Running at History

A first-of-its-kind event in Las Vegas brought together horsemen from all backgrounds to watch history be made at the Run for a Million.

By Jennifer Paulson; Images by Waltenberry

Cade McCutcheon on Custom Made Gun (left) and Craig Schmersal on No Smoking Required (right) won the first-ever Million Dollar Invitational.

Amazing. Unbelievable. Incredible. Historic. Under the bright lights of Las Vegas, you might think those words describe a new show on the Strip or a dare-devil act. But if you attended the Run for a Million August 15–17, you probably heard these words repeatedly throughout the South Point Arena and hotel.

The energy in the arena never let up during the three days of the show. From the Rookie Championship on Thursday to the $100,000 Open Shootout on Friday to the $50,000 Non Pro Championship, $50,000 Freestyle, and—the main event—the Million Dollar Invitational on Saturday, the crowd never weakened. Spectators showed just as much grit and passion for the sport as the horses they watched give their all.

Million-Dollar Match-Up

When’s the last time you remember standing in line to watch a reining?

It’s a solid bet even a line at the NRHA Futurity wouldn’t come close to the one that stretched from the South Point Arena doors all the way back to the casino cashiers. (Rumor had it a longtime cashier said she’d never seen a line that long in her entire tenure at the venue.) But reining fans’ patience paid big dividends when the first Million Dollar Invitational rider—NRHA Six Million Dollar Rider Shawn Flarida on Spooks Gotta Spark (Spooks Gotta Whiz x Dolittle Lena, owned by Gaynia Revenberg)—thundered into the arena. The pair set the pace with a solid 228 and fired up the raucous crowd for what was to come.

Drawing second in a field of 12, 19-year-old Cade McCutcheon knew he could rely on his horse, Custom Made Gun (Gunner x Custom Made Dunit, owned by Maria Cecilia Fiorucci), to give him a shot thanks to their history, including winning team gold and individual bronze in the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. It turned out, his intuition was right.

Run for a Million Invitational co-champions Cade McCutcheon and Custom Made Gun.

“I knew coming in that we could win,” he said. “That horse and I have grown up together. There’s no other horse I’d rather win this on. There’s a connection. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse. My game plan was to win. When I was getting ready, I wanted to go have fun, go hard, and stay out of penalty box. I knew I could trust my horse.”

Their 229.5 held the lead for six more runs of outstanding horses and riders—until NRHA Four Million Dollar Rider Craig Schmersal (aka #TrophyHusband, if you followed The Last Cowboy) and No Smoking Required (Gunner x Icing Required, owned by Wranglen Partnership) laid down a smoking run that netted a tying score.

“My horse chose himself,” Schmersal said about picking which horse to show in the event. “As long as he was healthy and sound, he was it. I was every bit as confident in my horse as Cade was in his. [No Smoking Required] is super gritty, super fun to ride, and he’s been easy to maintain. I knew we had a shot. I rode him 24 hours before [the Million Dollar Invitational] and then 30 minutes before we showed. I felt like I had an advantage over the guys who had more intense preparation.”

Run for a Million Invitational co-champions Craig Schmersal and No Smoking Required.

While it might seem like a runoff for the $500,000 first-place payout and other prizes would be the made-for-TV choice, McCutcheon and Schmersal went the horsemen’s route, choosing a co-championship and putting their horses’ well-being first. They agreed that they’d asked a lot of their stellar mounts and it wouldn’t be right to push them for a similar-caliber ride—or ask even more for a higher score.

“I couldn’t ask my horse to go and do that again,” Schmersal shared. “His welfare is always first and foremost.”

While the co-champions happily acknowledged that the fans’ cheering and whistling played a major role in the excitement of the evening, their connections—friends, family, horse owners—played key roles in the riders’ success, too.

“What can you say?” asked a clearly overwhelmed Mandy McCutcheon after her son’s performance. “It doesn’t happen very often—but, I’m almost speechless. Shawn laid one down right before him, and I was like ‘wow.’ But there were so many big runs. For Cade to be in company like this is really an honor. We’re so proud of that kid and his horse. They’ve come up together. They’ve been a team for a long time. I was so nervous [for Cade to show]. I went to bed at 4 a.m. and was up at 8 this morning. But it was all worth it for what this event is doing for our sport. We couldn’t be more thankful to Taylor Sheridan [producer of The Last Cowboy] and his crew. It’s all so special.”

Cade’s grandfather, NRHA Hall of Fame inductee Tim McQuay, shared in those sentiments.

“It’s hard to believe,” McQuay said. “He’s fulfilling every dream we could possibly have for him. I saw it in him when he was a kid. He never weakened. He kept going from the beginning. The first time he ever showed he was trying to win. Tonight, I wanted him to be aggressive but smart. He was quiet but aggressive. I was very happy.”

Schmersal’s wife, Ginger, echoed that pride about her husband.

“It’s indescribable,” she said. “He works so hard. It’s just unreal. I don’t even know what to say except thank you to everyone involved. It’s been amazing to see all these reiners come together.”

The Man Behind The Last Cowboy

A lot has been said about The Last Cowboy, the weekly reality-based television program on Paramount Network. No matter if you’re a fan or a skeptic, the fact is: People are talking about reining. In fact, a large part of the audience that attended the Million Dollar Invitational had never seen reining in person, but made the trip to Las Vegas based on their impressions of The Last Cowboy. Was there any way executive producer Taylor Sheridan could’ve known—or even hoped—that would be the case?

“I didn’t expect anything,” Sheridan said. “But it’s what I imagined. That it came together like this, the response in the arena. It’s incredible. I felt like reining was the perfect sport to introduce people who aren’t into horses to our world. You can watch reining and understand what’s going on. You don’t have to know the rules to know when someone has over-spun or a horse kicks out. You know when someone stops and runs fast. You can [be unfamiliar with] the rules, but after 10 or 12 runs, you get it. It’s a TV-friendly sport.”

As for reining’s future on TV? Sheridan has high hopes.

“We just finished this [season of The Last Cowboy],” he said. “We want it to continue. We want it to be annual. We want it to get bigger. If we can do that, it will elevate all events and attract more sponsors. Maybe you sell out [the finals of the] Cactus Classic or the NRBC.”

As for the horses in the Million Dollar Invitational, Sheridan described them in one word: incredible.

“The riders found the best horses,” he said. “What was accomplished tonight [in the Million Dollar Invitational]—there wasn’t a bad run. They were all stellar examples of our sport.”