Combined Driver & Media Maven
Lifelong horsewoman and media maven, Misdee Wrigley Miller is not only an award-winning broadcast journalist but also one of the few women in the world to compete with a team of horses in the sport of combined driving. Amongst her many equestrian achievements, Misdee and her American Saddlebred, HS Baby Steps, just won an incredible 4th consecutive World’s Championship. Never losing her love for the media business, she is also the majority owner of the Wrigley Media Group.
How many generations of dedicated equestrians are in your family?
There are five dedicated equestrians in my family.
If you could have a conversation with anyone, living or dead, who would that be?
Oh, that’s easy, it would be my great-grandfather. I wish it almost every single day.
Why, because he was such a business tycoon?
He was a business tycoon, but he had an amazing sense of humor and was a marketing genius. Every photograph you see of him, he’s smiling. He looks like he’s just so warm, and fun, and smart. I would love to be able talk with him.
Do you have a favorite story about him?
Very few people know he was an avid horseman. He loved Catalina Island. It was one of his favorite places. He had a bird park and collected exotic birds. Calvin Coolidge came to visit him before he was running for president. So, he took Calvin Coolidge to visit the bird park. My great-grandfather put a parrot on his head, and the parrot promptly proceeded to take Calvin Coolidge’s hat off and throw it. Of course, all the headlines were, “Calvin Coolidge Decides to Throw his Hat in the Presidential Race.”
“My grandmother was my first inspiration in the horse breeding business. She actively oversaw their breeding program on Catalina Island—the Catalina Island Arabians. I remember sitting at her desk, which is now in my office, with her discussing which mare she was going to breed to which stallion and why.”
What is the Swan Crest on your gates and carriages?
The Swan Crest is the Atwater family crest, my grandmother’s family. My mother adopted the family crest for her Arabian horse business as a tribute to her. My grandmother was my first inspiration in the horse breeding business. She actively oversaw their breeding program on Catalina Island —the Catalina Island Arabians. I remember sitting at her desk, which is now in my office, with her discussing which mare she was going to breed to which stallion and why. She dearly loved the horses. My grandfather loved to ride and rope; he was the cowboy. But she was the driving force in developing the Arabian horse business in the United States.
What is pivotal to your wellbeing?
Being surrounded by the people and animals that I love.
Can you describe your immediate family?
I am the youngest of three children.
Tell me about your brother.
My brother passed away from brain cancer when he was only 40.
Were you a part of that process with him?
Yes, I was. Although I was very involved in other businesses at the time, I came back and was with him for some critical moments.
Do you think that changed you?
I know it did.
Your mother and father, tell me about them.
Honestly, I didn’t know my father very well because my parents were divorced. My mother remarried, and my stepfather raised me. He owned television and radio stations, which fostered my interest in media. My mother was, and is still, my inspiration. She was absolutely the most influential person in my life, and I miss her every day even though she’s been gone 29 years.
And the cause of her death?
You have been lauded for many philanthropic initiatives, one of the ways that you pay it forward. Can you tell us about the Hope Program?
My sister and many of my friends are breast cancer survivors; a handful of friends are not. It is necessary to make women aware of the importance of early screening, so they will begin to look after themselves. Taking care of oneself first is something women do not do. We are such caregivers that we look to others before ourselves. Kentucky’s former First Lady, Jane Beshear’s Horses and Hope Program is helping to get that message out and is making a difference and saving lives.
So, cancer is a big word for you?
Do you think about that much?
Yes, of course, I do. Maybe that is what is behind my drive to fit everything I can in, while I am still feeling strong.
I want to go backwards and rewind a little bit. What is your most favorite childhood memory?
Riding my pony, Poncho, around our cattle ranch.
Are your basic needs filled by animals more than people or people more than animals?
I couldn’t live without either one.
While your stepfather fostered your interest in media, your college experience was equestrian at first?
I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a professional horse trainer. My mother was just beside herself. She had a very good friend, Norman Dunn, who was in charge of the horse program at Cal Poly Pomona, and she appealed to him. She said, “Norman, just please have my daughter fill out the application for Cal Poly. I’m sure she’ll get in, and let her work in the Arabian horse program.” So, he did, and I did. It’s the only college I applied to, at the very last minute. I started at Cal Poly Pomona and worked in their Arabian horse program, which I loved. Then it was time for me to take an elective. Broadcast law sounded really interesting, and it was my favorite course. I knew I had found my calling and needed to change majors. Since Cal Poly wasn’t actually a great broadcast journalism school, I transferred to Arizona State University and its Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
After graduating, you were offered a job in New York City, the dream job. What was that?
CBS offered me the job. It was just when the 24-hour news cycle was heating up and becoming very competitive. I was working for the CBS affiliate in Phoenix and at the same time, going to New York and meeting with executives to find out what it was like. They offered me a job. One of my friends, who had worked at the same station, had gone a year or so earlier. On one of my trips, I visited her. I said, “Mary Jo, what do you think I should do?” And she said, “I believe you can go to the top if you want to be married to the news business for the rest of your life. Come to CBS New York, and jump in. You will be a success, but you won’t have any other thing in your life except the news business. It’s that consuming.” So, I went home and thought about it. I love the news business, but I did not want to be married to it for the rest of my life. So, I turned CBS down and stayed in the Phoenix market for about another year. I thought, What am I doing? I’ve just turned down the best job in my profession if I want to advance. That is how and when I realized that what I really wanted to be was in the horse business.
And what did your mother say?
She did a happy dance. So, I just came home. Initially, I did miss the news. I missed getting the calls at 2:00am even though I said I didn’t. I missed that adrenaline driven career. It took a while to get that out of my system. But I was so passionate about the horses and being given the opportunity to run my parent’s operation that it quickly shifted.
Life is a circle because you are now back into the media genre. How did that happen?
I became a partner in the Wrigley Media Group about 12 years ago. I was asked to help with a documentary, and I loved working with the team. I got to know them, and then, we did another job together. I said, “You guys are really a great group of talented people here in Lexington.” I approached the owner and asked him if he wanted a partner. He said, “Wow. Sure.” The company grew very nicely organically. Then my partner brought in an extremely bright woman as a consultant. We were at a place where we could either grow the business or remain static. She and I started speaking and completing each other’s sentences. We sat down and discussed where this company could go, and I convinced her to stay on as CEO. I asked my partner if I could buy controlling interest because he was ready to go in another direction. We had such a talented group there, and I really thought that we could take it to the next level. About a year and a half ago, we moved locations, built a studio with a lot of editing suites, and hired some really talented people. The business has just taken off. We have the largest studio here in the Lexington region, and I like to think some of the most talented people in the country.
In film production, what is the strongest skill set you bring to a project; writing, filming, editing, or the vision/the big picture?
I think it is writing. That is what I love to do. I certainly needed the vision or the big picture in bringing “The Reign of Nobility” together. I couldn’t explain my vision to anyone. I just had to keep telling people trust me, trust me. I spent many hours with the editor, Darren Platt, and he got it. He was wonderful and is our senior editor now; just one of the many talented people.
When you came home to oversee the family equestrian business, what did that look like?
We had about 300 horses at that time. My focus was on the daily operations, the training, and marketing. Hiring the trainers that would specialize in flat saddle, saddle seat, Western, and how and where the horses were trained was a great learning experience. Then, of course, we had to market the horses, and the most effective marketing, at that point, were the huge auctions. So, I became involved in putting the auctions together. My mother was still very involved and overseeing the breeding.
What number of horses do you currently house?
Approximately 80 with a focus predominantly on performance.
What age did you begin seriously competing?
When I was eight years old.
Who was your best trainer and why?
I was fortunate to work with some very, very talented horsemen. The first one who made a real difference in my life was Gene LaCroix, who was a horseman’s horseman. He understood horses. He understood the way they thought. He understood them mechanically and trained to those mechanics.
Was there a moment in time with a horse that you said, “It will never get better than this?”
Yes. That was in 2007 with a horse named Grande Gil, the horse in the photograph with the yellow roses. He was a very talented horse that literally came back from death to compete. No one thought that I would be able to ride him because he was slightly wild. When I purchased him, everyone said, “Well, why the heck did you do that?” I competed with him for a year and was Reserved World Grand Champion 3-Gaited. He had colic and almost died, had two surgeries, and then developed pneumonia, and almost died again. I have never seen a horse fight so hard to live. All those moments in the stall with him, when everyone else wanted to give up on him, I said, “Look in his eyes. This horse is not done fighting,” and he wasn’t. He came back and gave me the ride of my life in 2007 at the Kentucky State Fair. I became the fourth amateur rider in, I think it was 104,105 years, to win the Open World’s Grand Champion 3-Gaited, and it was on a horse that literally came back from death’s doorstep.
Did you know it from the beginning with him?
There were a lot of naysayers, including my husband. The first time I competed with him he reared up, and I catapulted off. Thank goodness the judges had their judge’s cards turned in. My poor trainer picked me up and dusted me off. There was blood pouring out of my nose. My husband said he was about to launch himself out of the seats and say, “I told you so!” But, he won the class.
Who are you riding now?
I am blessed to have probably the best string of Saddlebred show horses I’ve ever had. I have a wonderful 5-Gaited mare, Too Sweet to Kiss, who, when she’s on, she’s on, and, when she’s not, she’s definitely not, and an up-and-coming superstar called The Brightest Blue. I’ve got a wonderful 3-Gaited mare, H.S. Baby Steps, and we’ve won the Ladies World Champion 3-Gaited three times now. Someone told me that we’ve made 34 victory passes together, which is just phenomenal to me. I have a wonderful roadster mare called Speedy Didi, named for my mother.
“I knew it from the first time I sat in the saddle. Something clicked, and it was like we belonged together.”
Of the various disciplines, what’s your preference?
You are not the first person to ask me that. I have no preference because they’re all equally challenging.
Of all the horses that you currently have, is there one that touches your soul more than the others?
A couple: two of my driving horses. When I look in their eyes, there’s some kind of connection, and I know that they were meant to be with me.
What makes competing in Devon so great?
Oh, it is one of the greatest horse shows on the planet. You are showing in front of a knowledgeable crowd that really appreciates good horses and good horsemanship no matter what the discipline. The response of the crowd is simply a unique and wonderful experience.
Are you competing in the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina?
It is with a little trepidation because I know that the original venue for the driving isn’t going to be completed, which is fine. We competed on all weather surfaces in the test event, and that’s no big deal. I just hope that they’re going to be ready enough because I remember the crowds in Kentucky and the crowds in Normandy. Bless the Bellissimo’s hearts for stepping in at the last minute because no one else was going to. Otherwise, there would be an asterisk by the 2018 World Equestrian Games. I just hope the horse community really bands together and says, “Okay, it may not be perfect, but what horse competition actually is perfect?” After all, it’s about the joy of the sport, the joy of competing.
If you were to ask God one question, what would that be?
I know exactly. Why me? Why did I get to be the fortunate one to have the blessings that I have had in my life and that are still coming to me? Why me? Thank you.
What lesson would you want a young woman to learn from you that they might not have to learn the hard way?
The same lesson my mother taught me. Have confidence in yourself. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve anything that you choose. The world is your oyster, and you are its pearl.
Can you please leave our reader a pearl of your wisdom to take away from our interview today?
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are correct.