There were few dry eyes when Bill Freeman led Smart Little Lena into the spotlight of a darkened Watt Arena during the 2002 NCHA Futurity, 20 years after the two had won cutting’s premier event.
When Freeman turned Smart Little Lena loose, the great stallion gazed up, as if to acknowledge the standing room-only crowd. Then he began to slowly trot and finally, as people began to cheer, broke into a graceful lope around the arena. Several minutes later – it might have been 2 1/2 – Smart Little Lena slowed his pace and came to a stop next to Freeman.
Bill Freeman and Smart Little Lena. It is hard to think of one without thinking of the other. Freeman passed away on Tuesday, July 29, at the age of 58. But he lives on to horsemen worldwide through the influence of Smart Little Lena.
Freeman, son of another legendary horseman, Shorty Freeman, started showing at the age of four. While Bill learned about horses by example from his father, it was Tom Lyons who inspired him to become a trainer.
“I was basically still a kid,” said Freeman of his tenure with Lyons, in Phoenix during the 1970s. “I knew I loved riding cutting horses, but I didn’t know if I could be successful. Tom gave me the opportunity and the confidence to be able to do it, and I developed my own style during that period. It is some of Tommy Lyons and some of my father, and I think I got some of the showmanship from watching all the greats of that time. Probably the best showman I’ve ever seen is Buster Welch.”
While working for Lyons, Freeman got to show a horse named Jay Freckles, owned by Hal Yerxa of Canada. It was the beginning of a brilliant career. Freeman ranks second only to Buster Welch in number of NCHA Futurity wins (Docs Diablo in 1979; Smart Little Lena in 1982; Smart Little Senor in 1988) and was the first rider to capture the NCHA Triple Crown†(Smart Little Lena in 1983). Currently, Freeman ranks as the all-time leading open cutting horse rider, with over $5.4 million in earnings.
Smart Little Lena, owned by a syndicate that Freeman had a major role in initiating, is the all-time leading cutting horse sire with offspring earnings of more than $34 million.
Freeman is survived by his wife, Jill, and daughters, Tina, Erica, Kim and Elayna.