In one of the most exciting cutting match-ups in recent memory, a first-time finalist who was also catch-riding claimed the 2009 Borden Milk/NCHA Futurity Open after a back-to-back battle with the team that took Reserve.
After Michael Cooper and Highbrow Cat gelding Yadacat marked a riveting 226 as the seventh to work in the first set on December 13 in Fort Worth, Texas, Tony Piggott and Rockin W, a Dual Rey son, stunned the crowd immediately afterward by posting a 229 that tied the alltime highest score at the Futurity.
Piggott, who began working the colt only a few days before the first go-round of the Open at the end of November, punched the air with his fist, then patted the talented stallion that had just conquered three challenging cows in Will Rogers Coliseum.
"I was worried about [having to beat] the guys in front of me a little bit," said the 37-year-old Australian. "A lot of people who saw me and the horse said he was a good horse. I just wanted to go down there and show my horse."
And he did.
The victory, rewarded with a $250,000 check, was a fairy-tale ending for Alice Walton, owner of Rocking W Ranch in Millsap, Texas, who owns and bred Rockin W. The stallion is the first foal of Walton's favorite horse, Boon San Kitty, the 2004 NCHA Horse of the Year who has $498,198 in lifetime earnings in cutting.
Walton fondly calls the 2000 mare "Miss Piggy" because of her appetite for food and life.
"It's amazing," said the Wal-Mart heiress who provides scholarships for NCHA youth through her family foundation. "For him to be Miss Piggy's first baby and always so
special, and then I'm silly enough to name him after my ranch, it's kind of a Cinderella thing."
Rockin W is also Walton's first stallion to earn a spotin the Futurity limelight.
"I've always been a mare person," she said with a laugh. "But from the day he was born, he was really special. He was a gentle horse, but he was always a leader in the yearling stallion pasture. He managed everybody, but he didn't kick them or anything. He just led them around.
"He's always been a special, special horse with a kind heart and really smart. I've always loved him." In addition to his Futurity win, Rockin W now holds a place in NCHA history because his 229 score ties him with Royal Fletch, who set the all-time Futurity high in 2000. Only four other horses have scored 226 or higher in the Futurity: High Brow CD with 226 in 2007; Oh Cay Felix with a 227 in 2006; Highbrow Supercat with a 226.5 in 2005, and One Smart Lookin Cat with 226 in 2003.
Rockin W was started and trained by Walton's neighbor, Gary Gonsalves, who opted to show two other horses in the Futurity.
"He'd been laid off for a couple of months because he had a bruised coffin bone from being shod," Walton explained. "Gary loved him, but that's why he didn't show him."
Gonsalves was pleased to play a part in the colt's outstanding performance.
"Bill Riddle told me Bill Freeman told him that if you have more than three horses, you're probably going to ride the wrong horse," Gonsalves said. "I feel like I got him trained and did the job she paid me to do. He [Tony Piggott] did a fabulous job of showing him, so it worked out the way it was supposed to."
Gonsalves recalled Rockin W wasn't easy to train at first, but settled down as he got a little older.
"He was a terrible 2-year-old, but that's how her [Boon San Kitty's] babies are," he said. "But in his 3-year-old year, he just figured it out and went on from there."
Piggott, who has been Rocking W Ranch's resident trainer for a year, also found the stallion to be challenging at first.
"We really hadn't gotten along all that well," he said. "He has a lot of draw and it's been difficult for me to get with him and keep him up out of the herd."
But the duo obviously paired up well at the Futurity, where they achieved Piggott's goal to impress the judges.
"My first cow wasn't one that I was trying to cut. It just shaped up there for me, but it was a great cow to start the run," he said. "The second cow was one I knew. "When I turned around, the third cow was just kind of sitting there on top, and we just kind of chipped him off and luckily he came up by himself, and we went up there and threw him down. I knew I had a strong run going, so I wanted to show the judges that I wanted to try to win this cutting."
Piggott moved to the United States 13 years ago with no riding experience, but a love of horses. When he was born, his parents sold their dairy farm and moved to town.
"I always liked horses," he said. "My parents couldn't afford to get me one, so I'd ride relatives' horses on school holidays and things like that."
After working for Terry Clifford for six years, Piggott then went to work for Paul Hansma at Bar H Ranche in Weatherford, Texas.
"I learned a whole lot from Paul. Working with him was the best thing I ever did," he said. "Paul taught me all about showing and finishing a horse."
Piggott placed third in the 2008 NCHA Super Stakes Classics on a Bar H Ranche horse, Boiler Room. The previous year he piloted Pedual To The Medual to the 2007 NCHA Futurity Open Limited Reserve. The 2009 Futurity victory more than doubled Piggott's career earnings, which were $113,828 before the Futurity. He and Rockin W also placed fourth in the 2009 NCHA Futurity Limited Open by marking a 215, which earned a $15,496 check.
The stallion caught the attention of other cutters in the first go-round when he marked a 220. He scored a 216 in the second go and advanced to the finals after posting a 218.5 in the semi-finals.
Piggott's wife, Jill, is an accomplished non-pro rider who has earned more than $152,000 in the sport.
"This is a dream come true," said Piggott. "This horse has a cool style. He traps those cows and snakes around with his neck. He's a neat horse."