For devoted horse trainer Billy Williams, of Aubrey, Texas, one sunny afternoon in May had been particularly humbling. He’d been bucked off a 2-year-old and missed his cell phone ringing off in the distance. As he taught a non-pro rider, he looked down and saw the phrase “Missed call – Taylor Sheridan” lit up the phone screen.
A phone call from Sheridan – a reining enthusiast who is an actor, director and screenwriter and founder of The Run For A Million horse show – is the kind of thing catch’s a horse trainer’s attention.
It also was a bit of a surprise. Two months earlier, Williams had just missed the cut in the Open qualifier for The Run For A Million, coming up a mere half-point shy of making the top 10 and qualifying for the Million Dollar Competition at this year’s edition of Sheridan’s show.
Disappointed but not defeated, Williams had packed up his team – including mount Gunnin For Chicks – and headed back to Texas.
Fast forward to May and the missed call. Williams tapped at the notifications on his phone, and called Sheridan back. After a few rings, the actor and producer – best known as the co-creator of Yellowstone — answered with his recognizable, deep voice.
“He told me ‘You’re in, Cira Baeck’s out for some personal reasons and I think you should be in The Run For The Million,’,” Williams recounted of learning he would be in the Million Dollar Competition. “It was pure excitement.”
Williams’ dream of competing among the best of the best riders in Las Vegas will be realized this week. The Run For A Million kicks off Wednesday, Aug. 17, at the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa, and culminates with the Million Dollar Competition on Saturday, Aug. 20.
Competing in The Run For A Million horse show had been a goal for Williams since he’d watched the event in person in 2021. After surveying the horses currently available to him, Williams thought he needed some more horsepower and called in a favor from Mark Bradford, owner of the stallion Gunnin For Chicks.
“I always thought he was a really special horse. Nathan Piper trained him, showed him and had a fair amount of success on him. I watched him from when he was a 3-year-old to when he basically retired,” Williams said of the stallion, who earned more than $81,000 before retiring to the breeding shed. “When we bought and moved [to our ranch] five or six years ago, Gunnin For Chicks was retired and standing at stud there.”
For some riders, a 13-year-old breeding stallion that hadn’t pulled a check in the show pen since 2016 may not have been the first choice. But for Williams, the horse was the one. With Vegas on his mind, Williams began legging up Gunnin For Chicks (Colonels Smoking Gun [Gunner] x Dun it By Chick x Hollywood Dun It), also known as “Baby Blue.”
The stallion had won three futurity titles with Piper at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Reining Horse Association Summer Slide. He also made the Open finals of the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity and Derby with Piper, and was in the NRHA Derby finals a second time with trainer Andrea Fappani.
His first foals were born in 2016. They’ve so far earned $34,501 recorded in the Equistat database, led by Stylish Gunner Chick ($9,194).
“To be on a horse that is that physically talented – it’s fun to ride. Even on 90% of the days when I bring him out, trot him and lope him around and don’t do a reining maneuver, he’s still fun to ride,” said Williams said. “The first show I took him to was a little show in Ardmore, Oklahoma and I got on him there and he puffed his chest out. He was so happy to be back at a horse show.”
Qualifying For the Million
Entering its third year of existence, The Run For A Million has generated a major following of reining horse industry members and horse lovers from around the globe. As the hype has grown around the August event, so has the stiff competition.
It makes sense: first place in the Million Dollar Competition pays $500,000. The Reserve Champion? He or she gets a whopping $100,000.
There are only two ways to qualify for the Million Dollar Competition at The Run For A Million. One is to be among the top finishers of the Open Shootout, which is held during The Run For A Million and is open to all riders. The other is to be one of the top ten riders at The Run For A Million’s Open qualifier, which is held in March during the Cactus Reining Classic Open Derby in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Williams, whose current lifetime earnings are approaching $200,000, and Baby Blue tied for thirteenth place at the Open qualifier. However, he was only one spot out of going to the Million Dollar Competition because another rider, Cira Baeck, had more than one horse in the top 10 of the qualifier based on scores. However, the qualification slot goes to the rider, not the horse. Competitors can ride any horse they want at The Run For A Million, but they can only show one horse.
“I was disappointed, but I put it out of my mind,” Williams said.
That is, until Sheridan called him. European competitor Baeck, who had flown in from overseas and ridden two horses into the top 10 at the Open qualifier, had announced she was pregnant and decided to withdraw from the competition, opening the door for one more rider. Williams expressed his gratitude towards Sheridan, saying that he was under no obligation to add a 16th rider but decided to do it anyway.
“It’s his deal and I feel fortunate to be in there. I’m excited. In my opinion it’s the biggest show we have in our industry and just to be a part of it and experience it – I am over the moon,” Williams said. “Getting to run through the gate with those guys, especially when there are only 16 of us, is pretty special.”
Pedal to the Metal
As the event draws near, Williams says he is excited to ride Baby Blue into the South Point Arena and feels confident in the stallion’s ability.
“That horse can physically do so much, and he’s so stylish. There is no bottom to that horse, he just has so much heart,” Williams said. “We get along well, he’s a really feely horse and very smart. He’s a cool horse and he doesn’t take a lot — just keep him healthy and happy. I took him to a schooling show in Waco last weekend and he was really stinking good.”
Williams plans on competing in the Open Shootout, too, riding Wimpys Electric Star (Wimpys Little Step x Sheza Electric Star x Jacs Electric Spark) in hopes of grabbing one of the top spots and qualifying for next year’s Million Dollar Competition.