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Twenty Hawks: The Life-Changing Story of "The Iron Horse"

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Twenty Hawks off track Thoroughbred
Twenty Hawks during his 2nd career by Rebecca Walton

“The Iron Horse” by Brian Richardson

Taylor Richardson and Gene Ward were childhood friends from Harvard High School in Los Angeles. They talked every day about things like the stock market, USC football or trips to Las Vegas. Neither one carried a cell phone or knew how to use a computer. They were “old school”, but they were like brothers and they were best friends.

One day Taylor, Gene, my brother Greg, and I were fishing out of Newport Beach on a boat called “Bongos” and we were talking about the summer horse racing at Del Mar. Gene looked up at my dad as though he had the idea of all ideas. “Hawk, why don’t we get one of those suites at Del Mar and invite all of our friends for a day at the races?” My dad looked up and said, “great idea Cherry, let’s put Brian in charge.” I nodded in agreement and told Gene and my dad that if they got me a list of twenty guys, I would do the rest.

Six months later, the first Cherry-Hawk event in the luxury suite at Del Mar would take place. It was an incredible success complete with betting, a fully utilized open bar and a delicious, Mexican buffet lunch. My dad always insisted on the Mexican buffet because it was his favorite. For the next seven years, we would host the event in August and every year we would have a long waiting list of guys who wanted to attend this prestigious event.

Then in 2008, Taylor and Gene wanted to take Cherry Hawk one-step further. They wanted to get this same group of guys together to buy a horse. They called their high school buddy Biff Naylor, who was good friends with Buddy Johnston, the owner of a horse ranch in Sanger, California called Old English Rancho. Buddy was an honest, well-respected horseman with a great reputation in the horse racing industry and we knew he would be the right partner for our group.

Within a few months, Biff and Buddy had secured a yearling colt for us. After several weeks of recruiting friends and family to be a part of the ownership group, we ended up with 20 partners and $60,000. We wanted a nice horse, so the money we raised was only enough to

purchase 50% of the colt and Buddy Johnston would maintain the other 50% ownership. We would use $45,000 for the horse and have $15,000 in reserve.

The next order of business was to name the stable and the horse. Taylor’s nickname was “The Hawk” and Gene’s nickname was “Cherry” so we named the business Cherry-Hawk Stables, LLC. As for the horse, since there were 20 partners in the group, we thought it was appropriate to name the horse “Twenty Hawks.” We just didn’t feel “Twenty Cherries” was masculine enough.

As Twenty Hawks trained on the farm for a year, the partners were excited about what the future might hold. This colt looked to have a lot of promise and came from tremendous breeding, a top California sire by the name of Unusual Heat. As the managing partner, I would send out weekly emails giving updates on the progress of our racehorse. Everyone was waiting with eager anticipation for Twenty Hawk’s first race. The day finally came and the outcome was encouraging – a fourth place finish. It is extremely difficult for a horse to win his first race so we were happy with how our colt performed.

The next race we thought would be the one where he would claim his first victory. Twenty Hawks had a race under his belt and knew the routine. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and he finished in next to last place. The next four races were disappointing as well and we began to realize that Twenty Hawks looked to be a very mediocre horse. We dropped him to the claiming ranks, which meant that we were willing to sell him for a fixed price after the race.

However, we were quite sure nobody would buy him.

After a last place finish in the next two races, the partner’s attendance was dwindling at an alarming rate. We went from fifteen partners attending to maybe two or three and my dad and I were always two of them. I don’t know how much my dad really enjoyed horse racing but I do know that he came to every race but one. He knew that I loved it and that was enough for him.

My dad would say, “Bri, Twenty Hawks is still young, he’ll get better. He might just need to mature a little.” He was the eternal optimist. Unfortunately, the 8th place finish that my dad and I saw at Santa Anita would be the last race that we would see together. My dad was diagnosed with liver cancer in January of 2010. He passed away about six months later on June 30, 2010. I would be going to the races by myself from here on out.

On March 12, 2011, Twenty Hawks was scheduled to run his fifteenth race at Santa Anita in Southern California. Out of the previous fourteen races, he had only finished in the money twice. Our reserve cash was down to about $2,800 and this was Twenty Hawks’ last chance to put a little money in the bank so I wouldn’t have to reach out to the partners for a capital call.

I was there along with Biff, Buddy and our trainer, Don Warren. A few days before the race, I had talked to one of our Partners, Kyle Yost. Kyle had been in the horse business for about ten years and had several horses stabled at Charles Town, West Virginia. In desperation, we had discussed the possibility of moving Twenty Hawks to Charles Town to try his luck there. We discussed the fact that it was a dirt track, lesser competition and decent purses; however, we both knew that a horse just doesn’t get better overnight.

When I mentioned it to Buddy before the race, he seemed to ponder over the thought for a few seconds and casually said, “I think he needs to stay here where we can keep an eye on him.” I shrugged it off and turned my eyes towards the track where Twenty Hawks was about to race. The gates opened and Twenty Hawks jumped out like a rabbit on hot cement. ‘He must sense the pressure of winning’, I thought.

He continued to lead around the far turn and the other horses started to gain on him. He dug into the dirt with every step and didn’t want to give up the lead. But then, I sensed that Twenty Hawks was getting tired. I was right; he faded down the stretch to finish a disappointing fifth. Buddy looked over at me and said, “let’s send him to Charles Town and I’m going to give you my half of the ownership.”

I wasn’t sure if Buddy was serious, but the next day I got a fax with the Bill of Sale for 50% of Twenty Hawks in the amount of one dollar. Buddy had tried to get us the best possible horse, however, in this sport; there are simply no guarantees. We accepted the fact that we had a mediocre claiming horse that was about to travel over 2,000 miles to likely have the same results in West Virginia that he had in California.

The shipping cost to Charles Town, West Virginia was $2,750. That would leave us with $50 in the Cherry Hawk Stables account, which wouldn’t even pay for a day at Ronney Brown’s barn, whom we knew because Kyle had worked with him years before. He was one of the leading trainers at Charles Town year after year, he was honest, and he always put his horses first.

Twenty Hawks during his second career

We knew that it was a big risk to send Twenty Hawks back east, but because nothing else was working, we figured we’d give it a shot. I sent an email out to all 20 partners with a thorough explanation of “the Twenty Hawks trial.” I gave everyone the option to walk away from this horse without spending another dime or stay in with a high probability that they would have to open their checkbooks soon. It didn’t surprise me that 14 partners wanted

to stay in for the ride because guys like Moiso, Bonesteel, Underwood, Frandson,

Kostlan and Naylor were old friends of my dad and Gene and they were doing this

for fun anyway. They weren’t really worried about contributing a few extra bucks.

Just three weeks later, Twenty Hawks ran his first race at Charles Town. I must admit that I felt a lot of pressure because ultimately I had made the final decision to send him there. Of course, it was about 50 degrees colder than beautiful Southern California and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Twenty Hawks.

A few moments later, eight horses jumped out of the gate and were jockeying for early position. Twenty Hawks had stumbled at the gate and was in next to last place. My heart fell to my ankles. ‘Not a great way to start this race’, I thought, especially since Twenty Hawks was a frontrunner and has never done well from behind the pack.

Then, I saw something that I’d never seen before: Twenty Hawks began moving by other horses and was improving his position rapidly. He was in 6th , 5th , 4th and then 3rd. A final short burst from Twenty Hawks at the wire and he edged out another horse for 2nd place!

I was ecstatic! His $6,000 earnings had earned him another 4 months without having to ask the partners for money. More importantly, he actually showed the desire to win a race! I was greatly encouraged by Twenty Hawks effort in his first race but I didn’t know what to expect in his second one. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my dad had passed away before Twenty Hawks was shipped to Charles Town. He got to witness a lot of last place finishes, but here Twenty Hawks was with a second place finish under his belt and ready to go again.

I had such a nervous energy before his next race. Was the first race a fluke? When the gates opened and the announcer said “racing,” my heart started pounding at an accelerated rate. Twenty Hawks had broken from the gate cleanly this time and sat in second position most of the race. He had now gained the lead but several horses were coming to take him on. It looked as though Twenty Hawks would throw in the towel, but somehow he kept battling with every ounce of energy he could muster. There was a furious rush of horses that all seem to hit the wire together.

Twenty Hawks had won! I ran around the house giving fist pumps and screaming, “that’s what I’m talking about!” As much excitement as I felt, I also felt a great sense of relief that the move to Charles Town looked to be a good one. Needless to say, it was difficult to explain how a horse could finish in the money twice out of 15 races and he gets shipped off to the east coast and he’s finished second and first in consecutive races.

He had rewarded our group with an $18K paycheck with his victory and training expenses for the whole year! Needless to say, the partners had a renewed excitement about Twenty Hawks. I even heard from two “former” partners that wanted back in the group. Well, unfortunately for them, that horse train had already passed.

Twenty Hawks continued to surprise everyone and finished in the money in the next four of six races including an impressive victory at 9-1 odds. Then, on October 12, 2011, tragedy again struck Cherry Hawk Stables. Gene Ward, the co-founder and inspiration to our group, passed away suddenly. I had been close to “uncle” Gene my entire life and this was a devastating blow not only to me but to everyone who knew him.

The funeral was scheduled for October 28th , incidentally the same night that Twenty Hawks was entered in an allowance race at Charles Town. I had never missed watching a Twenty Hawks race, either in person or online, but this was going to be an exception. The time of the race would be smack in the middle of the reception, which was being held at the Hyatt Hotel in Burbank.

Many of the partners of Cherry Hawk Stables were also Gene’s close friends, so they were all in attendance. In fact, they were all sitting at the table with me as the race time approached. I assured everyone that Twenty Hawks had virtually no chance to win this race and that we had entered him because we hadn’t been able to get him in a race for several weeks. He was also the longest shot in the field.

With just minutes before the race, my curiosity got the best of me. I couldn’t wait for the results; I had to get the play by play while the race was unfolding so I called my friend Kyle. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was out to dinner with his wife with a laptop on the table watching the race.

“They’re off,” Kyle announced with enthusiasm. For the next minute, I couldn’t really follow what he was trying to tell me, although he never claimed to be a seasoned race announcer. Essentially what I heard was that Twenty Hawks did not go out to his customary early lead; instead he was the early trailer. He had mentioned before the race that it was a muddy track and we really didn’t know if Twenty Hawks would like the surface. At any rate, I attempted to keep the partners informed as to what was happening during the race to the best of my ability.

What I heard in the next few moments would forever be ingrained in my memory. The intensity and excitement in Kyle’s voice started to rise as he burst out, “Twenty Hawks is making a move on the rail. He’s battling down the stretch with the favorite. They’re neck and

neck…….he’s fighting……he’s battling….I can’t believe it……I think he won!” I suppose the look on my face told the story, because as my eyes darted around the table full of partners I had noticed that they were all celebrating the most unlikely of victories for Twenty Hawks.

I got very emotional after the race and had to step outside for a few minutes. My dad and now my uncle Gene, two lifelong friends who had decided to get into the horse racing business, never got to see the incredible success that Twenty Hawks was enjoying. I believe that the two of them willed our horse to the finish line in front of all their friends on that memorable night.

The Cherry-Hawk Group!

For the next year, Twenty Hawks continued his amazing turnaround at Charles Town racking up four third place finishes, a second and another victory. His earnings were continuing to pile up and the partnership was profitable for yet another year.

On October 19, 2012, a Stakes Race called the Governor’s Handicap was scheduled at Charles Town. Typically Stakes races attract the highest caliber horses. By all means Twenty Hawks proved to be a good horse, but we never felt that he was a stakes-caliber horse. Nonetheless, our trainer Ronney Brown assured us that he was training well and he could be competitive in this race. With a $50,000 purse, this would be the biggest race that Twenty Hawks had been in so far.

The race was 1 1/8 th mile long and we knew that Twenty Hawks had the stamina so we figured we would just roll the dice and let him run. Race day finally came and Twenty Hawks sauntered onto the track like he belonged there. When the gates opened, Twenty Hawks zipped out with confidence and settled into second place behind another long shot named “Working Man Blues.” The two of them circled the track together never more than a length apart.

As they reached the top of the stretch, my heart began to beat wildly. I kept looking for the favorites to make their mad dash and come from behind, but it never happened. Twenty Hawks and Working Man Blues were neck and neck as they stormed down the stretch. Twenty Hawks would put a head in front and then Working man would answer with a surge. As they hit the wire together…….Twenty Hawks put a head in front!