On Friday morning, which must have been around 10 o’clock Central Time, one of my “horse whisperers” informed me – quite anonymously -- that an entry named Walk Time Charlie would win the 74th Annual National Walking Horse Celebration’s top prize, that another horse owned by Chattanooga’s Mike Walden would be the runner-up, and that a third, highly-regarded Honors, wouldn’t step through the gate on Saturday night for the World Grand Championship.
Initially I chalked the rumor up to the fact there was a full moon over Shelbyville that particular evening. What do you mean Honors won’t dance after going through the preliminary rounds? No one could know such a thing beforehand but, then again, during August there were actually two full moons that floated above the middle Tennessee night sky, both of which seemed to bode especially ominous for a “Big Lick” crowd that is today in a state of chaos.
I had publicly begged Walden not to take his horse to Shelbyville, warning that all the “Big Lickers” wanted was his money, but Mike sallied forth, doing all the right things like buying high-priced ads and billboards, hobnobbing with the now-suspect “country club” set, and embracing his genuine love for horses that was so elegantly portrayed in a front-page story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the day of the grand finale.
Late Saturday night the horse whisperer’s swarthy prediction proved exactly true and capped a disturbing pall on what I believe has to be the most bizarre and trying Celebration in its 74-year existence.
For instance, one whisperer confirmed Saturday’s crowd – take away the freebie seats, the cash giveaway and the grossly-inflated press releases -- was the lowest since the big oval was built in 1948.
Worse, it is also whispered that there were only about 1,500 entries in 171 classes over the 11-day show, which equated to 8.8 riders in each classes that always historically reward the top 10 finishers. “Compare that to 6,000-plus entries in 2006,” said the quiet voice. “Have you ever heard of a horse show anywhere that 40 percent of the paid entries didn’t step into the ring?”
Of course, 2006 was the year of the Celebration’s greatest train wreck, where virtually all of the grand national “Big Lickers” were found to be sored and Mike Walden was suspended for his involvement in the mess for two years. That aside, I was still pulling for Mike on Saturday night and now I hope, as do many who view the current hierarchy as questionable, that Walden will come to his senses.
Monday’s whisperers said that Walden had indeed done the right thing on Saturday and in the right way. The winner, Walk Time Charlie, was trained and ridden by Chad Baucom out of Monroe, N.C., and the whisperers reminded that Baucom trained and rode an imperiled horse called Moody Star to a Reserve title in 2010. “You’ll remember Moody Star, today called Star, was the unfortunate ‘co-star’ in the Jackie McConnell video,” said the voice.
Somebody in the Saturday crowd, yet another whisperer revealed, said that Walk Time Charlie didn’t canter nearly as well as I’m Copperfield and that the eventual winner was a quiet entry, with not much fuss or many full-page ads. The judging was unanimous, much to the crowd’s chagrin. Walk Time Charlie’s owners are known to have healthy real-estate ties with some Shelbyville insiders, the whisperer said, “But, face it, you never know.”
This whisperer also said that in the fifth round of swabbing, Hall of Fame trainer Brad Davis was caught and had his ribbon and prize money removed. What is so ironic is that the “hot” horse he was riding last week belonged to Wilsene Moody Kwok, whose husband is the keeper of the Ohio Baptist Convention.
Far better, the same Mrs. Kwok was the unflinching and repentless owner of Moody Star when Jackie McConnell brutally and sadistically beat that very animal in the famed ABC News Nightline tape in a way that has now left millions gasping the world over. “Wilsene and Jack have been big-money patrons at The Celebration this year,” said the voice, “and you’ll remember that Brad Davis married Jackie McConnell’s daughter.”
From the very get-go, this year’s Celebration has been a doomed disaster ever since the McConnell video aired in May. A big sponsor, Pepsi, bolted immediately and an independent Cola-Cola bottler out of Tullahoma is still taking criticism from “Big Coke” for later getting involved in an event called “the cruelest horse show on earth.” This was amplified when, by anyone’s count, over half the seats in the 30,000-capacity arena were glaringly empty most nights last week.
With public disdain never as high and the “Big Lick” now being viewed the world over as a blatant form of animal cruelty and torture, the nation’s top veterinarian and animal-protection groups are now railing for the pads, chains, and sordid trainers to be outlawed. “You have never, ever, seen a horse in a field do what is called the ‘Big Lick,’” whispered one veteran trainer, “because it is not just highly unnatural, it acutely hurts the horse’s legs.”
Three current Hall of Fame trainers were found to be among dozens who violated federal Horse Protection Act statutes during The Celebration but – with horse abuse now a felony in Tennessee – Bedford County Sheriff Randall Boyce and his deputies curiously did nothing with the ample evidence that had to have been easily obtained.
Take Hall of Fame trainer Chad Way, for example. After Celebration officials banned him for two years last week when he brought a horse an “independent veterinarian” deemed was close to being actually disabled, why didn’t anyone call law-enforcement authorities? ”It’s a felony!” cried the whisperer. “What’s the difference between Charlie and Jackie? Or, to be honest, between Charlie and Brad Davis, who was only handed a friendly two-week suspension?”
While the Celebration has ended, the heat on the “Big Lick” will surely intensify in the coming months. The 11-day media brawl between the Shelbyville crowd versus the Humane Society and USDA will surely wage on unabated – especially with the lawsuit against the USDA hanging low – and an ignited public is now more involved than ever in begging state and federal lawmakers for strict action.
The Shelbyville crowd is balking hard. They gave a fundraiser for blustery Scott DesJarlais (R-Jasper) during the Celebration and are now trying to pull Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga) into the fray. Fleischmann, who did not win the recent Third District primary by a majority, has to realize such a slippery slope could result in political suicide and, further, to align himself with such misfits has hardly ever been his style.
Frank Eichler, the chairman of one Shelbyville group who should learn to keep his pen in his pocket, wrote a ridiculous Op-ed in the Nashville Tennessean on Saturday under the headline, “Humane Society in business for itself, not horses.” Now there has mysteriously appeared a set of confidential emails that were also purportedly written by the Shelbyville lawyer. “He’s the one who’ll need a lawyer if they (the emails) can be verified,” said another whisperer.
My goodness, there is a bigger mess today that there was 12 days ago when the Celebration opened. Jackie McConnell’s much-anticipated sentencing in a Chattanooga Federal Court has been pushed back to Sept. 18 but there may be more in the wind; the whisperers say McConnell may instead rescind his guilty plea in order to become a federal witness “and there is no telling what he might say,” said the voice.
Oh, the horse whisperers talk. At the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, it was announced there were 2,660 horses that had been entered with entry fees of about $125 per horse. At the close of Saturday night’s competition, only 1,500 horses actually competed. “What happened to 1,160 horses last week? Were they disqualified, scared to show, what? Find out about the 1,160 horses that disappeared,” said the whisperer.