When a ligament injury forced him into retirement in February 1996, Honor the Hero had already proven he was an exceptional equine athlete. The then-eight-year-old gelding had 13 wins, eight seconds and three thirds in stakes competition; an overall record of 57 starts, 25 wins, 11 seconds, four thirds and earnings of $688,037; had equaled the world record for six furlongs; and set track records at Turf Paradise (for five furlongs) and Canterbury Park (for 7 1/2 furlongs). In his second career, as a Three-Day Event competitor, Hero continues to show the same mettle over the cross-country course as he once did on the racetrack.
Honor the Hero has been in the hands of his owners, Minnesota-based Allan Burdick and Arnulf “Arnie” Ueland Jr. and his wife Rebecca, since 1989, when the trio purchased the then-yearling gelding for $25,000 at the Keeneland September Sale, on the advice of trainer Doug Oliver, who subsequently managed Hero throughout his seven-year racing career. Both his owners and his former trainer continue to pay regular visits to Hero at his new home, Trojan Horse Farm in Cave Creek, Ariz., where he is being taught the basics of eventing by trainer Andrew Popeil.
Hero, who is ridden by Popeil’s wife, Danelle, has competed in eight horse trials, two show jumping and two dressage events already and “the son-of-a-gun has placed!” exalted Popeil, who says that he’s had to slow down Hero’s training schedule a bit because the gelding is just a little too brave in the cross-country endurance phase of eventing, which also includes dressage and stadium jumping.
Hero “gets macho” in cross-country competition, says Popeil, who adds that the gelding “needs to know what he’s doing,” before he can become truly proficient jumping over the ditches, water, banks, hedges and solid jumps that comprise a cross-country course.
Hero “certainly has the physical ability,” Popeil says, despite having one hoof that is noticeably smaller than the others and having sustained damage to the ligament in his right front leg, an injury that appears to have no bearing on his ability to jump or to run at speeds up to 29 mph during the steeplechase, which is also part of the endurance test in Three-Day Eventing. Hero has progressed so well that Popeil plans to enter him in preliminary-level competitions next year. The five levels of Three-Day Eventing are novice, training, preliminary, intermediate and advanced, so Hero’s already approaching mid-level competition. In the meantime he’s scheduled to compete at shows in Colorado, Arizona and California over the next few months. Having spent years moving from track to track as a racehorse (he competed at 12 different tracks in nine states, plus Nakayama Racecourse in Japan), Hero is a true road warrior and travel “is no big deal to him,” says Popeil. “He’s very relaxed about new places.” In the spring of next year, Hero will take a short, but very special trip to his old home track, Turf Paradise in Phoenix. There, he’ll give an exhibition of stadium jumping on the day of the Phoenix Gold Cup-a race that he won in 1993 and 1995. “He’s extremely well known in Phoenix,” says Popeil, “and he’ll be doing every horse a favor out there, showing how well he’s doing in another career.”
In his current life as a novice Three-Day Eventer, Hero does “have difficulty accepting that at this end of the business, he’s just a beginner,” acknowledges Popeil. “This horse knows that he was a superstar and as far he’s concerned, he still is.” But having witnessed his bravery, intelligence, athleticism and ability to learn, Popeil is inclined to agree with Hero’s assessment of himself. “He’s quite an exception,” says Popeil, “an exception to all the rules.”