had already bred him lightly.

"I bought him in 1998," Williams said, calling Arizona "A once-in-a-lifetime horse and my favorite."

Not only has Arizona ‘made it’ in the breeding shed, he has proven himself as a five-gaited horses. He won his first Five-Gaited Stallion World’s Championship in 1999. He repeated that victory in 2004, with many blue ribbons and tricolors in between.

Not every horse works out. One that didn’t may have emphasized Helm’s ability with a young horse more than many others.

"I saw then the way he works with the animals; he doesn’t try to bully them into doing anything," Williams said. "I think he likes horses better than people."

Leanne Adams, former wife of the late trainer, Harold Adams of Oklahoma City, and Alice Sias Pippin had horses with Helm for 12 or 13 years. Adams lives about an hour away from New Bloomfield and cares for 15 head of horses plus three grandchildren.

Adams said, "It’s awfully hard to put horses with someone when you’ve had your own barn. Virgil gets the most out of them and gets a good price. And he’s very good with Alice. You never mind paying your bill and about half of it goes into my horse’s stall in shavings, good feed and vitamins. And he has good farriers. There’s not very much to complain about.

"Everyone says I live in the past. Virgil is such a happy medium for me. He’s part old school and part new," she continued. "And he never talks about people."

Adams likes to heckle her trainer. Helm wears a starched shirt, jeans and cowboy boots when he works horses.

Adams calls him, "always immaculate, but he won’t take his cowboy boots off. One day he asked if any of us had any questions. One of the group replied, ‘Is it hard to ride in tight jeans?’ He knew I’d set him up."

No question: Helm works hard. But when Saturday night or Sunday roll around, he often plays just as hard. As his friend of 40 years, John T. Jones, put it, Helm "loves to gamble and is a great craps shooter."

"He and Ronnie Hulse may just disappear," Adams said, explaining that they frequent nearby casinos. "When he comes home early, you know he lost."

Fishing, including an annual Florida trip with friends, and watching sports occupy much of his spare time. A former high school basketball player, Helm truly enjoys the college game.

Quality time with family remains a priority. His parents and Tonya, Bob and Morgan Brison live nearby.

"I like being his baby sister," Tonya said, calling Helm "a pretty good big brother. He is Morgan’s biggest supporter."

Helm is wonderfully patient and understanding with his niece. Two stories testify to that fact.

"When she was three or four, Morgan spent a lot of time with us. We got to be good buddies," Helm said, calling her "my idol. She’s quite a gal.

"I’ll never forget when she got into Sandra’s makeup. I was sitting here and she put lipstick and makeup on me," he recalled, smiling at the memory. "She had me all painted up. Someone knocked and I had to answer the door. It was kind of embarrassing."

Those who know Helm best describe him as one who doesn’t have a big head, as a down-to-earth person. Missouri Saddlebred breeder Dr. E.L. Robinson and his wife have been Helm’s customers for "for 14 or 15 years.

"He’s really a very quiet, unassuming person. When you have a colt with him, he’ll quickly tell you whether or not it will work out. He’ll just say, ‘I think you’ve put enough money in it’, or ‘We’re getting along.’ He never goes overboard," Robinson said.

So what does set Helm at the top of his profession? Talent, hard work and dedication may be part of the answer.

Blacklaw put it well. "His ability to look at a horse, to be able to judge its quality, that sort of thing. He’s a true gentleman of the breed and a very good quality person."

What more can one ask?

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