Cover Story – Vol. 47, No. 3
Matoi: The Little Stallion Who Could—And Did
by MARY KIRKMAN
Any number of people have a number of memories of Matoi—he won national championships in 1990, ’92, ’93, ’99 and 2000. But those who were in Tingley Coliseum for the 2001 U.S. Nationals most likely will say, “That time he carried the flag.”
“That time” was barely five weeks after 9/11, when the country was still reeling from what had happened in New York.
Probably no one in the stands knew what was about to happen, right before show time, as the arena lights faded to black. And then a spotlight hit a dark bay horse beneath an unfurling American flag.
The stallion was handsome and compact, a trim bundle of energy with a high headset and a meticulous trot that sent the flag billowing above him, its red and white stripes dazzling in the light’s glare. If ever pride was evident in a horse, it radiated from Matoi’s trot that October. Trainer Chris Wilson sat motionless in the saddle as his national champion park horse circled the ring—strutted around the ring. When they came to a stop and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” rose around them, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Most people who saw Matoi win his various national titles remember the explosive power of his motion. Very few in his audience that night will ever forget the dignity of his performance.
Matoi, who died on May 18, 2016, at the age of 30, was one of the special ones. That’s not to say that any horse isn’t special to his friends and caretakers, but Matoi was one who qualified on so many counts that he rates an official designation.
Talent in the show ring? Check.
Prepotence as a sire, with a list of get who own gilt-edged show records? Check.
An unforgettably benevolent personality? Check. Just ask those who knew him.
The only thing he flunked was height (he stood around 14.3 hands in a set of plates), but since he never realized he couldn’t look a warmblood in the eye, that made no difference. As a sire, he rarely passed on “petite” to his sons and daughters, some of whom were bona fide skyscrapers.
Matoi’s history, as a show horse and breeding stallion, lasted for years and was catalogued several times in magazines. Following its arc now, several points stand out—facts that nearly everyone involved with him cite when trying to describe him.
He won major titles at an unusually young age (a reserve at Scottsdale before he actually turned 3 on the calendar, a U.S. National Championship in open park at 4). He lasted a long time—that first national championship came in 1990 and he earned his last in 2000. He passed through several hands, including trainers Bob Phillips, Mike Whelihan, Raymond LaCroix, Tom Moore, the Stachowskis, and Chris Wilson; and owners Bob Bradburn, Stanley Fried’s HSF Arabians, Julie Wrigley and Cedar Ridge. He won in open and amateur park and in formal driving (although word has it that he wasn’t especially fond of being hooked to a cart). He had a nonstop work ethic and was always—always, Mike Whelihan emphasizes—kind. He inherited that, Whelihan explains, from his sire, Zodiac Matador.
All of that talent apparently was bred in as well. “He was so athletic—so natural,” Tom Moore says. “He was just very smooth; he wasn’t forced at all. The whole time we were working with him, we were just trying to increase his balance even more than what it was naturally. The rest was all him. And for him to have all that natural balance, he had to have a lot of power off his hind quarters. He was surprisingly powerful for his size.”
“He would get in that position and turn his front end loose, and you just tried not to get in his way,” Wilson observes. “Find that rhythm, which was kind of easy to get to, and it was special. It was different.”
In a 2001 Arabian Horse Times article, Don DeLongpre, who bred and trained some of the most successful English horses in the breed and for a time stood Matoi at stud, remembered the first time he evaluated the stallion. “When I saw him going with Ray LaCroix, he was the most perfect—that’s the only way I can say it—park horse athlete I had ever seen,” DeLongpre said. “Bar none.”
Matoi was bred at Pinnacle Arabians, in Canada, and foaled on June 7, 1986, the highest-profile example of what Bob Bradburn achieved when he decided to line breed *Bask. The Edmonton breeder was equipped for the ambitious project: he owned Zodiac Matador, a member of *Bask’s next-to-last foal crop and a three-time national champion in park. Matador went on to so much success as a sire that English performance breeders today still seek out his presence in a pedigree.
To complement him, Bradburn acquired some of the best *Bask-bred mares he could find. One was Toi Ellenai, a maiden filly by the *Bask son Toi Soldier, and out of the regally-bred Polish import *Elea. Toi Ellenai’s first foal, a black bay colt by Matador, would be named Matoi.
Most of Matoi’s first two years were uneventful; he was turned out to grow up before beginning training with Bob Phillips, who scored a red ribbon at Scottsdale with him in the Arabian junior park class when he was still 2 by the calendar. Then, when Phillips left Pinnacle, the colt was sent to Mike Whelihan.
“He was small and brown,” Whelihan, who took the colt on to another second at the Buckeye, recalls. “Nobody would have guessed that he would become what he became. I think he’d started very normally, but he didn’t display much motion until he got to the collection and elevation phase of his training.”
And then, the trainer says, the picture changed. “At that point, we knew we had something special. He had trouble hanging in the double bridle at first, but then he got it, and after the Buckeye he started to get really good. By regionals, he was a full blown park horse that could have won the Nationals.”
Matoi was named park champion at Region 17, but misfortune struck not long after; during a routine photo shoot, he broke a bone in his pastern, which took him off the work tab for three months. Finally, walking sound and ready to go again, he shipped out to LaCroix Ltd., in Texas, to tune up for the coming season.
Both Raymond LaCroix and his assistant at the time, Tom Moore, schooled Matoi and both showed him. “The thing that I remember most about him was his balance,” says Moore. “Even starting out, he had such great balance; from the beginning, he carried so much of his weight on his hind end. It was so easy for him—it was effortless. And he was very willing.”
LaCroix took over full time in the summer of 1990. At that point, the young stallion had won the junior park class at Scottsdale, been sold to client Stanley Fried, and won junior park and a reserve championship in open at the Buckeye (the last time he would finish lower than first for a decade). In Louisville that fall, Matoi went on to win his first U.S. National Championship in Park.
The future followed quickly: in 1992, the stallion won the U.S. National Championship in Formal Driving, and the following year, purchased by Julie and Bill Wrigley, he added the U.S. National Championship in Park AAOTR with Julie. Then, with little left to prove in the show ring, he returned to his career as a breeding stallion.
And that is how everything might have remained, had the Wrigleys not decided to disperse their Arabian horse herd in the late 1990s. At the time, Matoi was standing at stud in Jordan, Minn., at Dick, Lollie and Lara Ames’s Cedar Ridge.
“We had loved Matoi for a long time,” says Lara Ames, explaining her family’s purchase of the stallion. A look at the photo of his 1990 Freedom Hall victory pass tells the story. “There are my mom and dad and me in the background, and we’re standing there clapping, with big smiles on our faces. And when Julie Wrigley won the amateur, my dad was showing in that class—and I didn’t watch him at all. All I did was watch Julie and Matoi.”
So, when the stallion became available, it seemed appropriate that she make an offer. During his tenure at their farm, she had gotten to know him personally, and now not only did she admire his ability, but she also had grown fond of him.
What happened next has taken its place in Ames family lore. Lara had recently taken over managing the operation, so she was careful when she advanced what she considered to be a low offer; it was serious, but she doubted that Julie Wrigley would accept. However, Wrigley agreed. “I didn’t have that kind of money!” Lara laughs now. Fortunately, her parents, who were out of town, agreed that it was an excellent purchase and backed her up—but not without a classic telephone call that included, “Mom, what kind of a mood is Dad in?”
“I about dropped the phone,” Lara’s mother, Lollie Ames, chuckles. “But you know what? It’s one of the best things she’s ever done. Matoi gave us such great foals and a lot of excitement in our life.” Dick Ames still blusters about it, but he too agrees. “To have a horse like that, with the career he had, was an honor. No question about it.”
It was not long before the family realized that while Matoi was not young, he still had the iron constitution and desire of a show horse. They sent him to the Stachowskis for preparation, and while he managed to win his preliminary at Scottsdale the following year, he developed a lung issue that brought plans to a halt. When he was ready to work again, he remained in Minnesota with Lara and was assigned to Cedar Ridge’s new trainer, Chris Wilson.
“He was just an exceptional kind of horse who always gave you 150 percent,” Wilson says. “He could squat down and push off of his hind legs like no other, with extreme motion and expression. You had to just love him.”
Six months later, Wilson piloted Matoi to the 1999 U.S. National Championship in Park with the judges’ unanimous endorsement.
The following year, the Cedar Ridge show string opened the season at Scottsdale, and once again, Matoi gave Lara Ames an unforgettable memory. The stallion was 14 but still going strong, so she became his partner for amateur competition. They won their class, but as there was no AOTR championship, they entered the open park final.
Lara remembers arriving at the warm-up ring determined to have a good time, but aware that a few of the top trainers in the breed were warming up park horses as well—which would make for some killer competition. Rigorously, she focused on her own business, and when the in-gate opened, she and Matoi trotted through it and around the ring … and found themselves alone.
“I had a really nice ride on him,” she smiles, “and the stands were filled.” But she was mystified. Where was everyone else? Finally, she was called to line up. “And then the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there were other horses in this class, but they opted not to come in today. Now we know why.’” What a tribute to her horse! She pauses and says softly, clearly moved, “I’ll always remember that.”
As the year went on, Lara and Chris Wilson shared Matoi. They both won the championships at Scottsdale, and then she won the U.S. and Canadian National Championships in Park AAOTR, while he rode the stallion to both national reserve titles. It would be the evergreen champion’s final year in the ring. There was very little left for him to win.
In AHT’s 2001 article on Matoi, Lollie Ames recalled, “A lot of people came back to the stalls and said, ‘What did you do to that horse to get him to move that way? And we said, ‘nothing.’”
“He was Joe Cool,” Wilson smiles. “He was like a Joe Montana, a cool cat with the personality to have a little fun while he did his job. He had a great attitude, and he didn’t miss a beat.”
“In my lifetime, I’ve never been around another horse like Matoi,” Lara says. “He had a huge, huge heart, and he was super easy to ride. He had such incredible balance that he could do things that didn’t seem like he should have been able to. He just knew how to rock back on his hind end and get in that really sweet spot. I’ve said that about so many of his babies too.”
Following his 2000 national titles, Matoi came home to attend to his breeding career, and let his sons and daughters take his place on the Cedar Ridge string. (One favorite for both Wilson and Ames was Toi Jabaska, who won 10 national championships—four each in 2002 and 2003 alone. Sixteen years later, one of Lara’s current partners is the Half-Arabian Matoi son Toi Fabulous CRF.)
But there was one problem. “Matoi wasn’t real happy with retirement,” remembers Mike Brennan, Cedar Ridge’s Breeding Manager and one of the stallion’s biggest fans. “Once a show horse, always a show horse. Up to the day he died, you probably could have put a saddle on him and he would have showed his heart out.”
That became apparent because the stallion first lived in the training barn, where he would fire up every time the show string packed to go to a show—only to stand dejectedly when the van pulled out without him. When that didn’t abate, Brennan moved Matoi to the mare barn, and there, in the middle of all the action, he settled in comfortably. “You’d go by and say, ‘how are you?’ and he’d always talk to you,” Mike reports.
Over the years, with the same dependability that marked his show career, Matoi turned out youngsters with his brand of talent; he didn’t slow down until a decade into the 21st century. Today, those who appreciated him during his heyday value him still. “I’ve had several of his offspring,” says Whelihan. “They were wonderful to train.”
“We keep the legacy going with DS Mick Jagger,” notes Chris Wilson, referring to the Matoi son who stands at Chrishan Park. “And I’ve got a Vegaz daughter out of a Matoi daughter that is one of our best English horses. We try to get Matoi into the pedigree as often as we can.”
And everyone has their favorite memories. “How can you top winning the open park in such a way?” Wilson muses. “The energy that Cedar Ridge had and the whole team there—and the friendship Lara and I developed from that; we’re still great friends today. … But you have to say that carrying the flag, especially the year of 9/11—there was something extremely special about that.”
“For me, the greatest moment was not a national championship,” Lara Ames says. “It was that first night with the flag.”
“Matoi was a large part of my life,” Mike Whelihan reflects. “He was a lot like Matador. Neither one displayed much motion loose on the lunge line, but when collected and under impulsion properly, that’s when they really came on.”
“You could turn him loose or free lunge him and he’d just kind of pitter-patter around the ring, and you’d think, ‘well, he can’t do anything,’” Lollie Ames reminisces. “And then you’d put the saddle on him and he’d start to build. And by the time you had one leg over him, he was ready to go, and higher and higher he would raise. But if you just turned him loose, people would say, ‘that’s Matoi?’
“He was really a crazy little horse,” she continues a bit wistfully. “He was little, but he didn’t know it—and he sired big foals; his Half-Arabians were huge.”
In her office in Cedar Ridge’s mare barn, she gazes up at two gigantic photographs. One is of the farm’s beloved sire Brass, along with his shoes and a clipping from his tail. On the opposite wall, newly installed, is a corresponding image of Matoi. “Stu shot it on his own and sent it to us after Matoi passed,” she says softly. “You can see the white on his face, where he had greyed over the eyes.”
Lara Ames’s voice gets clouded when she remembers a short time before Matoi’s death, when she stopped by to see him and found his stall empty. “I thought …” she begins. She was grateful to find that he just had been moved. “He was so special. Mom had Brass. For me, it was probably Matoi.”
“It was his kindness,” Whelihan finally says definitely. “He and Matador both had it—not a bad thought went through their heads. Ever. Ever.”
Mike Brennan has handled so many of Cedar Ridge’s top sires, but when he speaks of Matoi, his voice reflects his loss. “I hold a special place in my heart for him because we became big buds,” he says gamely. “He was always the mainstay; if you were ever feeling bad, you had to just go and see Matoi. Just stand in the stall with him.”
This past spring, the time came that Matoi couldn’t stand up. He was in such good shape otherwise, Lollie Ames says. It was just those legs, the ones which had carried him to so many accolades, that gave in to arthritis.
“He laid down and was very content with ‘just leave me here,’” Brennan says. “When that day came …. You go in there and sit with him and he puts his head in your lap, and you get that feeling, ‘this is it.’ You just say your goodbyes.” He stops and the seconds tick by. “No, you don’t really say goodbye. You say, ‘we’ll see you in the future.’ You don’t say goodbye.”