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Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify towers over stable pony Sunny at Churchill Downs. (Julie June Stewart photo)
Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify towers over stable pony Sunny at Churchill Downs. (Julie June Stewart photo)

by Julie June Stewart

It was a typical glorious morning at Santa Anita Park in 2013. The horses were met with brilliant sunshine as they gracefully slipped onto the track for their morning workouts. There was the usual crowd at Clockers’ Corner and a line of photographers on the rail hoping to catch a perfect “morning sunlight” shot as the horses went by. The Bob Baffert horses were heading onto the track under the supervision of his assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. Suddenly there was a moment of silence as every camera aimed at Barnes. His horse was a vision of perfection. A beautiful burnished palomino whose coat gleamed in the sunlight. There was a quiet explosion of shutters going off as photographers focused on the palomino and for a moment forgot the world-class Thoroughbreds just outside their viewfinders. A single voice said, “Who was that?” Someone said, “Baffert’s new pony – he’s called Sunny.” You could tell by the photographers’ reactions that there was an instant star in the Baffert barn.

Baffert purchased “Wimpys High Roller” sight unseen from the Twombly Performance Horses 2013 summer sale in Cheyenne, Wyo. The Twombly family specializes in training and selling top quality mares and geldings with a spotlight on conformation, dispositions, color, pedigree, and athletic ability, and they hold two auctions a year. “Ranch, trail, roping, and reining is our main focus. Color is a quality we look for: buckskin, dun, grullo, blue roan, red roan, and palomino. We ride our geldings through thick brush, up and down big hills and steep canyons. The horses are trained to be soft in the face and take their correct leads, stop on ‘whoa’ command and to move away from neck rein and leg pressure.” John Twombly explains that “Color is an added bonus and adds a little flash. Color sells well and we are in the business of selling. Everyone wants a little flash!” The Twomblys had purchased Sunny from Brian Bell Reining Horses in Aubrey, Texas.

Sunny and Justify at Churchill Downs in the sunlight
Sunny and Justify at Churchill Downs in the sunlight

Twombly remembers Sunny as being friendly and that he likes people. “His conformation is really good. He’s well-built and has a pretty head and a big round hip. He is a unique darker-colored Palomino. An all-around pretty gelding. Riding-wise, he has quite a bit of life and is not a dead head plug.” The 2009 gelding has an outstanding bloodline. He is by National Reining Horse Association (NHRA) Hall of Fame sire Wimpys Little Step who recently became a $10 million dollar sire, and out of Shining High Roller by NRHA $4 million sire Shining Spark.

Greg Hill had purchased the dam Shining High Roller as a yearling from the Cross Bell Ranch in Oklahoma. The mare trained and showed with Matt Flarida Reining Horses. Sunny is the result of an embryonic transfer. Hill selected Wimpys Little Step because he was the number one reining horse.

Bell said, “The mother was such a cool horse and this was my reasoning for wanting that foal.” Sunny trained with him for about three years until he suffered a tendon injury. Bell invested in stem cell technology which helped Sunny to a complete recovery.

Hill remembers Sunny as “very athletic, a gorgeous color and well put together. The hind legs are really nice and strong. He had the strength to do a lot of things. Bell thought that he could have been a finalist in the futurity. This one was going to be really good until he got hurt. He was strong, really nice to be around and a good head on that horse. I’d like to have about five more of him!”

Baffert explains what drew him to Sunny when he purchased him in 2013 with his usual sense of humor. “Sunny is a beautiful little golden palomino with a long white shaggy mane like mine. When I was looking at him to buy I just loved his conformation and the video of him, the way he handled like he had power steering. I bought the horse for (my son) Bode and he named him Sunny because he says he is the color of the sun. Right before the Kentucky Derby, we clipped his winter coat and his golden sheen disappeared. We joke that he went from Sunny to Cloudy.”

Sunny greeting Solomini at Churchill Downs. (Julie June Stewart photo)
Sunny greeting Solomini at Churchill Downs. (Julie June Stewart photo)

When Baffert’s contenders arrived for the 2018 Kentucky Derby day races at Churchill Downs, they each came off the truck and were greeted by a large group of photographers and media. The horses then slipped into the barn for their shed-row walks. It was pretty uneventful except for one small detail. Located in the corner stall was Sunny. He ignored most of them until they were almost even with him and then his head snaked out of the stall with his ears pinned back in greeting. Sunny was swiftly establishing order in his barn with the arrival of the newbies. Baffert explained “Sunny responds to other horses. They might to try to bite him, so he lets them know he's not going to take any abuse from them. Thoroughbreds are high strung athletes sitting on go; Sunny is more of a laid back dude. He's there for companionship and to have a calming effect on the racehorses. He does have a bit of an attitude. All of my ponies seem to. They're spoiled rotten. Sunny is a chow hound. He loves doughnuts and granola bars. I don't feed him grain because it gets him too amped up. Unless (my wife) Jill sneaks a can to him.”

The size difference is certainly visible when Sunny and Justify head to the track in the morning. Justify, at 16.3 hands (67 inches at the shoulder), looms over Sunny who walks next to him casually with a well-practiced nonchalance and a bit of a quarter horse swagger. Baffert says that Sunny is 14.3 hands (59 inches). “He could be a little bigger. Justify pushes him around a little but he just pushes right back. He is small, but mighty.”

Perhaps the more famous of his two Quarter Horse ponies is Smokey (This Whiz Shines) who is known for being American Pharoah and Arrogate’s companion. Smokey is a handsome buckskin with black points (mane, tail, ears, and legs.) Smokey was also purchased from the Twomblys by Baffert in 2014. While the two look nothing like each other, many fans yell Smokey’s name when they see Sunny or post photos of Sunny and misidentify him.

Sunny at Pimlico. (Julie June Stewart photo)
Sunny at Pimlico. (Julie June Stewart photo)

To horse people, the difference is noticeable immediately. When trainer Brian Bell was watching the 2018 Preakness Stakes from his home in Texas, he saw Sunny with Justify. He yelled to everyone in the house “Hey, that’s my horse!” He said they looked at him like he was crazy but he insisted that the horse on the track was one he had trained. “I promise you – that is my horse!” It was with great satisfaction when he found photos of Sunny the next day and saw his unique bell brand on him. He immediately sent the photo out to his friends. Sunny had trained with him for three years and he remembered “what that horse could do at 2 years old would blow you away.”

Baffert told Twombly that Sunny is his hotrod while Smokey is a little bit more laid back. Sunny has a little more life and a little more travel with a little more get up and go than Smokey. No matter the size of the Thoroughbred, Sunny seems to have the perfect disposition to be by their side. He takes the media spotlight with aplomb and handles his tasks like a rock star. Baffert has said that “Sunny is like riding a sports car. Quick and agile and really fun to ride. Very light on his feet and can spin like a top. He is a tremendous reining horse.”

He is a beautiful horse with Hollywood movie looks. Even with Justify towering over him, you can bet that the photographers make sure they get photos of Sunny when they see him. “It’s kind of cool to see your horses go on to different things” Brian Bell said with great pride. You can be sure that the Twomblys, Greg Hill, the Flaridas and Bell will be certainly watching the Belmont Stakes coverage hoping to see Sunny. The little palomino is a rock star in Baffert’s barn and holds his own among world class thoroughbreds. Indeed, what a cool dude he is!

Find out more about Horse Racing right here on EIE. This article originally appeared on America's Best Racing and is published here with permission.

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