Before achieving success with Paladin, Park City resident Beverly Gray competed with Omner, one of the greatest endurance racing horses of all-time.
(Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune) BY GORDON MONSON THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Somewhere on the walls of Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City hangs the image of a flea-bitten gray Anglo Arabian horse named Omner. And in that image, for the sad and embattled eyes of whatever child looks upon it, hope hangs, too.
That is the lasting hope of Beverly Gray, the longtime owner of Omner and an endurance racer who rode the gelding more than 9,000 miles and to 42 wins over a career that landed him not only in the sport's Hall of Fame, but also as the inspiration for a model horse by Breyer, a company that markets toy models of other equine notables, such as thoroughbreds Secretariat and Cigar and Hollywood cowboy Roy Rogers' Trigger.
The 50-year-old Gray had a Breyer model, a palomino, when she was just 7, growing up near Long Beach, Calif., falling hard for horses and setting the foundation of a path toward her own racing career that went throttle up after she moved to Park City as a college student when she was 19.
Omner made his mark beyond the rugged trails of endurance racing, which might have been enough on its own, for which Gray trained and raced him for the better part of two decades. Endurance racing takes place over all manner of terrain, typically rocky and mountainous and grueling, covering distances of 100 miles in one day. Some races are shorter. Others, aptly called multidays, cover 265 miles over a longer period, during which horse and rider are confronted with everything from steep climbs to jagged edges to swinging bridges that sway and groan with every step the equestrian combo takes.
Eleven years ago, while competing in a particularly challenging endurance ditty called the Race of Champions, held that year in Montana, Gray noticed that Omner neither felt nor looked right. When she had him checked by a staff of vets at the event, they said his symptoms were serious and recommended immediate departure for Utah, where further testing could be done.
Veterinarians in Park City found a large cancerous growth near the horse's kidney, a mass roughly the size of a gallon bottle of bleach. They told Gray to prepare for the worst, saying the condition almost certainly would be fatal.
Gray put Omner in a pasture near Park City, changed his diet, gave him a regular dose of natural vitamins to help boost his immune system and agonizingly waited for him to die.
A few months later, when he didn't, she took the gelding back to the vet for more tests, which revealed that the growth had reduced to the size of an orange. The vets suggested Gray get the horse back into training.
"That horse was amazing," says Kim Henneman, a Park City veterinarian. "I have no idea how he came back from that. We treated him holistically, and he just got healthy."
When Gray returned with Omner to the Race of Champions the following year, the vets who originally examined the horse gave the team a standing ovation as it crossed the finish line in 10th place.
"From that point on, I considered him a gift," Gray says. "Whenever I looked at him, I thought of the words, 'Never give up.' "
Fittingly, the time-honored motto in endurance racing is: "To finish is to win."
But Omner went on to many more wins, real -- not symbolic nor ceremonial -- ones. After being named one of the top 10 endurance race horses of the century by Arabian Horse World magazine, Omner was retired by Gray last year, at the age of 22, and was donated to the National Ability Center, a facility for handicapped children located near Park City, where the kids learn to ride atop the former champion.
"To ride a horse that also is a plastic model toy is exciting for them," Gray says. "He gets a ton of attention there, and he sends that same message to them."
The one about never giving up.
That's the reason Primary Children's asked for a picture of the galloping miracle to display for troubled eyes to see.
As for Gray, who initiated her race career by entering ride and tie competitions -- she was once a national champion -- in and around Park City and switched to solo endurance races some 18 years ago, she also has moved on to greener pastures.
Having purchased another flea-bitten gray Arabian, named Paladin, who distantly came out of the same northern Utah lines as Omner, and steadily trained him, Gray has gone on winning races and covering mileage. She recently passed the 14,000-mile mark in combined competitive miles and has garnered 70 career wins.
"In the horse world, they like to say you get one horse of a lifetime," Henneman says. "Beverly's had two. She just knows how to pull it all together and make it work for her."
A few weeks ago, she was named to the U.S. team that will compete in the World Equestrian Games at Jerez, Spain, in September. She is the first Utahn to be selected for the team in any discipline at a world championship or Olympics. She is one of six U.S. racers -- five of them are female -- who will ride in a 100-mile event. Other disciplines include dressage, vaulting, driving and reining.
"I'm on cloud nine," she says.
Getting there, short-term and long, was a pleasurable pain in the butt.
Here's the short: Gray had to finish well in two grueling 100-mile qualifiers, one in Carson City, Nev., which covered a rocky course that troubled more than a few riders, and one in the mountains of Washington state. Gray finished fifth out of 50 racers in the former and fourth out of a similar field in the latter on a course over which Paladin covered the last 12 miles faster than the opening 12 miles. That feat impressed officials who favor generally steady horses with proven stamina.
"Beverly did her homework in those races and her horse was improving," says Mary Lutz, an endurance director with the U.S. equestrian team. "In talking to the selectors, they said she has always been a fabulous competitor with great horses."
And the long: Gray fell in love with horses when she was young, a Southern California suburbanite whose father, Frank Ross, was in the Navy, and whose mom, Eileen, was a homemaker. One of five children, she followed an older sister's path to a local stable where she learned to ride and take care of horses.
That pursuit intensified after she moved to Park City to attend the University of Utah and ride more horses. A marathon runner with a personal-best time of 2 hours, 56 minutes, Gray enjoyed the ride and tie events until she married and had a child in her early 30s.
"I had a family and a full-time job at a travel agency, so training time for the ride and tie went away," she says. "I took about one year off, then I got into endurance riding."
Endurance events typically cover 100 miles and allow 24 hours for competitors to finish. Gray's all-time best time, she says, is "about 10 1/2 hours."
"You run on adrenaline out there," she adds. "You're a team with your horse, and I would say it's about 50-50, as far as how you perform. You have to know how fast to go at different times, depending on the challenges you face. There are hills to climb and streams to cross. It can be tough. There has to be a connection between the rider and the horse. It's real emotional. Horses do it, not because they're going to get a medal, but because they are trained to do this kind of racing, and because they want to please you."
Generally, races are divided into increments. Riders and horses cover anywhere from 12 to 20 miles at a time before stopping at check points, where horses are examined for health reasons. Then, they move on.
Horses aren't the only team members who get injured. Gray has been thrown off her mount four times, usually for reasons she never fully grasped. "There might be a mystery ghost out there on the trail that the horse picks up on, but you never see," she says. "During one race, a wolverine ran out from its hole and spun my horse around. There are other challenges, too, like the weather. The course can change, depending on the elements."
The most formidable physical challenge for riders comes in keeping the legs strong and fresh. They absorb the brunt of the bumps along the trail.
There also are financial hurdles. Prize money is a mere rumor in endurance racing. An occasional horse blanket or belt buckle is the basic reward for those who win. For Gray, she pays for her passion by selling Arabian saddles and vitamin supplements, in addition to working in the office of a construction company.
"You do this because you love it," she says.
Still, is there a better reason?
Her 18 years of endurance racing, then, will reach their crescendo in September, when Gray will represent her country in Spain, doing something at its absolute pinnacle about which she is resolutely passionate.
"I never imagined any of this," she says. "It all stems from dreaming about horses when I was a 7-year-old girl. I've been fortunate in a lot of ways. Now, to go to the world championships, it's a thrill. I can hardly wait."