Molly McFarland of Anaconda, Mont., hoses down Dawson, a quarter horse she will be riding in the Oregon Summer Classic at the Jackson County Expo Center this week. Jim Craven 6/23/2007 - Jim Craven

A Classic Combination

Jim Searles travels 40,000 miles to compete in horse events each year.

It's hard to find a vacant weekend on his calendar, outside of December when he kicks back with his family and horses outside Scottsdale, Ariz.

There are stops in Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City; Fort Worth, Texas; and St. Louis, plenty of exposure in California as well as an annual swing through Southern Oregon, where his wife, Deanna, was raised.

Searles is among the hundreds of riders showing a field of 1,000 horses this coming week at the Summer Classic put on by the Oregon Quarter Horse Association at the Jackson County Fairgrounds & Expo Park in Central Point. He's been coming to event since it was held in the old Linn County fairgrounds in Albany before it moved to the Rogue Valley in 1995.

A dozen years ago, the event drew 300 horses and competitors from five states. Since then the Summer Classic has grown to become one of the largest circuit shows in the country and is exceeded only by the Sun Circuit show west of the Rockies.

With its array of covered arenas, the Jackson County Expo is well-suited for large competitions.

"It's one of the few this big where you can actually go out for dinner, other than fast food," Searles said Saturday as he took a break from putting Starlite, a 2-year-old filly, through her paces in Compton Arena. "When you're going 7 a.m. to midnight, there's no time to get it done. But they can split the show into two or three arenas a day."

There are several reasons the Summer Classic, which combines National Reining Horse Association with American Quarter Horse Association registered horses, has become a destination for riders — ranging from elementary school students to 70-year-olds — each June.

Show manager Donny Nealon of Brownsville posted his economic impact estimate of $6,066,704 for the event on the Internet.

"Most of the exhibitors (riders) are regulars," said Nealon, decked out in a bright red Western shirt. "We show them such a good time that they come back every year — with a friend."

The RV show next door was just a hint of what was to come as drivers pulled into the Expo parking lot.

With just the early-arrivers on hand, trucks, trailers and mobile homes from 10 states, including Texas, Montana and British Columbia were on hand. A little harder to figure was the sports car with Hawaii plates, but this is an event that packs the grounds even before spectators join the party.

"One of the reasons why the show is so big is the awards budget," said Nealon, noting there are $200,000 worth of trophies, saddles and other awards, plus another $30,000 jackpot and added money available. "There are riders that spend $10,000 chasing a $5,000 saddle, it's the prestige they're after. I saw one of our saddles from 1996 the other day."

The pace of the Summer Classic is more humane for performers than many and the hosts don't skip a beat when it comes to entertaining the out of state visitors, be it on jet boat rides on the Rogue River, golf or shopping.

"Lots of guys come with their wives and they need something to do while their wives are in the arena," Nealon said. "One of the reasons this event is as big as it is that people coming from 1,000 miles or more have made this a vacation destination. Women like to shop so we have a lot of vendors to give them a place to shop."

A panel of 14 judges, earning $500 a day plus overtime after 10 hours, will adjudicate six shows during the seven-day run from Monday through next Sunday with competition in 140 classifications.

"We try not to use any judges this side of the Mississippi," Nealon said. "The equine world is small and you run into situations where you don't want a professional person to get a judge who may have owned or trained a horse some time in their career. It eliminates a conflict of interest."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or at

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