Did Centennial Champion look a little nervous is his Saturday debut? Yes … but ‘overall it was a positive experience’ … ‘none start out perfectly’

If you’ve been watching Fearless Champion sprint down the field at a Texas Tech football game these past seasons, it was obvious the Masked Rider’s new mount – Centennial Champion – ran slower Saturday (seen above).

Then, the new horse seemed nervous when the Masked Rider brought it out after one of Tech’s many scores in its 63-10 win over Murray State.

But overall, it was a good debut for the horse, said Sam Jackson, who’s overseen the horse side of the Masked Rider program since 1995, along with being associate chair and associate professor in the department of Meat Science & Muscle Biology.

“This horse did better than some and worse than others,” in his debut, said Jackson. “None start out perfectly.”

I’ve always loved watching the Masked Rider lead the Red Raiders onto the field since coming to Lubbock in 2006 – but learned more after doing a story for Texas Tech’s centennial website. Part of that story was about Joe Kirk Fulton, the first Masked Rider in 1954. Part of it was what goes into picking the Masked Rider and part was what goes into picking the horse.

That’s when I first talked to Jackson and learned about the extensive process they put a horse through. The horse has to be calm around people, able to handle a lot of noise and much more.

It also must be black.

Jackson said less than one percent of all horses can make it through the process.

So when I watched Centennial Champion struggle a bit Saturday, I thought about calling Jackson this week to see how things were.

So far, so good.

“I was pleasantly surprised how the horse handled some stimuli,” said Jackson.

Horses going through the process are taken to Goin’ Band practice. Some can’t handle that amount of noise and are eliminated.

Even the microscopic number of horses that get through all the vetting still won’t know what it’s like to be on the field in front of a full house at Jones AT&T Stadium, with the band and the noise coming through speakers.

“He was much more accepting of noise and visual stimuli than a lot of horses. He just didn’t want to go out on touchdown runs. But he got better in the second half,” said Jackson. “It’s an evolving learning process.”

Part of that process was a slower run before the game – partly by design, said Jackson.

“We’d rather be cautious, get him safely and comfortably through,” he said.

But that’s not the only reason.

“We’ll probably never have a horse that runs as fast as Fearless Champion,” said Jackson – partly because Fearless was a short, stocky horse with a short stride who liked to run fast.

There were other new things Saturday Fearless Champion never saw – a new smoke machine, fire shooting up and sideline speakers Jackson said are louder and more intense.

“We’ve never had that level of noise and stimuli,” he said, adding he could feel his shirt vibrating from the bass coming through the speakers.

“He doesn’t know what’s causing that, but I do. That can make it scary and uncomfortable,” said Jackson.

So this year is an even more intense environment for Tech’s favorite horse.

I asked Jackson if there was anything they do during games to keep the horse calm.

“You just have to wait for them to come around. They have to adjust and accept,” he said, which happened when Centennial Champion had a better second half.

“I thought overall it was a positive experience,” he said.