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That intangible “it” factor that separates the great from the good.

“What is the will to win? What separates good from greatness? Everyone seeks it, yet so few actually attain ‘it.’ Generations have come and gone, all asking this very question. Effort is put forth, no doubt… common ingredients, as if a simple recipe will suffice … But, we ain’t talking about making brownies here! I’m talking about making champions! Why is it so hard to win? Michael Jordan had it, Joe Montana captured it, Derek Jeter delivered it! No matter the sport or the generation, special athletic achievements require special athletes. Secretariat, Big Red to me, well…He epitomized it!

By Dena Kirkpatrick, originally published in the November 2015 issue of BHN

The above paragraph is from a promotional YouTube video called The Road Less Traveled: The Road to the Triple Crown by America’s Best Racing that ran prior to the Thoroughbred Triple Crown races earlier this year. Watching the video is definitely much better than simply reading the dialogue, but either way it is so inspirational, especially for horse trainers. When I first watched it, I immediately began to apply it to my own horses and my experiences with them. The horses in my barn may not be in the same category as those Thoroughbreds running in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, but in my little world, my horses are superstars, or at least a few of them.

I watched this video several times, because it really struck a chord in my mind. We live in a very sports-oriented world. Everything is becoming more competitive. People everywhere take their children to special camps trying to give them that extra edge, hoping they will someday play a Division 1 sport in college, or even play professionally. A great many, if not most, of our social events revolve around a sport of some kind. Some of our colleges and universities probably would not exist—and many others would be much smaller—if it weren’t for sports. This makes it all more apparent to me that in both the human and the equine worlds everyone is searching for ‘it.’

Relating it back to horses, what makes some horses bigger superstars than others? For example, what was it about California Chrome that captured the attention of America? There are several reasons his story was intriguing to me from the beginning. His owners were not previously involved in Thoroughbred racing, and his dam was an $8,000 cull mare. His trainer was virtually unknown. And still, he won the first two races of the Triple Crown. California Chrome was a story that proved hard work pays off. This year with American Pharoah actually winning the Triple Crown, America got to see one of the greatest horses to run since Affirmed in 1978. These horses had a different flair compared to others who may have won as many races. They had something unique and special, a presence and attitude all their own. They had ‘it.’

In my own personal career, the one horse that comes to mind that had ‘it’ was Willy Nick Bar. Even though he was a big winner for me, I have had several other horses that were big winners, as well. For some reason, they were not as popular or as well remembered. He was my most memorable horse and the best years of his career were almost 20 years ago. ‘It’ is very rare in both equine and human athletes.

There is a lot of debate as to who is the greater basketball player between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. But, history will almost surely remember Michael Jordan as the very best to ever play the game. Even though LeBron James has hit many of the same milestones, he still comes in at No. 2. Why? In my opinion, having ‘it’ means there is a special presence to go along with ability and talent, and only some individuals possess that.

Some athletes play the game, but others control it. Some were born special athletes, while the memorable ones had to work hard for it. Michael Jordan was cut from the basketball team the first year he tried out in high school. He credits this for giving him the desire to work harder than anybody else and become arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. He also had the ability to inspire his teammates to play their very best. Attitude, dedication, and tenacity, coupled with an environment that offers them the opportunity to grow into the special athlete God gave them the talent to be, creates something memorable. Many can be exceptional athletes, but not everybody can have ‘it.’

When it comes to recognizing that extra something in prospective horses, I know I don’t have the exact answer, or specific direction to advise people to find it. These special individuals come in all shapes and sizes. Some seem to even defy our ideas about what a great athlete should look like. Some, like “Hotshot” (Nate Shilabar), recover from career-ending injuries and go on to carry several different riders to the National Finals Rodeo. Some, like Secretariat and American Pharoah, are amazing in every way from birth. “Louie” (An Oakie With Cash) was Lisa Lockhart’s back-up horse until she was forced to get on him at the NFR when Chisum got hurt. Honestly, I wasn’t sure Willy Nick Bar had enough speed early in his career. I just knew he gave 110 percent. I’m pretty sure that no one actually knows how special a horse may be, until he or she actually becomes that special athlete. We all wish we could see the heart in a youngster, but we can’t. So, my goal as a barrel horse trainer is to provide the proper environment and a training program that will allow a horse to reach its utmost potential – just in case God blesses me with another individual that has ‘it.’

In the movie “Draft Day,” Kevin Costner plays the part of Sonny Weaver, Jr., General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. This is one of my favorite quote and one I think of often.

He says: “No one can stop a ticking clock, but the great ones always find a way to slow it down.”

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