Trainer faces tough decision in Junior League finale

Merrill Murray rode Courageous Lord in five-gaited competition Monday.
Merrill Murray rode Courageous Lord in five-gaited competition Monday.

Merrill Murray is reluctant to even characterize his situation as a problem — not when it's a scenario any horseman would dream of having.

The 67-year-old trainer, who is based in Versailles, has two horses qualified for Saturday night's Five-Gaited Grand Championship, the highlight of the Lexington Junior League Horse Show, and they've both won it before. Walterways What About Me won last year and Courageous Lord won the year before.

Considering the two dazzling Saddlebreds have different owners, a decision will have to be made. Which horse sits out the grand finale class?

Difficult call? Yes. But for Murray it is just the latest tribute to both his remarkable horsemanship and the unparalleled talent in his barn.

"When you're in this business, you wish all your life to have one horse like them and I'm fortunate enough to have two who are that capable," Murray said.

An overflow of good fortune has been a theme for Murray lately. Having already established himself as one of the more respected trainers in the show ring with two prior world champions on his résumé, Murray is enjoying perhaps his best run of success the last few seasons.

Perhaps no horse epitomizes what Murray and his team are capable of like the brilliant but headstrong Courageous Lord.

The 10-year-old gelding put himself in the record books by earning a second straight World's Grand Championship in Louisville last August. The outside world sees only a radiant, confident performer, but that doesn't reveal the hours his caretakers put into his program.

Blessed with electric raw ability, the copper-coated Courageous Lord has been a challenge from both a mental and physical standpoint. When he came to Murray a few years ago after being purchased by Bill Richardson and Marsha Shepard, the veteran trainer found the impressive-looking gelding was decidedly lacking in self-esteem.

"When he came here he had several issues and part of it was he just didn't have a lot of confidence in himself or anybody else," Murray said. "He finally has gotten over that. He used to be not very sociable at all and he just wasn't sure about his job.

"He's gotten confidence in us here and that just made all the difference in the world. He is very into his caretaker (groom Daniel Segura) and as long as you are riding a step ahead of him, he gets confidence through your hands and your body language and he thrives on that."

Even as Murray and Courageous Lord famously hit it off, the learning curve didn't stop.

When the duo captured their first World's Grand Championship in 2009, it was the product of sheer talent as Courageous Lord was still prone to bouts of immaturity.

Murray also discovered his mount was suffering from ulcers that often caused him to go off his feed whenever he traveled away from his barn. Once Murray got the gelding's head and stomach on the right track, the duo stymied their naysayers with an emphatic performance that secured World Championship No. 2.

"Oh my goodness, it was just unreal," Murray said of the second World title. "The first year we won it was kind of on a wing and a prayer. It was still a work in progress.

"This horse has natural athletic ability and getting him to focus on what his job is and getting him feeling good had a lot to do with this. Once we got that accomplished, his cadence and gait allows him to just go at speeds most horses aren't built to do. That's what makes him special."

Courageous Lord has had his share of special moments in Lexington, winning the Five-Gaited crown at the 2009 Junior League Show and taking his divisional class both last season and on Monday.

This year's scenario is a replay of 2010 as his female stablemate Walterways What About Me also won her divisional class this week for Murray and owner Larry Hartsock. Last season, Murray opted to keep Courageous Lord out of the Junior League's Five-Gaited Championship, partly to give Walterways What About Me a chance at the overall title — which she won — and also to save his top charge for the World's Championship in Louisville.

How much competing in Monday's extreme heat took out of Courageous Lord could play a factor in Murray's decision. But there is admitted comfort in knowing he's in a position where there is no bad choice.

"You have a major decision to make Saturday night and when you make that decision, have to look ahead six weeks to the world championships," Murray said. "But I'm very fortunate that both are wonderful owners who will be good with the decision I go with."