Meet the owners behind the 2019 NRHA Open Futurity champions.
By Megan Arszman
At the NRHA Futurity, the riders and horses normally get most of the attention. But there’s someone else who’s mentally riding every stop and counting every spin as they watch their horse enter and exit the arena. They’re part of every step to get to that phase, too.
It’s the people in the stands, perhaps watching through half-covered eyes, who have invested in that horse and rider to get them to Oklahoma City. The owners of each Futurity finalist deserve praise and recognition, but after the dust settled in Jim Norick Coliseum last December, only three could say they own a 2019 NRHA Open Futurity Champion.
Levels 4, 3, and 2: Super Marioo, Owned by Story Book Stables, Inc.
In the past, Non Pro rider Brenda Joyce, owner of Story Book Stables, focused solely on horses that she could show herself. She’d send her horses to a pro for about a year of training and open competition, with the intention of getting those horses ready for her to show. It wasn’t until 2019 that she decided it was time to expand Story Book Stables’ portfolio by adding a program focused solely on horses intended for open-level competition. Joyce certainly started the new segment on the right foot, taking home Story Book’s biggest title to date after Super Marioo swept L4–2 of the Open Futurity with Cade McCutcheon in the saddle.
“This is supposed to be fun,” said Joyce, whose ranch, co-owned with her husband, Frederick Christensen, sits on 22 acres in Rio Verde, Arizona. “While I love riding and showing myself, watching my horses being shown takes a little pressure off of me and adds to the fun.”
Not only is Joyce having fun, but she’s living out her childhood dreams. The retired author recalls playing with model horses while growing up in New York City, dreaming of living on a ranch out West. After spending years in New York City wearing dress pants and high heels, battling her way to the top of the cutthroat publishing world, Joyce declared “enough” and moved to Colorado. She later relocated to Arizona with Christensen where she’s built her dream ranch. After writing 54 books, she’s now living her second dream: playing with real horses.
“If someone told me I’d be living out West on a ranch, which was my dream as a little girl, I don’t know what I’d say,” Joyce laughed.
While her partnership with Super Marioo and McCutcheon is still in its infancy, Joyce looks forward to many more happy endings in the show pen as an owner with their team.
“I didn’t buy Super Marioo to go win the Futurity,” she said. “I wanted to buy a great horse with a future and place him with a great trainer who has a future, so we could have a great future moving forward.
“We’re beyond thrilled—I still can’t believe it happened,” she continued. “I can’t believe I own that horse, and we have such a wonderful future ahead. He has four derby years ahead of him, he’s got a great mind, and he has a great future as a breeding stallion.”
Level 1: Flashin Benjamins, Owned by Leann Spurlock
In 2016, Leann Spurlock and her trainer, NRHA Professional Kole Price, were looking for a futurity prospect. After watching videos and looking at bloodlines, Price encouraged Spurlock to buy a Gunnatrashya colt named Flashin Benjamins during the NRHA/Markel Futurity Sale. She faced a rush of excitement and nerves standing at the gate during the sale, but that was just a precursor to the excitement of watching that same horse make her the owner of an NRHA L1 Open Futurity Champion just a short time later.
The surgical nurse from Howell, Michigan, has a background in trail riding and hunter/jumpers and got involved in reining because of her significant other, Gary Olley. This year, however, Olley stayed home to care for everything while Spurlock soaked up the Futurity atmosphere.
Spurlock was an involved owner from the first day of the NRHA Futurity, flying into Oklahoma City two days prior to “Benji’s” first go-round run with NRHA Professional Jacob Ballard in the saddle. She watched each ride with Ballard’s family and even took Benji to his appointments at the Nautilus Equine Salt Water Spa during the week.
“I had all the confidence in the world that Jake would ride Benji well,” Spurlock revealed. “But it is a tough game—anything can happen.”
Emotions were high after Ballard marked his highest score yet at the NRHA Futurity—a 218—in the first section of the Open finals. Spurlock and the Ballard family watched as pair after pair entered Jim Norick Coliseum, but no other Level 1 Open finalist could touch Ballard’s score.
“I don’t think it really sank in until I was back home,” Spurlock admitted.
Perhaps a little bit of luck was on Spurlock’s side, because both her horse and her grandson share the name Benjamin.
“It’s a coincidence that they share the same name, since Benji was named prior to us purchasing him at the sale,” Spurlock shared. “Maybe that gave us extra luck!”
Spurlock was approached with an offer she couldn’t refuse to purchase Benji while still in Oklahoma City, but she hopes to return to the winner’s circle in coming years with Ballard in the saddle aboard a 3-year-old Guns R For Shootin colt purchased from Jesse and Rebecca Asmussen.
Prime Time Open: Shines Like Spook, Owned by Rosanne Sternberg
Watching a horse you own compete and win at the NRHA Futurity is always special, but even more so when you also bred that horse. For NRHA Two Million Dollar Owner Rosanne Sternberg, that experience came to life as she watched the product of a cross between two of her beloved horses at the 2019 NRHA Futurity.
Bred at her Sterling Ranch, Prime Time Open Champion Shines Like Spook, ridden by NRHA Professional Martin Larcombe, is by Sternberg’s NRHA Six Million Dollar Sire Smart Spook and out of her NRHA Million Dollar Dam Ebony Shines.
“It never gets old winning the most famous event on the NRHA calendar,” Sternberg said. “I’ve raised many good show horses out of Ebony Shines, as well as other mares of mine, by Smart Spook. So, producing more with this breeding is not difficult.”
NRHA Professional Shauna Larcombe started Shines Like Spook, and her brother, Martin Larcombe, who’s eligible for Levels 4, 3, and Prime Time Open, piloted the colt in the show pen.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision to send the horse to him,” Sternberg said. “He doesn’t put pressure on horses until later in their 3-year-old year, which suited ‘Louis’ perfectly. He was immature early in the year.”
Shines Like Spook will spend 2020 competing in Europe, starting at the 2020 European Futurity, but Sternberg said he’ll return to the United States for the 2021 show season. Until then, it’s likely other Sterling Ranch foals will take their turn in the show pen.
“I hope to continue raising top-quality horses for the forthcoming years,” Sternberg said. “I look forward to more success at the NRHA Futurity and other big shows.”