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Dark Horse in the Sunshine

A jumper named Mr. Midnight, once a fugitive from a dog-food factory, makes a clean sweep in Miami in the opening show of the annual Sunshine Circuit

The Sunshine Horse Show Circuit, a Florida institution that obviously was not named this year, got off to a chilly 1958 start in Miami last month and is due for a frosty finish in Gainesville next week after five shows. Perhaps it was the nip in the air that gave zest to the performances, but in any case the Miami presentation was a first-rate Class B show.

Another reason was a horse which jumped as though his life depended on it—as, indeed, it once had. Now called Mr. Midnight, five years ago this 7-year-old black gelding of indeterminate ancestry was the nameless occupant of a kill pen in an Atlantic, Iowa stockyard, waiting for death and conversion to dog food.

Mr. Midnight was saved from this premature and ignominious end by sheer chance and an amateur horseman's good eye. Dave Schuetz, an Atlantic credit bureau operator, happened to drive by the yard one afternoon and caught a glimpse of the colt. He stopped his car and looked closer. He liked what he saw.

"I decided to buy him then and there," Schuetz recalled last week, "but the stockyard man didn't want to sell. He warned me that this black colt was mean, and had a reputation as a killer. Well, I wouldn't be put off. I couldn't see that it mattered to them if I bought him or the slaughterhouse got him. Finally we struck a bargain. I could buy him if I could catch him."

Schuetz went into the pen with a halter, and the horse promptly retreated into a chute. Schuetz blocked the end of the chute with railroad ties and then climbed in after his cornered quarry. The flighty 2-year-old snorted, took two strides and leaped over the wall to freedom. As Schuetz took off after him down the heavily traveled highway, he remembers having just two thoughts: "He'll make a wonderful jumper! He'll be killed for sure in this traffic."

But the horse made a fortunate mistake. He swerved off the road and fell, belly up, into a deep ditch. Schuetz scrambled down and sat on his head until help came. Then, with the colt safely roped, Schuetz returned to the stockyard and paid the going price per pound for his new charge—$40, total.

In the following months the horse, named Mr. Midnight by Schuetz, responded (as supposedly mean horses often do) to kindness and slow, easy work. Schuetz taught him more than 30 tricks, among them to kneel, to stand on pedestals and to jump. "That is what he loved to do," Schuetz says. "That horse just loved jumping—you just had to aim him at something and he'd jump it."

This happy idyl came to an end in 1956 when Schuetz fell seriously ill. Confronted by a long convalescence, he decided to sell Mr. Midnight and entrusted him to a dealer who was taking a number of horses to the sales at New Holland, Pa. The dealer was a friend of J. Ray Patterson, a horse-owning contractor at Chester, Pa., and on his arrival at New Holland he called Patterson and described Mr. Midnight over the telephone. Patterson bought him for $225. Patterson's good friend Free-land Evans, who has shown such top horses as Sun Beau, schooled Mr. Midnight and started showing him in jumper events.

"If you win the first class, Free-land," Patterson promised in Miami, "I'll take us to Cuba to get warm." Mr. Midnight won the first class. In fact, he won every jumping event offered, including the Sky High class. Although the horse set no new records, he cleared a very creditable 6 feet 1¼ inches. That was all it took to win the class—the show officials, not expecting even that height to be reached, used a standard that stopped at 6 feet. And the event was exciting enough to stop the spectators who usually start leaving toward the last class but in this case stayed on until nearly midnight to watch Mr. Midnight.

Fourteen-year-old Laurie Ratliff, who comes from Pass Christian, Miss., where most people ride Saddle-bred or Walking horses, rode her Ricochet to two second places behind Mr. Midnight at the Miami show. She also won the ASPCA Horsemanship class, and Little Sombrero, with Laurie aboard, was the Juvenile Working Hunter champion (winning the second leg on this trophy) and also won reserve Conformation Hunter honors.

The other hunter events were dominated by the Waverly Farm entries. Garden of Eden, the Green Hunter champion at Madison Square Garden last fall, was first in all his classes except the Ladies (in which he had a half-asleep trip) and easily won the championship. Waverly's Son Imp, with the owner's son Price McIntosh aboard again, handily won every class and the Conformation Hunter championship.

The amateur and juvenile events, particularly in the saddle-horse division, were almost hot enough to warm the Dinner Key auditorium. Seventeen-year-old Nancy Cunningham of Beloit, Wis. started her fourth year on the Sunshine circuit with three big successes: her walk-trot mare, Copper Rocket, won the Juvenile Three-gaited and then the Amateur stake; and on Georgia Buck, Nancy accepted the blue in the Juvenile Western Pleasure class.

Another youngster who was able to hang up quite a number of the right-colored ribbons in her tack room was Candy Shaffer of Ojus, Fla. On Candy's Candy she won the Juvenile Five-gaited class; on Etoile Filante the Five-gaited Pony stake; and behind The Lollipop, clad in peppermint-striped colors, Candy won the Roadster Pony stake. Besides this, her Sparkling Divorcee won the Three-gaited-over-15.2 class and then the championship stake. Trainer Art Simmons of Mexico, Mo., who recently sold the mare to the Shaffers, rode Sparkling Divorcee and brought a real big-league look to the competition.

A different sort of big-league look was added to the show by the presence of a Golden Horseshoe Box, in which ladies shivering in their mink stoles were warmed by iced champagne. "We may send you away starving," Show Manager John Bowers told exhibitors, "but we won't send you off sober. This is a vacation circuit." But despite these amenities and other standout performances, there wasn't much doubt that the Miami show belonged to Mr. Midnight, the valiant horse who had refused to go to the dogs.