Jordan Hadley's stomach churned as he watched the filly he'd trained get saddled up for the big race. For seven months, he'd risen at 5 a.m., raced the horse down the quarter-mile track at his family's Ogden, Utah, ranch, fed her and groomed her and coached her into what he hoped would be a champion. At 35:1 odds, he knew she was a long shot, but he felt this horse had something special. "It was an accomplishment just qualifying," he recalls. "But I wanted to win."
Her name was Dreaming of Kisses-a good name for a filly carrying the dreams of a 17-year-old boy and his family. This race should have belonged to Jordan's dad, Sherm Hadley, one of the most respected horse trainers in the West. But on an icy winter day two years earlier, a freak accident in the barn changed life on the Hadley ranch forever. Sherm and Jordan's younger brother Garrett, then 11, were preparing to fetch hay for the livestock when three 850-lb. bales came tumbling down. Sherm was nearly crushed to death, and the lack of oxygen to his brain is believed to have caused a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. Without Sherm to train horses, his wife, Susan, worried she wouldn't have the money to keep the ranch going. "The doctors really gave us no hope," she says. "I wondered, 'How am I going to pay the bills and raise the boys?'"
Heartbroken for his dad, Jordan made a fateful decision: He put his dreams of going away to college on the back burner and took over Sherm's work. "I'd grown up on a horse. I knew a lot about them, but I'd never done any training," Jordan, now 20, says in his soft, low voice. "I'd watched my dad, though, and I knew he'd be there to support me. So I didn't question it. I just jumped in."
Seven days a week, as the sun rose over the ranch, Jordan and Garrett would feed and water the horses-sent by their owners to hone their racing skills. Jordan would spend the rest of the day running the horses, doing as best he could to emulate the gentle but sure touch he'd seen his father display with the strong, high-strung animals. Over time, Sherm, 48, regained partial movement and limited speech. From his wheelchair, with a nod of his head, a wave of his hand or a simple yes or no, he steered Jordan in the right direction. "Every day," Jordan says, "my dad was struggling to talk and walk, but he never complained. The least I could do was give it my all."
After evening chores and dinner, he'd drive his dad's pickup truck into town to take night classes. But he was learning something else, about himself: He had a way with horses. "Once I started spending time with the horses and they responded," Jordan says, "it became fun. I felt good about the work, and it just felt right." Gary Kapp, 57, a horse owner from West Point, Utah, says Jordan worked magic with some of his toughest colts: "They wouldn't even let me touch them, but two weeks [with Jordan] and they'd let me rub their bellies."
While Sherm would train up to 50 horses a year, Jordan limited himself to six. One was Kisses, who was nearly 2 years old when her owners brought her to the ranch in October 2009. Sherm had trained her father, Legendary Dreamer, a 9-year-old stallion with many racing victories under his belt. "I could tell Kisses was special," says Jordan. "She has a lot of stamina and a heart of gold." But she was a handful, trying to buck Jordan the first few times. He soon gained her trust and taught her how to break out of the gate, respond to a jockey and fly at full gallop. "There's nothing," Jordan says, "like riding fast on a horse that wants to run." Kisses won several small races, then, to her owners' delight, qualified for the Bitterroot Futurity, Idaho's biggest horse race with a $100,000 purse.
Despite all she'd accomplished, on the day of the race, May 23, she was still a daunting long shot. Lil Bitts A Dash, a gelding and the fastest qualifier for the race, was the favorite. Jordan felt as nervous as he'd ever been. "You can do it," he whispered to Kisses shortly before the race. He then walked her to the starting gate and patted her neck. A few moments later the starting gun sounded, and over 17 seconds-less than the time it took Jordan to pull on his boots in the morning-Kisses found an open space and shot through it, winning the 350-yard race by a head. Jordan ran to his parents and Garrett, who were waiting at the finish line. "All I could think was, we did it!" Jordan says. "And we climbed a mountain to get here." Kisses' victory surprised even her owners, who say Jordan deserves the credit. "He's a heck of a horseman," says Mark Brown, 59, of American Falls, Idaho.
Kisses earned $40,000 and Jordan got a 10 percent cut. He put the $4,000 into the bank to help pay the ranch's bills. As word of the win spread, owners started sending their horses to train with Jordan, who has picked up a new interest: jockeying. Having completed his night courses, he graduated from high school with his class. He'd never planned on making a life on the ranch, but now he's starting to think horses are his destiny. And he's discovered he doesn't have to stray far from home to realize his dreams. "You never know," he says, "when something will change your life."