Special Horses Part 2
These special horses are all extraordinary equine ambassadors
"He's very gentle, especially for a bucking horse," says owner Kirsten Vold of Painted Valley. "He's not halter broke, but he's treat broke."
Photography: Jennifer Alnwick
In Part 2 of C&I’s Special Horses series, we present several more equines who’ve made an impact on the horse world and impressed the public. While each has earned a distinctive legacy — some with chapters still to come — these special horses are all extraordinary equine ambassadors.
When Andrea Simons arrived in Europe to judge a horse show, her driver made only a cursory attempt to communicate in broken English — until he discovered her connection to Zippos Sensation. The sorrel overo who made history as the first American Paint Horse Association (APHA) stallion to be inducted into the National Snaffle Bit Association Hall of Fame lives on her family’s ranch in Aubrey, Texas. “He just revolutionized our industry. We got really lucky,” says Simons, who runs Simons Show Horses together with her two daughters, Sara and Jana.
A world show champion who produces world champions, Zippos Sensation is a poster boy for the second largest breed registry in the United States. And at 18, he has been the APHA’s Breeders’ Trust leading sire for 10 years in a row. “He’s been a dream come true,” Simons says.
When the horse was purchased as a 4-month-old colt by her husband Lynn, the Simons family had no idea just how much of a sensation he would become. After her husband was killed in an auto accident, Andrea and her daughters had a meeting and the girls decided they wanted to carry on the family’s horse operation that would become their dad’s legacy. “The three of us girls pretty much picked up and went with it. It’s a tough business and we had lots to learn. We’re so lucky to have a horse like that.” Big in frame and beautifully marked, the stallion commands a $2,500 stud fee and effectively put the kids through college.
“He’s [been] the leading sire of money earners and the leading sire of performance horses ... he’s totally dominated those charts,” Simons says. Beyond his APHA accomplishments, Zippos Sensation is extremely personable. “He knows when people come to see him. If he’s out grazing, he’ll come over to the fence and introduce himself. He’s extremely social, but the best trait he passes on to his colts is that he’s real easy to get along with. They’re real trainable and want to please. You see that in dogs, but not always in horses.” www.simonsshowhorses.com
Winner of the 2010 PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year, the most coveted equine honor in rodeo, Painted Valley was born to buck. The bay paint stallion with the flying black mane and tail is the 1,400-pound product of decades of a selective bucking-horse breeding program at the Harry Vold Rodeo Company, one of North America’s largest stock-contracting operations. “He bucks really hard,” says Kirsten Vold, who grew up in the rodeo business and now runs the Colorado-based company founded and owned by her father, Harry Vold, the legendary “Duke of the Chutes.”
The top rodeo cowboys love riding Painted Valley. “It’s a lot of extended kicks and he really gives them a chance to make a pretty ride,” Vold says. “If you don’t ride him well or you get out of sync, he’ll buck you off pretty easily. He doesn’t allow any room for error. But if you ride him well, you can earn a lot of points.” Just ask Cody “Hot Sauce” DeMoss, who turned in a record-setting 91-point ride on Painted Valley at the 2010 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. P.V., as Vold affectionately calls him, bucked his way to 2009 Best Bronc of NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas) and Best Saddle Bronc at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo multiple times, among other titles.
“He’s the start of my own bucking string,” Vold says of the horse who once lived in her backyard in a subdivision when he was first weaned as a colt. “Knock on wood, he bucks every time. Nothing seems to phase him. I can pull him off mares and buck him the same day.” His stud career is going strong at a rate of $2,500 per breeding (and no live-foal guarantee). “It’s all about their bloodlines,” Vold says. www.harryvoldrodeo.com
© Dustin Snipes/Icon SMI/Corbis
Oprah named her one of the 20 Women “Rocking the World”; 60 Minutes took a camera crew to her barn to film a “character study” segment; and W magazine showcased her face in a photo spread. Her name is Zenyatta, the statuesque Thoroughbred racehorse who retired at age 6 after 19 consecutive wins in a 20-race career.
Winner of the 2010 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, Zenyatta’s only loss was by less than a nose. With her 2009 victory, she’s the first female ever to beat the boys at the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The 17.2-hand mare (as tall as some draft horses) also twice made The Associated Press’ annual top female athletes list, bested only by Serena Williams and skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn.
“I ran out of words to describe her a long time ago,” says American Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who rode Zenyatta for 17 of her 20 starts and recently hopped on a plane to pay his pal a visit. “I just wanted to see her before she got bred,” he says. “I brought her some carrots and some peppermints.” His visit to Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, was promptly posted online in Zenyatta’s Diary, where fans follow Z’s life since her retirement.
“People bonded with her on so many levels. The family unity she provided for many people was just amazing,” says the mare’s former racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs (wife of trainer John Shirreffs), who has known the horse since she was a yearling and now pens the popular diary entries. She recalls one New York family who watched Zenyatta’s races together while the father was dying of cancer: “She was the only happy point in their lives.” For others, Zenyatta continues to spell inspiration as much today at age 7 as during her racing career.
“She never gave up. It was no different for her than for a human athlete. Nothing was dropped in her lap,” Ingordo-Shirreffs says. “[Now] she’s doing things a lot of women do — restructuring her career and going on to a new one. She’s a perfect example.” When it was learned she’d be bred with Thoroughbred stallion Bernardini, Zenyatta proved she was still a big story. “Bernyatta: The World’s Newest Power Couple” read the headline in The Atlantic even before the deed was done. Zenyatta lost the foal (it had been due February 2012), but she’ll be rebred to Bernardini.
Meanwhile, Zenyatta’s involvement in human lives continues. The mare recently raised more than $12,000 for Lexington, Kentucky’s YMCA and she’s done paintings with her nose for charity, continuing a tradition of philanthropy that began with her racing career. www.zenyatta.com
Roxy retired in 2010 after her last official engagement with Westfall, performing at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky.
Photography: Primo Morales
Whizards Baby Doll made magic when Stacy Westfall rode the black American Quarter Horse mare, better known as Roxy, bareback and bridleless to win the freestyle reining competition at the All American Quarter Horse Congress in 2006. That same year, Westfall herself made history as the first woman to compete in and win the Road to the Horse Championship in Tennessee. But it was two years later that the trainer from Mount Gilead, Ohio, got a new website and posted a video of the bareback, bridleless ride. The video went viral and Roxy and Westfall’s notoriety hit the stratosphere. Television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was soon calling to book the duo for her show. DeGeneres didn’t just interview Westfall, she rode Roxy on national television.
“Roxy was not an easy horse. I remember when I started her. She was kind of a skittish, jumpy kind of horse,” says Westfall of the 10-year-old mare she first met as a days-old foal and started training at 2. “Here, years later, I’m riding her bareback and bridleless for photo shoots, outside with no fences. It was over 800 hours from the time she was first trained under saddle to going bridleless.”
And another year to go bridleless and bareback. “Riding bareback with a bridle versus bareback without a bridle is night and day,” Westfall says. Their first sliding stop without tack was all of two feet long. Only by small increments did they reach the dirt-flying slide in the video.
Despite their long partnership, Westfall doesn’t own Roxy. She belongs to longtime client Greg Gessner, “someone who believes in you at the beginning of your career.” Westfall had a similar confidence in Roxy. To date, the horse remains the only one ever ridden bareback and bridleless at competition level. “You just couldn’t have predicted what Roxy would have been able to be right from the beginning. That’s what makes horse training fun,” Westfall says. “You’re like an artist who’s carving with marble, trying to uncover this piece of art underneath.” www.westfallhorsemanship.com
Born in 2006, Mine That Bird sold for $9,500 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall 2007 Yearling Sale. He cost $400,000 when Blach and Allen bought him, after winning four races in a row at age 2.
Photography: © Jeff Haynes/Rueters/Corbis
MINE THAT BIRD
It’s the kind of story Hollywood loves. The 50-1 long shot pulled a stunning upset to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on a sloppy track, drenched by overnight rain. Blasting down the backstretch with a white-knuckle charge along the rail, Mine That Bird blew past his contenders to snatch the 135th Run for the Roses with a 6¾-length lead.
One of only nine geldings to ever win the Derby, Mine That Bird claimed his victory with a built-in supporting cast — a colorful Cajun jockey named Calvin whom he’d known less than a week and Chip, a trainer on crutches in a black cowboy hat who’d hauled the bay Thoroughbred from New Mexico to Louisville in a trailer hooked to his pickup truck. The now-retired racehorse may soon add “red carpet” to “red roses” on his résumé. A movie about the long-shot-turned-Derby-legend, already months in the planning process, is expected to start production soon. Jim Wilson, the Academy Award-winning producer of Dances with Wolves, is slated to direct.
“I don’t think a day’s gone by that I don’t think of the Kentucky Derby,” says Dr. Leonard Blach of Roswell, New Mexico, who co-owns Mine That Bird with Mark Allen, his partner and neighbor. The two men were just looking for a decent candidate to get them into Thoroughbred racing when an agent steered Mine That Bird their way. Already the 2-year-old champion in Canada, the horse came with more credentials than they’d been shopping for.
“We got invited to the Kentucky Derby based on his earnings [in graded stakes]. That’s how he qualified. It wasn’t that we volunteered,” Blach says. When Churchill Downs called to get their answer and urged them not to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the two partners figured they’d better talk. “Me and Mark and Don Julio [the tequila] sat down together and decided we’ll just go. If we outrun one horse ... we’ll not be too embarrassed and we’ll have a lot of fun. I don’t think Mark and I ever thought that we could possibly win.”
Blach still sounds amused at the picture their entourage painted. “Here we were: An underdog horse, an underdog trainer, and a couple of redneck owners from New Mexico come in there and outrun all the blue bloods.” Within months of the race, they were approached about making a film.
“The movie will be a little different. It will tell about the trip out there ... and how Mark and Chip met. There will be a few barroom brawls in it, [but] it will be strictly family-oriented,” Blach says. Mine That Bird may get his close-up and play himself on the big screen. “They’re going to use him as much as they can.”
Retired in November 2010 following a grand send-off from Churchill Downs, Mine That Bird now lives in New Mexico at Allen’s Double Eagle Ranch, across the street from Buena Suerte Equine Clinic, which Blach owns. “We call him The Bird or Birdy,” says Blach. “He knows me and Mark real well. We’ve just been around him so much. He likes peppermint candy and horse cookies. He’s definitely got a personality of his own.”
Mine That Bird never won another race after the Derby, but his popularity remains strong. There’s not a day without calls and e-mails asking how he’s doing, plus a steady stream of visitors bearing gifts and treats. “It’s amazing how he became the public’s horse,” says Blach. While the possibility of Mine That Bird taking up temporary residence at Kentucky Horse Park has come up, neither partner is keen on that happening soon. “He’s done so much for us. Mark and I couldn’t stand to turn this horse over to someone else as long as we’re alive or he’s alive. He’s got enough money in his retirement portfolio that he’ll be wealthy.”
These days, Mine That Bird, now 5, stays fit galloping several times a week at the track. Allen and Blach are thinking of making him a “pony horse” (accompanying race horses at the track) to give him a job in lieu of a boring retirement. “He’s going to be like any celebrity that sort of backs out of the spotlight but continues to be involved in the business,” says Blach.
Or maybe just holds a day job until the red carpet calls. www.minethatbird.com