The evening Matt Shiflet first laid eyes on the horse who would become his first Grand Champion is ingrained in his memory — not so much because of what he saw that night, but because of the potential literally echoing throughout the grounds.
"The first time I ever saw this horse . . . you could only half see him because it was dark out but you could hear him coming down the area he was working," Shiflet recalled. "I'll never forget that as long as I live because you could hear him breathing and you could hear his feet hitting the ground, it was just like a freight train coming .
"It was very unusual to see a 3-year-old with that much power and that much stamina."
Such strength and presence is necessary for horse to excel in the open ranks of the Saddlebred show world. Now in his 5-year-old season, the liver chestnut gelding known as Honey Badger is, with Shiflet's assistance, learning to harness his powder-keg ability to reach a higher plane.
The opening night of the 2013 Lexington Junior League Horse Show featured another sublime performance by one of the burgeoning five-gaited talents in the nation. Artfully guided by trainer/rider Shiflet, fan favorite Honey Badger was the unanimous winner of the Five-Gaited Gelding Stake Monday and is slated to contend for the $10,000 Five-Gaited Grand Championship when the show concludes Saturday night at The Red Mile.
The raw ability Shiflet saw when he purchased Honey Badger for owners Christina and Andrea Athanasuleas two seasons ago has already rewarded them in the show ring. Honey Badger went through his 4-year-old season undefeated, including taking the Junior Five-Gaited Stallion/Gelding Stake at the 2012 Lexington Junior League show and the Junior Five-Gaited Stallion/Gelding crown at the World's Championship Horse Show in Louisville last August.
The transition to competing against aged horses in open classes requires even wunderkinds to find new layers of talent. As the man who feels every twist and turn of Honey Badger's development, Shiflet is confident those steps forward are being taken.
"Last year he was undefeated as a 4-year-old and we went to the world championships and won with him, but the 5-year-old year is a whole new ball game," said Shiflet, who is based in Asheboro, North Carolina. "You're showing against aged horses who have been showing in these open classes for several years and they're real finished and they're real ready for that kind of job.
"He's really come to the party for me this year. Mentally probably more than anything he's a little more ready this year than he was last year, Showing him here last year kind of gave us a little bit of insight on how we wanted to prepare to show over here and he did everything I wanted him to do (Monday)."
When Honey Badger's strength and strong mind meld perfectly, they produce outings like the one in Louisville that Shiflet called the ride of a lifetime.
"That was my first personal world grand champion that I've trained and shown and . . . to have everything fall into place for those 15 minutes that you have to have everything perfect was an unbelievable feeling," Shiflet said. "He was everything I wanted him to be that night."
Though he can still inspire awe with the authority at which he gets over the ground, the intangible difference in Honey Badger this year is he has become more attuned to using himself and responding to Shiflet's aids at just the right moments.
"We were putting a lot of what we call finishes on him. And he really got solid in the ring for us," Shiflet said. "Last year as a 4-year-old he was great and everything but he was still a little bit in and out, learning his lessons and sometimes he would get a bit a head of himself.
"This year I can tell the difference. I can ask him for a little bit more and he stays right with me and kind of knows what he's supposed to do a little bit more than last year."
Honey Badger's fluid gaits are matched, Shiflet said, by his equally big personality — something that makes those familiar with the viral nature documentary he is named for all the more apt to root for the gelding.
To his credit, Shiflet's trainee keeps supplying moments worthy of celebration.
"He's a ham in the stall and he loves attention and the name is just, it fits him real well," Shiflet said, laughing. "We've had a ball with it; we really have.
if you go
Lexington Junior League Charity Horse Show
When: Sessions begin at 9 a.m and 6:30 p.m. through Friday; 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Red Mile
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.