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Saddlebred horse trainer Merrill Murray rides for a living, for fun – and for championships

By Anne Doolin
KyForward Contributor


The term retirement isn’t in Merrill Murray’s vocabulary. But because he doesn’t work for a living, there’s no reason it should be.


The 67-year-old Versailles horseman, a native of Quebec, has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the horse. He trains, rides and shows American Saddlebreds, the high-stepping, flashy breed that was developed in Kentucky. That’s seven days a week, 365 days a year – something that would qualify as a chore at the very least to most – but not to Murray.


“When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” he said.


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Though Murray doesn’t consider it work, he certainly has had a stellar career. At an age when most people are retired, or counting the days until they get there, he might just be at the pinnacle.


A flashy chestnut horse named Courageous Lord put him there.


Courageous Lord has captured the show world’s most prestigious title, World’s Grand Champion Five-Gaited Horse, the last two consecutive years at the Kentucky State Fair.


Bill Richardson, who owns the champion with Marsha Shepard, said it’s easy to see how much Murray enjoys training Courageous Lord, whose barn nickname is Joe.


“Marsha and I were there one day recently when Merrill was riding him,” he said. “He was grinning and laughing and carrying on. I told him we had the money thing all backwards. I said that if he was having that much fun with the horse, he should be paying us!”


Nelson Green, another longtime Saddlebred trainer who has known Murray for decades, said horses are his friend and competitor’s “lifeblood. He’s the consummate horseman.”


“That’s all he thinks about 24 -7. I think everyone in the business is enjoying watching his success. He’s always been an upbeat fellow, and he’s friendly to everybody. He’d do anything in the world for you. But, when you ride in that show ring, he’d do anything to beat you!”


Murray has trained a host of top horses over the years and won the World Championship before, with SS Genuine in 2002 and Our
Golden Duchess in 1987.


Courageous Lord’s road to that championship has been a winding one. The now nine-year-old gelding “never came in out of the field until he was three,” said Murray. “Mike Barlow bred, raised, and started him.”


After showing a few times at four, the tendency to hit a knee with the opposite hoof put him out of commission and back in the field during his five-year-old season and part of his sixth.


Shepard had been approached about buying the horse early in his four-year-old year, but before she could make up her mind, he was sold to Lisa Jones, who showed him that season.


When he became available again after his injury, the pair decided not to pass on him again. “They bought him on a lark,” said Murray. “They just wanted to have fun.”


His owners are also very well-known in Saddlebred circles. Cunningham is the long-time announcer at such venues as the Kentucky State Fair Horse Show, and Morgan and Arabian Grand National shows. He was also the editor of the trade publication, Saddle Horse Report. Shepard, a former trainer and judge, is also an exhibitor and owns equine apparel stores in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where both she and Cunningham reside.


When trainer Mike Barlow was injured and out of commission for an extended period, the owners decided on Murray as their new trainer. “We’d never had a horse with Merrill before, but I’ve known him forever,” said Cunningham. “He’s an outstanding horseman, and he’s very old school. He’s in his barn every day, doing his own work. A lot of people, at that age, are just looking to stand around and have others do the work.


“He learned a lot from his father about the Standardbred business, and he’s very big on conditioning. He puts miles into a horse so they can develop their lungs. They’re fit and ready to do their job.”


Murray’s first exposure to horses was with harness racing horses. “My dad had Standardbreds in Quebec,” he said. “But he didn’t think anyone could be involved in horses and make a living. He made me go to work at a bank in Montreal when I got out of school. I hated it and left after a year.”


He went to work for a hunter-jumper trainer, who also had a Saddlebred named Wing Again in the barn. Murray immediately fell in love with the breed. “I read Saddlebred magazines cover to cover,” he recalled.


He then moved to French Lick, Indiana to work for Saddlebred trainer Marty Mueller; spent time as a private trainer in Michigan; and then was hired by renowned horseman Thomas Galbreath at Castle Hills, one of the top stables in the industry.


He opened his Merlin Stables, on Huntertown Road outside Versailles, some three decades ago. He and his wife Bonnie live on the property, a stone’s throw from the barn. “We have 23 stalls here, and they stay full,” said Murray.


Little did they know their next star was the new gelding with a bit of a “bad boy” reputation that moved into one of those stalls early in 2009.


“He basically came with no instructions,” said Murray. “The first time I showed him, at Indianapolis, he was just a wild man. The second time was at Junior League at Lexington in the gelding stake. We started to go in the gate [to the show ring] and he swelled up and got about 19 hands tall. Then he made a 90 degree turn. Fortunately my assistant Chris Brannon was there, and he got right on his shoulder. We made ended up making a 180 degree turn and in the gate we went.


“Lexington is a great place to show, but it’s very different for a horse,” he said. “You’re out on a dark track, then you go through a narrow gate and you’re hit with bright, bright lights and a lot of people and noise.” Once it the ring, Courageous Lord settled down and got to work, winning the class. On Saturday night, they returned to for the Five-Gaited Stake. “He had really shown well on Monday, and people were excited to see him show again,” said Murray. “We were the last ones in the ring, and as soon as he hit it, the crowd just erupted. It was the coolest feeling!”


He didn’t disappoint the crowd, capturing Lexington’s Five-Gaited Championship. He also put on a bit of a show afterwards, Murray said. When they draped a rose blanket over his shoulders, the horse went airborne. Even though he was seven in 2009, he was still basically green. But he was improving and maturing quickly.


“The horse didn’t know me, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself at first,” Murray said. “Most horses want direction. They want you to make decisions for them. You have horses that are very intelligent, and you have others that aren’t as smart and they learn by repetition. Some horses get it right away. Courageous Lord is one of those.”


Fellow competitor Green said Murray’s skills have a lot to do with that. “He’s never taken the easy road,” he said. “He’s known for being able to do well with horses that have a little history. He’s a master in getting inside a horse’s head.”


Murray said another factor to the horse’s improving demeanor is his groom, Daniel Segura. They found how attached the big horse had gotten to his caretaker at the Kentucky State Fair in 2009. “Daniel wasn’t with us but was coming later,” said Murray. “Courageous Lord had broken out sweating and was tense and nervous. He was a mess. When Daniel got there, the horse immediately relaxed.”


Courageous Lord went on to win both his divisional and the World Champion title at Louisville that year and repeated in both in 2010.


He also won the gelding stake at Lexington last year, but sat out the championship. That’s because Murray opted to show his top mare, Walter Way’s What About Me, in that class instead.


“Everybody dreams of having a top divisional horse, but have two at the same time, that’s unbelievable. Her owner, Larry Hartsock, has horses with us for 15 or 16 years.”


The mare’s victory in the Five-Gaited Championship gave Murray back-to-back titles.


Current plans are to show Courageous Lord in both the gelding stakes and the championship at Junior League in July, then go for a triple at the World Championship at Louisville in August.


“He’s a very special horse,” Murray said. “He never flips those ears back when he’s at work. He’s very intent on where he’s going. He had some detractors at times, but a lot of the old-timers, especially after he defended his title in the World Championship, say he’s the best stakes horse they’ve seen in years. That’s very exciting for me to hear.”


This year’s Lexington Junior League Horse Show at the Red Mile is Monday through Saturday, July 11-16. Courageous Lord and Murray are slated to compete on Monday and Saturday nights. Further information is available here.


Kentucky State Fair Horse Show footage courtesy of Richfield Video Productions.


Video by Ben Cannon.

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