All American: 'Free' Feature

Feature Hero is 'racing free' in the All American Derby.

By Andrea Caudill
Q-Racing Journal
August 30, 2013

feature hero

Feature Hero. PHOTO: Andrea Caudill

One of the heroes of the $2.8 million All American Derby (G1) is Reliance Ranches LLC’s Feature Hero. The black Valiant Hero gelding qualified just a head behind Louisana Corona and clocked a :21.276 time to take the final qualifying place in the sport’s richest race ever.

Trained by Eddie Willis and ridden by Jimmy Brooks, Feature Hero is familiar with big stakes on The Mountain. Last year, he finished fourth – 2 lengths off the pace – in Carters Cookie’s Rainbow Futurity (G1). So far this year, he qualified for and finished second in Brace For Bernal’s $253,000 Remington Park Oklahoma-Bred Derby (R), and then had a rough trip in the Jack Brook Stakes (RG3). He has so far been third or better in nine of 13 starts and earned $126,528 for his owners. 

Reliance Ranches is a family-owned business based out of Llano, Texas, run by the McKinney family. It includes Gary and his wife Shiela; son Micah and his wife, Leslie; and daughter M’Lissa Schoening and her husband, Jeremy.

The family has an oil-gas business, but has always enjoyed horses and the agricultural lifestyle.

“We started running horses about nine years ago,” said Micah. “We were visiting one day – my dad and my wife and I – and one of us said, why don’t we go buy a racehorse? We looked at each other and said, we don’t know anything about racehorses, but we can try to figure it out.”

The family did just that, and has become involved with numerous aspects of the racing industry. They race mostly Quarter Horses, along with a few Thoroughbreds. They own a broodmare band of about 20 mares, including the likes of champion Spit Curl Diva ($829,353), Grade 1-placed Back In The Pack ($131,831) and stakes winner Illegal Fireworks ($181,847), among others, and raise about 20-25 foals per year.

The McKinneys are learning very fast – in addition to Feature Hero, they also have freshman star Coronado Cartel ($314,348) and distaffer Cruzin The Wagon ($336,869) among those carrying their colors.

Feature Hero was a $40,000 purchase from the Ruidoso Select Yearling Sale, and attracted their interest and that of Willis first because of the bloodline cross between Corona Chick (dam of his sire Valiant Hero) and Feature Mr Jess (sire of dam Illegal Feature), and then because he was a nice individual.

“He has always been a very solid horse,” Micah said. “He may not be the fastest horse on the track, but he’s gonna be honest, run straight and give it all he’s got every time. He always seems to be right there. …  He’s a very fun horse to own and we’re very proud to have him.”

Another aspect of the industry the McKinney family is working to improve is that of performance-enhancing medications. Micah and Leslie founded Racing Free, a growing industry alliance of owners, breeders and other horsemen dedicated to eliminating the use of illegal performance-enhancing medications.

Racing Free encourages the elimination of such medications by offering a positive outlet for the industry, as well as providing rewards to enrolled members. Fifteen of the 20 finalists in the All American Futurity and Derby – including Feature Hero – are Racing Free horses. Owners and breeders can enroll horses in the Racing Free program, and when their horses win races with clean drug tests, can earn money back.

“We are very proud of the fact that we have so many owners in the industry willing to stand up against the use of performance-enhancing drugs,” Micah said.

And Feature Hero is fit and ready to perform on the industry’s biggest – and richest -- stage.

“He pulled up really good, ate everything the next morning and has been in good form since,” Micah said. “We would like to thank Eddie Willis and the whole team for the effort they put in to get Feature Hero fit and to the point where he is. We’re very appreciative of what they do for us.”

The All American Derby and Futurity are September 1-2. Extended coverage of the All American weekend is provided by the Q-Racing Journal. Read the digital Q-Racing Journal at If you cannot attend the races live, watch them on Q-Racing Video at