A star-studded night to remember

It's the stuff from which stories are made. The on-the-edge-of-your seat final thriller of this year's NRHA Open Futurity couldn't have unfolded any more vividly if it had flowed through the pen of the best screenwriter in the business.It's the stuff from which stories are made. The on-the-edge-of-your seat final thriller of this year's NRHA Open Futurity couldn't have unfolded any more vividly if it had flowed through the pen of the best screenwriter in the business.

Story originally posted by: Katie Tims

It’s the stuff from which stories are made. The on-the-edge-of-your seat final thriller of this year’s NRHA Open Futurity couldn’t have unfolded any more vividly if it had flowed through the pen of the best screenwriter in the business.

Two stars, Andrea Fappani and Brent Wright, played their roles to dueling 227.5 scores in the last go. Their pairing charted the course for the dramatic run-off scene – one that literally lifted the wildly cheering audience to a standing ovation for both winners.

As the ending credits scrolled, Fappani and RR Star received dollar-laden accolades as the 2001 Open Futurity Champions after marking a 219.5 for the $150,000 final payout. The leading man was mounted on the very flashy overo stallion owned by Lundin Farms, Del Norte, Colo. Taking home supporting honors and $97,340 was Wright on Custom Pistol, a powerful sorrel stallion owned by Steve Simon, Paxton, Mass.

Truly, the NRHA Open Futurity finals was one to remember. Never before had the event been determined by a run-off and big numbers told the story of top reiners in top form. By the time the first seven horses worked and the tractor pulled in to freshen the arena, it already took a 219 just to place sixth. That same 219 wound up 13th when it was said and done.

In that first section, Tom McCutcheon, Pilot Point, Texas, pulled in on Sailin Ruf to meet enthusiastic support from the spectators and a leading 225 score. It looked like he had a good chance for Futurity glory on this colt owned by Giovanni Cioli from Italy.

The mark held through eight powerful runs until Wright and Custom Pistol stole the show by lighting up a 227.5 on the board. One arena work and seven horses later, Fappani and RR Star maneuvered their way into the glaring lights.

The young trainer had already stared his finals in the eye with a run on Style With Me, a Lean With Me stallion owned by Fappani’s father, Sergio. The two marked a 218.5 and cleared the way for what was to come.

"I was way more nervous on the first horse I showed," Fappani said.

Confident and cool, Fappani walked in knowing what had to be done although he didn’t spend much time on mental accounting.

"I wasn’t shooting to get a 228," he said. "I was just shooting to get the best I could out of my horse."

The pair proceeded to the center and flawlessly executed left circles followed by left spins, right circles and right spins. As Fappani and RR Star completed the last figure-eight lead change and headed down the right side for the stop and rollback, the spectators voiced and whistled their full appreciation. The horse’s deep, easy groundwork turned up the volume even louder.

"I love it and it helps," Fappani said about the crowd’s cheering. "Having the pressure of a lot of people watching me plus the sound – that makes it way better."

Once RR Star made his third stop and backed up, everyone watching knew the score had to be a good one. Was it enough?

Fappani rode his horse out the end gate and sat momentarily while the bit judges lined up for duty. The stands were quiet.

Just then, Keith Bradley’s familiar "The score …" boomed through the coliseum. Intent, Fappini looked up to the scoreboard positioned directly above and showed no emotion as the announcer wrapped his voice around the numbers. Once the 227.5 echoed over the sound system, Fappani’s face melted into a wide grin and his fist shot into the air.

"I couldn’t believe it!" he said.

Tie locked, Fappani and Wright had nothing to do but wait through 11 more reiners. Playing double time on their minds was the possibility of a higher score that could settle suit along with figuring optimum preparation for a possible run-off. Fappani said he followed his boss’ advice to take it easy before the final run.

"I let him catch his air for about a half-hour and then warmed up for about 10 minutes and didn’t try to fix anything," he said.

At this point, Fappani felt like he’d been taken off the anxiety hook. And even as the run-off order was announced, the young trainer remained focused but not unduly stressed.

"I didn’t have a whole lot of pressure because I was super happy of being there," he said about tying for the lead. "I was already happy for what I had."

Predetermined by finals order, the run-off draw penciled Wright first. Maneuvering through the same No. 5 NRHA pattern, Custom Pistol worked his circles, spins and figure-eights before running into disaster on his rollback. The stallion slid to a tremendous stop and then backed several steps before turning awkwardly back over his hocks.

"It was my fault," Wright bravely said later. "When he went down there and stopped, his nose went to the left a little bit. When I pulled, his nose went left and he started backing up."

Finishing his pattern in high style, Wright exited the arena as judges called for a review. With nothing but a hunch on the scoreboard, Fappani rode in for his turn. Even though it looked like Wright had probably zeroed his run, the Oregon reiner was not about to take chances.

"I tried to do the best I could in there," Fappani said. "I went a little bit slower, but still I tried to do the best I could."

The left circles and spins were exceptional but the right small circle gave Fappani a moment of scare. As the horse closed up his second large, fast circle, the trainer sat down to bring the horse to a slower gait. RR Star misinterpreted the cue and fell out of lead for a few strides.

Even with the penalty, the duo dished up a 219.5 mark that won it the Championship. After taking a second look, the judges did indeed determine that Wright and Custom Pistol broke pattern.

RR Star – reining Futurity star

At this time last year, Fappani and his boss had no idea RR Star could possibly make enough progress to make a reining futurity champion. Todd Bergen, for whom Fappani works, brought the horse to his barn right after the 2000 Snaffle Bit Futurity at the beginning of October.

He’d picked the horse up in Reno from owners Richard and Rose Lundin, who had trailered RR Star from their home in southern Colorado. The Lundins originally asked Bergen to give their stallion a try in the cow horse department.

"I said I just didn’t think he was going to make it," Rose recalled. "Todd called me four months after he had him and said, "Rose, he’s ready to show right now – this colt is fabulous!’ "

RR Star bypassed the cow work and traveled a straight route to reining. Monte Stewart, a stunt man/horse trainer, started the horse and had put in about three or four months of ride time before the colt relocated to Oregon.

"He had a lot of look to him," Bergen said, "but he was really, really behind."

Ordinarily, 2-year-olds at Bergen’s place have at least six months of serious training already accomplished by November. RR Star was just getting around to his. With just the basics and miles of trail riding under his cinch, the horse made up for lost time.

"We got him with basically half of the time of the other horses we’re showing here and he’s just been really, really easy to train and ride," Fappani said.

Part of the first foal crop of Grays Starlight son Like A Diamond, RR Star is officially a sorrel overo but really, he is a deep apple color with flaxen mane and tail. He has a bald face, a right blue eye, not much chrome on his legs, splatters of white over his neck and shoulders plus one large spot that extends from the right side of his belly up under the saddle blanket.

Along with serious cutters on the top, his bottom pedigree is chockfull of proven ability. The Lundins raised the dam, RL Miss Kitty, a mare that is by Nu Cash and out of Smokes Jinx (Mr Gun Smoke x Satin Chex by King Fritz). RR Star’s dam won some money in 1996 while being shown as a 3-year-old by Teddy Robinson. Crossing potent cow horse lines with reiner blood was the Lundins’ No. 1 priority when they decided to breed their mare.

"We don’t breed Paints per se," Rose said. "We breed reiners with color."

The Lundins had big plans for their flashy reiner the moment he hit the ground. When RR Star was born, Richard and Rose immediately called Bergen to ask if he would consider riding a Paint horse. After taking a look at the powerful pedigree, the trainer agreed.

"When the two years came around, I called him back," Rose said. "He said, "I told you I’d take him and I’ll take him.’ "

One phone call and a willing try made history.

Following his long trailer ride to Oregon, RR Star became sick and was forced to postpone lessons for about a month. Once training got underway the progress was smooth and quick. Just six months later, RR Star and Fappani debuted by winning the first go and placing fourth overall at the Paint World Show’s Open Reining Futurity.

"Everybody else showed two-handed," Fappani recalled. "I showed him in the same bridle I showed him in here (NRHA Futurity) and he was just very, very nice."

Although RR Star was turning into quite a reining horse, Bergen admitted he had doubts the horse had what it took to be a superstar. After the Paint World, Fappani worked at home and took the stallion to a couple of schooling shows. In the two months preceding the NRHA Futurity, RR Star polished his shine and added grace and power to his maneuvers.

Bergen changed his mind once the horse came to town and marked a 220 score in the first go at the Futurity.

"That’s when I told Missy (his wife), "Andrea could win this thing on that horse,’ " Bergen said. "Of all our horses, I thought he could win it on that one. I was right!"

After earning a 222 in the second round, Fappani and RR Star were positioned one spot off the composite lead behind Todd Crawford and Princess in Diamonds. According to Fappani, the stallion has lots of early energy and then tires easily. It took planning and precise preparation to ensure RR Star peaked at just the right moment.

"I tried to not train him and get him ready too much for the first go," Fappani said. "I just went a little bit harder for the second go to just start tuning him up a little bit."

After taking three days off after the second go, Fappani stepped up the tuning the night before the final round. Bettering his previous score by more than five points, RR Star sent his upward trend shooting though the roof. Fappani said everything that night "just went right."

For now, the plan is to leave RR Star at Bergen’s for three years, during which time he’s headed for reining’s aged events. He’s already entered in the NRBC Derby next spring and the NRHA event is sure to follow. Even though their phone has been ringing with calls from around the country regarding stud service, the Lundins plan to hold off breeding their stallion for at least a year so he can concentrate on resume building.

It looks like RR Star is going to keep his compass along the reining line.

"I don’t see the necessity of him doing the cow horse when he has all the breeding to prove he can do it," Rose said.

As for siblings, Rose was not certain they’d breed RL Miss Kitty back to Like A Diamond although there is a Smartest Little Pep already being ridden by Monte Stewart and a Reminic is next. "Todd said that one was going to his place," Rose said with a laugh.

The star trainer
Andrea Fappani is no stranger to the NRHA Futurity’s winner’s circle.

Last year, he won the Intermediate Open Division on Hagans Sugarman and was the 1997 Limited Non-Pro Champion with Best By Tari. He is, however, the first Italian-born trainer to take the big American event and at age 24, is among the youngest to capture the Open Championship. Craig Johnson holds the record – at 22, he won the 1983 Open Futurity on Lucky Bay Glo.

In Bergamo, Italy, not far from Milan, Andrea was raised on his family’s dairy farm with father, Sergio, and mother, Maddalisa. Having already ridden hunter-jumpers, Andrea was introduced to one of his father’s non-pro reiners at about age nine.

"I just decided I wanted to try it and I loved it!" Andrea said.

In 1996, when he was just 18, Andrea watched Todd Bergen win the Italian Futurity. What he witnessed changed his life forever.

"I decided that sooner or later I had to come here (the United States) and try it here," he said.

Eventually, Andrea moved to America and rode with Bergen, who was at the time training horses in Arizona with John Slack. Within a year, Andrea won the Limited Non-Pro Futurity and then decided to jump into the big leagues by giving up his non-pro card. When Bergen relocated to Oregon a couple years ago, Andrea made the northwest trip too.

Other than a mandatory year-long stint in the Italian military, Andrea has been with Bergen the whole time. Along with learning how to create and show a champion, Andrea is very thankful to his mentor for providing top-notch horses.

"I feel really lucky," Andrea said. "No matter if they turn out to be really good or as good as his, he respects my work a lot."

Bergen, a former Bob Avila student who has won multiple Futurity championships in reining and cow horse events, is extremely proud to see his knowledge be carried on to a new generation.

"It makes me feel really old!" Bergen said with a laugh.

Seriously, Bergen sees much of himself in the young reining champion.

"Andrea reminds me a lot of myself," Bergen said. "I can see what he does and the stuff he goes through is the same stuff I can remember when I was working for somebody."

Just as Avila graciously stepped back to watch assistant trainer Bergen show Todaysmyluckyday to the 1995 NRHA Open Futurity Championship, Bergen has done the same with Andrea.

"I’m rooting for him all the way," Bergen said. "He comes to me for advice a lot and I help him with that, but I pretty much leave him alone and let him train the horse."

Of the six horses Bergen and Andrea brought to the Futurity, four made it to the finals. On Style With Me, Andrea marked a 217 in the first go, a 220 in the second and scored a 218.5 in the last round to end up for a five-way tie for 14th place.

Although Rose Lundin sent RR Star to Bergen for training, she had no qualms about her stallion being turned over to the assistant trainer.

"I told Todd that if he said Andrea was adequate, then I’d believe him," she said.

What does she think now?

"Well, I don’t think he’s good enough!" she said with a hearty laugh, Actually, Lundin sees this relationship as a long-term deal.

"I told Andrea I was going to steal him from his fiancÚ," Rose said. "I said he could marry her but he was staying with me; I said those guys were married to me for life."

In fact, Tish Wood, the California lady Andrea plans to marry next June, was on hand to see her future husband win his first Futurity, along with Sergio, Maddalissa and Elena Fappani, Andrea’s father, mother and sister, who had traveled from Italy. After not having seen his family for two years, Andrea was grateful to have kin on hand since they did not get to see his Champion 2000 Intermediate performance.

"I told them to come because I might have some good horses this year," he said with a grin.

As for his future, Andrea plans to remain training horses at Bergen’s barn. In addition to the reiners, Andrea has been riding some of Bergen’s young cow horses at home and hopes to one day augment that training with some reined cow horse showing.

"Todd gave me the chance to ride a lot of nice horses and he is very, very good to me," Andrea said. Bergen isn’t about to let his star employee go.

"I’m going to try hard to keep him working with me," Bergen said. "If I can have a player in my barn like that, I want to keep him around!"