It’s a world foreign to most city folks, but a foundation of country living. Mikala Grady is a 15-year-old champion that few have heard of but she is legendary. A quick Google search shows countless references and photos of champion livestock shows she has won with her pigs and steers. In the wonderful way that the world of horse racing works, Mikala is here at Churchill Downs to cheer on her family’s horse Girvin in the Kentucky Derby.
Mikala lives in Grandview, Texas, which has a small population of about 2,500 people and is located 30 miles south of Fort Worth. Her father, Brad Grady, is a Texas businessman who entered the horse racing world several years ago. He is partner in Grady Reynolds LLC which is leases equipment to oil and gas fields. He has been picking up yearlings and 2-year-olds. They have been training them and selling them. He decided to keep the Tale of Ekati colt that he purchased for $130,000 at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale in October 2015 and named him Girvin after the small town he grew up in. Small is not a misnomer in this case as Girvin had a population of 30. Grady grew up on the family’s cattle ranch and continues the family tradition as a cattle rancher and businessman.
Mikala is a bright and articulate young woman and is extremely polite. Ma’am is a basic part of her vocabulary that one doesn’t find in other parts of the country. She is a ninth grader and a member of 4-H. She rattles off her accomplishments casually and one doesn’t even realize what a big deal it is until you start seeing the win photos online. “I’m doing well,” Mikala said. “I won in Phoenix, Arizona, and won reserve [grand champion] in Denver.” She is being exceptionally modest. When she said she won “Phoenix” what she really won was the Arizona National Livestock Show, which is the largest livestock show in the Southwest.
Last February, her steer Rocco was purchased for $240,000 at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo by the Women Steering Business organization, who had promised to buy the grand champion if it was shown by a woman. When they won the auction, the arena erupted into a joyous chorus of sheers. The auctioneer proudly announced that “the women are marching on Fort Worth!”
Rocco is a 1,300-pound European crossbred steer. He is a powerful looking beast with his red coat, muscular body and monstrous legs. She told the media that he can be hard to handle and has an attitude. “He’s a special one. He’s a freak.” She is roughly the same height as Rocco and walks him around the ring with one strong hand on his halter and her show whip in the other hand. She struggled and you can tell that he is both strong and stubborn. But she continues walking him around the ring for more than three minutes as the bids come fast and furious for Rocco. He was donated to the Arlington Heights FFA program.
At the National Western Stock Show in Denver, she won two reserve grand champion titles with her barrow and with a steer. As a city slicker, I had to ask, “What is a barrow?” Turns out it is a male hog who has been castrated. She patiently explained to me that a steer has also been castrated.
She is not new to the show world. She started showing when she was nine years old with pigs. She started showing steers when she turned 13. In 2014 she set a world record when her grand champion junior barrow Malibu sold for a world record of $204,000 at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Of that, $50,000 went into her college fund.
Mikala’s normal day is slow and steady pace of working with her animals at their ranch. She is in the barns in the early morning before she goes to school and feeds the pigs and steers. After school, there is halter breaking for the steers, whip breaking the pigs; in addition to walking and washing. She is working with 50 pigs and 15 steers.
She said that pigs are kind of smart. “They know their job and they know when they are getting ready for pig shows. The good ones pick up things quick and some of them are born with an attitude.” When she is showing a pig, she said that “you go in the ring and try to have the pig in the middle between you and the judge. You try to show their best side if they have one. You have to have an eye for animals and which one is better.”
This is best demonstrated in a 2015 video from the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. Wearing an orange bandana, Mikala calmly walks along her grand champion barrow carrying a small whip. She taps him on the shoulder or back end. His ears are up and he is surveying the crowd. They stroll in a circle while the auctioneer is stirring the crowd into bids. Her barrow sold for $55,000 to the Syracuse Sausage company to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.
Mikala wants to go to Texas A&M to attend the veterinary medicine school. She was all smiles after the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo when the media asked her how she was going to celebrate her big win. “I guess we are going to go to a horse race in New Orleans!” The horse that was racing was Girvin, who took second in the Keith Gee Memorial Stakes. He then went on to win the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, giving him enough points to be entered in the Kentucky Derby.
Mikala has a horse at home but she doesn’t ride much. Her world is filled enough with school and her show activities. The show season starts in October and November with the bulk of it running January through March.
When she is in the ring, she wears boots, jeans and a silver belt buckle. She prefers what she calls her signature look which is a turquoise button-down shirt that has a horse on it. Today at the Kentucky Derby she is sporting a fabulous fascinator. She is in the owner suite with her brothers Mason (age 6) and her brother Braden. She proudly introduces them with “Mason has just started showing pigs and Braden won Fort Worth the same year I won the pig show!” Obviously this family is immensely talented.
She looks out at Churchill Downs and takes it all in. “This has been really fun. It’s a dream come true. We are very blessed with all the connections. Joe and Rosie are great. We are like a family.” She is referring to Girvin’s trainer Joe Sharp and his wife, former jockey Rosie Napravnik.
Mikala’s dad is very proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. “I think it’s a testament to her work ethic. She has a work ethic that parallels most grown men and I think that has carried her far in this industry. It’s the reason she is where she is.” As he looks at his family, he beams with pride. “This is unbelievable.”
The Kentucky Derby is the home of the ultimate dream. For some, it is to be in the grandstand singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” For others it is to breed or train a Derby contender. It practically defies all odds to have a horse in the Derby and every horse carries the hopes and dreams of all Derby connections. Among them is a young girl who already knows what it feels like to be a champion and to show the best of the best. She will stand with her family and cheer for Girvin. Texas has come to Kentucky and they are hoping to win!