Back in the late ‘60s while an ag student at the University of Kentucky, I discovered the world of American Saddlebred show horses through a friend who ran a riding school on Jim Mahan’s Narrow Lane Farm in Lexington. A crackerjack of a rider, Frances Ann Smith (now Green) showed several Saddlebreds all summer long, and every once in a while, she’d do well enough in a five-gaited class to end up in a “workout” with a few of the noted Saddlebred trainers of the day, revered names such as Earl Teeter, Jim B. Robertson, and Frank and Garland Bradshaw.
When the announcer called the numbers of exhibitors chosen for a workout, they’d take to the rail, trying to out-do each other in a deciding walk, slow gait, trot and canter. But when the P.A. system blared the command, “Rack on…let your horses rack on!” the crowd went wild, hollering and cheering when their favorites passed the judge. Those high-stepping horses zoomed down the rail, nostrils flaring, eyes wide, manes and tails flying in the breeze. Finally, the winner would grab a ribbon and maybe a trophy, and they’d all go home to train until the next outing.
That same thrill continues today at horse shows across the commonwealth, particularly come July, when the Junior League of Lexington Annual Charity Horse Show takes to the ring at The Red Mile harness racing track. This year’s event, July 6-11, will mark its 79th year.
Started in 1937 to help fund the League’s community works, the competition is now the world’s largest outdoor American Saddlebred show and the first leg of the Saddlebred Triple Crown. The event attracts around 1,000 exhibitors from the U.S. and Canada, has raised more than $4 million dollars for charitable organizations in Central Kentucky and generates more than $5 million dollars in revenue for local merchants. This year’s show benefits the Bodley-Bullock House in the Gratz Park Historic District, the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass, Girls on the Run of Central Kentucky, KET’s Super Saturday program and Visually Impaired Pre-School Services.
“There’s such tradition in the show,” said 2015 Horse Show Chairman Morgan McMahan. “It’s remarkable that a group of women who essentially knew little about horses but were determined to find a way to make money for charity, began this and have carried it on for nearly 80 years.”
That said, it’s the excitement of watching these talented, flashy horses that continues to draw crowds of up to 30,000 spectators. For 40 years now, Shelbyville resident Gene Wright has fired up his organ as the horses enter the ring and step to the beat of such favorites as “Pony Boy.”
In addition to the Saddlebred, two other breeds participate – the Hackney pony, a cute, compact, extremely athletic breed; and the Standardbred, harness-racing horses that often have competed on the track.
Called the “peacock of the horse world,” the American Saddlebred is a high-stepping breed with exaggerated action through three or five “ambling,” four-beat, comfortable gaits. Characteristics include a sense of presence and style and a spirited yet gentle disposition. Developed into its modern type in Kentucky, this horse – once known as the Kentucky Saddler – was used exclusively as an officer’s mount during the Civil War due to its proven bravery and endurance. Famous wartime Saddlebreds include Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Traveller, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati and Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrell.
At the Junior League show, morning classes begin at 9:00 Tuesday through Friday and are free. Evening performances start at 6:30, Monday through Saturday, and at 5:30 on Wednesday.
Each evening has a theme, beginning on Tuesday with Family Night, featuring a Stick Horse Race for kids, pony rides, ice cream and inflatables. Entry for the race is $5. Everything else is free. Folks are encouraged to wear flowery Derby hats on Wednesday night, themed Brims and Bridles. Wear pink for Thursday’s Paint the Red Mile Pink, for breast cancer awareness. Find can’t-do-without-‘em items at Friday’s Silent Auction and stay late for a rousing After Party.
Bring your best four-legged friend to compete in a fun dog show at 10:30 Saturday morning by The Red Mile’s Round Barn. And of course, Saturday night is the big one, Championship Night.
General admission is $5 Monday through Thursday, and $10 on Friday and Saturday.
Also taking place this summer is the second leg of the Saddlebred Triple Crown at the Kentucky State Fair’s World’s Championship Horse Show, held this year Aug. 22-29 in Freedom Hall at the State Fairgrounds in Louisville. Any horse or rider that wins here can earn the title of world’s champion (WC), world’s grand champion (WGC), or world’s champion of champions (WCC). Second-place finish is reserve world’s champion (RWC).
The World’s Championship has been held every year since 1902 except 1904, when there was no State Fair and 1945, when the fair was cancelled due to World War II. In those early days horses traveled to the show on trains and by foot. Today’s event always wraps up on Saturday night with the much-anticipated Five-Gaited World’s Championship.
The Triple Crown’s third leg also boasts longevity. The American Royal began in 1899 as a cattle show at the Kansas City Stockyards and added the American Royal Horse Show in 1907. Today, the event has morphed into an eight-week season of livestock shows (one of the Midwest’s largest), rodeos (one of the top five in the nation), national championship horse competition and the world’s largest barbecue contest.