By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
GUNTOWN – In the Tennessee walking horse world, 3-year-old Nine Gold is a star.
He claimed titles at shows in Germantown, Tenn., and Woodbury, Tenn., last year. They were warm-ups for the main event, the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn.
For the uninitiated, the National Celebration is akin to the Super Bowl, and that’s where the brown horse with flaxen mane and tail earned the titles of world champion and world grand champion.
“The odds of him winning this thing were slim to zero,” said Bill McMillan, 60, of Guntown. “It was unanimous from all judges on both nights.”
McMillan is a veterinarian with McMillan & Cunningham Small Animal Clinic & Equine Center in Saltillo. More than that, he’s a horseman, who’s been entranced by Tennessee walking horses most of his life.
“My dad got into it, I guess it had to be in the ‘50s,” he said. “We used to go to Shelbyville when I was a boy. In the old days, there were horses everywhere. We would go up there and there were thousands of horses.”
McMillan has devoted many decades to reaching this point. It’s been a tough road of buying, breeding and training horses in hopes of shaking up Shelbyville with a star like Nine Gold.
“We love horses and training,” said his daughter, Shelbi McMillan, 22, “but it kind of knocks you down. It’s so hard and so much can go wrong, but that just makes Daddy try harder. He was really persistent. It’s been years of being knocked down, and now getting this amazing horse you’re blessed with – it’s still kind of surreal.”
Nine Gold’s mother is Delitefully Yours. She was 21 and too old to carry a foal to term, but she’d been a fine show horse in her day.
McMillan decided to breed her with Whole Nine Yards. After artificial insemination, the embryo grew for a short time in Delitefully Yours, then McMillan flushed it out.
“I’d gotten special training so I could do this myself,” McMillan said. “I flushed her and found the embryo under a microscope. It was that small where you really needed a microscope.”
Molly, an unregistered quarter horse, became the gestational carrier. Nine Gold needed plasma when he was born, neither mother produced milk and the young colt got his foot stuck in a stall once, but McMillan gently ushered the horse through the challenges.
“We raised him,” McMillan said. “I broke him and I rode him every day from February to August, whether I felt like it or not.”
Those early training days also involved McMillan’s wife, two daughters and son.
“Somebody had to stay out there with a camera and film every day while he rode,” Denise McMillan, 55, said. “It brought the family together.”
“It keeps the memories of our grandfather alive,” Shelbi McMillan said, “and it’s kind of gone full circle because Daddy’s been taking his grandkids to be around the horse. I don’t know. It’s just our family tradition.”
McMillan suspected he had a champion on his hands, but Nine Gold needed more training than he could provide. He hooked up with trainer Michael Wright out of Reagan, Tenn.
“He said, ‘You’re going to have to spend a lot of money on this horse.’ That meant advertising to get the name out,” McMillan said. “I said, ‘This horse is going to make you famous.’”
At the stable in Reagan, Nine Gold gets exercise and grooming every day, as well as access to quality medical care. The trainers treat him like the high-quality athlete he is, McMillan said.
“You can feel how powerful he is. It’s a natural gait,” McMillan said. “He’s been good since we got on him, a natural walking horse.”
The results bear out that early promise. In addition to his show titles, Nine Gold was named the Walking Horse Trainers Association’s 2-year-old stallion of the year, and he won Walking Horse Report’s readers’ choice award.
Walking horse magazines have featured him in cover stories, and he’s been exhibited at shows in Tunica and Asheville, N.C.
“That draws people to come to the show, if you have a world grand champion there,” Denise McMillan said. “They invited us to those shows, and the trainer rides the horse on exhibit and talks about his story.”
People outside the walking horse world might not realize how special the story is.
Breeding, raising and training a horse like Nine Gold is an expensive and labor-intensive undertaking.
A lot of owners buy horses after they’ve started to have success on the show circuit. Others handle the breeding and training, while owners fly in to see their horses perform, McMillan said.
“There’s a lot of millionaires involved in this,” he said. “I’m not a millionaire. I’m a working man, thank the Lord. I work seven days a week.”
He’s been offered $200,000 for Nine Gold, but turned it down. The horse has many more chances left to shine for McMillan and his family. He won a Spring Fun Show at Shelbyville in May, so he has a strong start on 2013.
“He’s going to win everything as a 3-year-old,” McMillan predicted.
If all goes as planned, Nine Gold will compete for the next few years, then retire to McMillan’s Guntown farm to spend his remaining days trying to sire more world grand champions.
“In the end, we’ll probably break even on him,” McMillan said.
Thoughts about money are practical, but practicality hasn’t driven McMillan’s passion for Tennessee walking horses.
The driver was Nine Gold, or the idea of him, anyway. It was that longed-for chance to send a message from Guntown straight to Shelbyville.
“It’s what he’s wanted all his life,” Denise McMillan said. “That’s his baby. He gets off work on Wednesdays and goes up to see him.”
“You’ve got to have something you enjoy,” McMillan said.
“That horse is part of the family,” Shelbi McMillan said, “and he’s on the Christmas card.”