Melissa Fischer cries when she recalls the moment newly crowned National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Champion Zak 34 entered her family’s life.
It was at last year’s NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Sales in Fort Worth, Texas. As they sat in the stands and watched horses sell, Fischer and her family – long-time South Dakota horse breeders – were still reeling over the loss of her son, Seth, about two months earlier.
They didn’t go to the sale to buy a champion. They’d traveled the 700-some miles from Wagner, South Dakota, to Fort Worth, because they were hurting and needed to get away from the pain of Seth’s death at age 35 on the Missouri River.
Then they saw Zak 34, at the time 2 years old and named CR Tuff Diggin Louie. Fischer instantly knew the Center Ranch-bred son of Woody Be Tuff had to be theirs.
She wanted him so badly she kept bidding even after her father, Lynn, told her to stop – which she never, ever does.
The hammer fell at $88,500, way more than they planned on spending. But, it didn’t matter. There was something special about the horse, an instant connection to her son’s memory.
“We saw him come through the back ring – and that was all,” Fischer said on Saturday, Oct. 23, minutes after Zak 34 won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship with Justin Wright. “There was just like a strange feeling [that] took over. We just knew he was ours … We had to have him, and how we ever lucked out to get him I don’t know. But, it was Seth – it was the horse.”
Ever since the purchase, Zak 34 has given the family a way to remember Seth as they continue to grieve his passing. It’s also given them something to smile about.
Something about Zak 34 helps them connect with Seth.
That’s why, when asked what winning the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship meant to her, Fischer’s answer was simple.
“Everything,” she said. “He’s where we see Seth.”
A Name & The Number
After they bought the horse, the Fischers changed his name to Zak 34 in honor of Seth, whose nickname was “Zak” and who was synonymous with the number 34 – harking back to his admiration for Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton.
“The 34 is Walter Payton’s number … My son was an avid Chicago Bears fan, so whenever he played, he had to have the number 34,” she explained. “When he played football, his number was 34. When he played basketball, his number was 34 [and then] he got out [of high school], played college ball …. his number was 34. And then, he started doing late model racing and his number’s 34.”
The Fischers put the jet-black colt out of the mare Cat Digs Lucinda (by High Brow Cat) in the hands of Wright, who was at the sale the day they bought him and, thanks to the urging of his wife, Gloria, approached the family to see what the plans were for their new purchase. It turns out they didn’t have a trainer in mind for the colt, and after some thought, they decided to send him to California with Wright.
That Special Feeling
For his part, Wright said Zak 34 was unbelievable all along and gave him a special feeling, but the trainer had felt that feeling from other horses before and still, until Zak 34 came along, had never won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity.
“This is the first year that winning the Snaffle Bit Futurity didn’t consume every thought that I had, and maybe that’s why [the win] is so emotional,” Wright said in the barn area after the win. “I’ve been here, [and] I’ve lost it probably more than anybody in the last four years.”
“I don’t know if it was lack of experience or it just wasn’t the night, but I’ve had some really unbelievable horses here the last five years and they probably all deserve to win as well. And, I can’t thank them enough for getting me to this point.”
The losses of the past few years might have been what made the win with Zak 34 possible.
“Maybe that’s what it took … just calming down and realizing that it’s gonna work or it’s not gonna work and [to] take a deep breath? Don’t make it happen. Try to let it happen,” he said. “And, I kind of felt like that’s the way it went tonight. You know, it just happened.”
Wright and Zak 34 finished with the top composite of 670 (221 herd/223 rein/226 cow). The victory paid $125,000, and the black stallion was one of three horses Wright got into the finals: he also finished third with SJR Royal Diamond and tied for fourteenth with One Metallic Spark.
The more than $211,500 he earned during the finals pushed the rider’s lifetime EquiStat record to more than $1.9 million.
“This is so hard and getting here so hard,” Wright said, reflecting on the victory. “The crew and the family, you know, I have the best crew in the world, the best assistant trainers in the world and the best family in the world. And everybody thinks that I did good tonight, but they’re the ones that work that hard. I got the easy job.”
After the Futurity, Zak 34 was scheduled to go back to California with Wright and Fischer was going back to her family’s horse-breeding operation in South Dakota. Fischer Farms raises Quarter Horses and Paints, and they’re widely known for standing the late black-and-white Paint stallion, Strait From Texas.
As Zak 34 continues on with his show career, the Fischers also will be opening a new chapter with their famous Paint stallion. Thanks to a reserve of frozen semen from Strait From Texas, the stallion’s first foals since his death several years ago were born this year. If Fischer has any say, cow horse fans could be seeing some of those foals compete at future NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity shows.
Though excited about the future of both ventures, Fischer is happiest to continue to enjoy Zak 34 and the special connection she feels with her son through him.
“We’re gonna see what his fate holds for him,” she said. “He’ll be residing with us forever.
“He’s never going anywhere.”