4 years later on the same ranch where he was born. He has brought pride, peace, and blessings to a family who understands hard work and the value of friendships. Read part one in our October issue, the story of how one horse became a legend in quarter horse racing. Below is part two, the story of how a world class racing quarter horse became more than a horse to all who met him.
Ochoa, the richest quarter horse in AQHA racing history, had made his mark in the racing world by winning more money than any other racing quarter horse had ever earned. He achieved this in only 15 races, all run by the time he turned four years old. To say that this horse was a superstar in what is often a tough and brutally competitive industry would have been an understatement. But his charisma and character was not just for the track. With the end of his racing career and the beginning of a well-earned retirement at the J Bar 7 Ranch where he had been born, The Jones family soon learned that there was more to Ochoa than even his fans and family could have guessed.
From the moment she first set eyes on him, Brenda Jones, wife and business partner of Johnny T.L. Jones knew that the stocky sorrel colt had something special. Every year, she and Johnny evaluated the colt crop at their J Bar 7 Ranch near Quanah, Texas. Together, they carefully looked at each young horse, using all their knowledge to estimate promise and future talent, hoping that they would choose to keep the right one or two young horses that would help their ranch by winning a few races and keeping the J Bar 7 name popular with racing buyers and bidders. It was a gamble every year, but one that the skilled husband and wife team had grown accustomed to. This colt, though was different. His outgoing and curious nature made him one of Brenda’s secret favorites from the very beginning. No matter how experienced one is when evaluating young horses, there is never any guarantee. The horse business, no matter the discipline is tricky, can be fickle, and can quickly fool even the most experienced. “What would come of this horse in a good training program?” Brenda wondered. What she couldn’t foresee was the adventure he would take them on as they traveled the road to quarter horse racing history.
Ochoa’s trainer for his racing career was well-known Hall of Fame trainer Sleepy Gilbreath. Lifelong friends with Johnny Jones, Gilbreath didn’t know the kind of horse he was being asked to train until the pretty sorrel colt started running training races. It wasn’t long before he knew that his friend Johnny had a good one, and his excitement was contagious. He told Johnny and Brenda that the horse was smarter than any of them, so impressed was he with the colt’s ability to understand exactly what was wanted of him. Ochoa’s willingness, cheerful good nature, and work ethic was rare and wonderful, and before long would help make Gilbreath’s considerable talent as a trainer become even that much more legendary.
The Good Life
The 15th race for Ochoa was the Los Alamitos Champion of Champions. True to form, he didn’t break from the starting gate cleanly or even look like he knew he was at the track, but once he was clear, he began his race in earnest, as his jockey knew he would. With only a quarter mile to run, Ochoa knew he had only a few moments to get down to business and win. As he dug in deep for the sprint to the finish, his jockey suddenly felt something was “off” in his mount’s stride, and he struggled to pull him up, slowing him to prevent any further injury. Back at the track’s barns, a veterinarian determined that Ochoa had suffered a minor injury, praising the jockey for his choice which likely prevented a more serious injury. With plenty of discussion, it was decided that the handsome sorrel gelding would be retired. He would come home to the same pastures where he had romped as a yearling. “I just wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if anything had happened to the horse,” said Johnny. And so, retirement for the sorrel champion would be green, manicured pastures, warm Texas sun occasionally chased away by strong prairie winds, plenty of room to run as he pleased and no starting gate with which to bother. For a horse who never felt comfortable standing in a stall, it was the happy ending to a storybook career.
For those first several years his best friend, fellow retiree and pasture mate was “Noconi,” another J Bar 7 quarter horse racing champion and millionaire in his own right. Sadly, Noconi was gently euthanized March 1, 2016 after dedicated veterinary care failed to alleviate the pain from a torn ligament. Ochoa grieved for days, as animals do, clearly missing his friend. Even though he still spent time with “Downside Magician,” another champion retiree, it was never the same, said Brenda and Johnny. As she watched Ochoa wander his pastures, Brenda began to feel that maybe, just maybe her perfect horse, the secret sale that never happened, their million-dollar Hall of Fame people-loving horse, was itching for another career, another place to go, another “something to do.” As it turned out, she was right, yet again.
Early this summer, Brenda made a phone call to another family friend and trusted horseman, Chris Littlefield, also a training legend in his own right. She had a strong feeling that Chris’s style, philosophy, and experience as a trainer of multiple world champion ranch horses, cutting horses, performance horses, and working horses might be the perfect fit for her stout, sorrel race horse. He had never been anything but a race horse, where a rider perches over the horse’s shoulders for the whole ride, never really “sitting” in the tiny saddle. Would Ochoa accept a heavy western saddle? Would he understand how to “track” cattle? What would he think of a lariat swinging over his head? Would he be able to make the transition from race horse to ranch horse? Brenda hoped he could, and Chris Littlefield agreed to take him on.
Ochoa’s new training began in August, 2016. Chris wasn’t sure what to expect, the track can be a hard place for high-strung horses. Some trainers will say that they never know for sure how much horse you’ve got to work with until you’re in the middle of him, and sometimes that’s too late to change your mind. Chris understood this all too well, and so his first work with Ochoa was to introduce him to the heavy and sometimes bulky western working saddle with layers of thick leather built upon a stiff and solid tree designed to hold a thousand pounds or more of unhappy cattle at the end of a lariat.
Chris’ goal was to introduce Ochoa to the working ranch horse life gently and at a pace the horse could understand. He never wanted to push him, and he never wanted to “corner him” or make him feel like he was trapped. He hoped to be able to teach him how to handle cattle quietly and with confidence for moving, sorting, and doctoring. The gelding would also need to learn how to handle himself while his rider opened and closed gates, fixed fences, medicated injured or sick cattle, and anything that a good cowboy would need for his horse to do to complete his job each day. He wasn’t sure how a high-bred running horse would take to the daily grind of ranch work.
Sleepy Gilbreath likely predicted what that first day for Chris and Ochoa would be like. When Chris called Brenda after the first training session with their horse, he was nothing but amazed. “It’s like he’s worn a western saddle all his life,” Chris exclaimed. Saddled, bridled, rear girth, breast collar, and a lariat tied to the horn, Ochoa walked off with Chris aboard as if had known all along that good Quarter Horses simply don’t mess around with nonsense, no matter what the job at hand may be. He saw the cattle and while his step quickened, still he waited for Chris to guide him in, feeling intuitively what was needed. He stepped out across the Texas short grass prairie on a slack but attentive rein, no cheering grandstands or blaring loudspeaker, just the wind in the mesquite and the sounds of the sky to spur him on.
While he doesn’t much like to stand still, and he still dislikes the confines of a barn and stall, the new horse Ochoa has discovered in himself has made Chris Littlefield proud. He has taken the new routines in stride, surprising the veteran trainer with his extreme versatility and with his ability to solve problems and apply newly-learned skills. Ochoa has returned to his home ranch now, there to continue a new career as the newest working ranch horse on the J Bar L. He still thinks however, whether he’s standing saddled waiting for instructions or whether he’s lounging in his paddock in front of the big house, that all visitors to the ranch are there to see him and only him, a character trait that has defined Ochoa since he was a yearling.
Johnny says there are two kinds of people, those that have horses, and those that want horses. For him, horses are and have always been, his life. He has lived and breathed horses, especially running quarter horses, since he can remember. For Johnny and Brenda, two of the most gracious and humble people one could ever meet, there is simply no other way to live than with each other and their family, on beautiful land surrounded by good horses. Johnny says that one of his greatest fortunes in life was to have found a girl who liked him and horses, too. No matter what kind of day has happened, good, bad, or other, the couple tries to find the time to go to the pasture together and watch the colts. Time stands still as the horses play, romp, or come to the truck to visit, just like young Ochoa did those years ago. Smiles appear, worries fade, and the beauty of the horses shine through, making everything better no matter the trouble.
How do you find yourself the steward of one of the most remarkable equine athletes the quarter horse world has ever known? Some will say that it’s intuition, a way of looking at a horse and knowing what can be made of the heart within. Some say it’s in your gut, an idea that stirs up hopes and dreams and fans the flame of ambition. For those who took the risk and succeeded, maybe they found the right combination of luck, talent, and skill, together with being in the right place at just the right time, with absolutely the right horse. Maybe sometimes it’s just a thing that happens because faith and fate says it should. But all who know Johnny and Brenda Jones, their whole family and their J Bar 7 team will agree. There isn’t a better family in the country to have had this success, and there isn’t a better horse yet who can challenge the records that stand.
Brenda says Ochoa has been a blessing to them in every aspect of their life. Win or lose, they feel the same about every one of the horses they own, have bred or raised to train. She feels that it’s their responsibility, not only to the horse himself but to the integrity of the horse industry and to their own ethics and standards. Their dedication and care for every horse that has come through the J Bar L Ranch is a testament to all good horsemen everywhere.
As for Ochoa, she and Johnny see his paddock the first thing every morning, right outside a large picture window in their home. It’s a scene she wouldn’t trade for all the million dollar races in the world, and it’s a picture that can only be painted by the hand of God himself. Will Rogers once wrote, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” There’s a good bet that if Ochoa could talk, he would agree.
In Memorium: Jockey Jacky Martin
Johnny and Brenda Jones would like to acknowledge jockey Jacky Martin, who passed away in April, 2015 for his part in Ochoa’s success. Jacky’s talent as a jockey helped qualify Ochoa for the All American, and Mr. Martin was picked to ride him that day. The Hall of Fame jockey suffered critical injuries in a racing accident just 3 days prior to the race. Brenda said that they will remain deeply humbled by the sportsmanship shown them that year by fellow horsemen Carolyn and Walter Bay for allowing their picked jockey, Roy Baldillez to make the switch from their entry, Cold Cash 123, to Ochoa.
FINISHING LIKE A CHAMPION; OCHOA’S TITLES
Owned by Johnny T.L. and Brenda Jones’ J Bar 7 Ranch, Monty and Katsy Cluck with Doug and Shavon Benson, Ochoa is the all-time leading money-earning racing Quarter Horse at $2,781,365. He earned $2,620,553 of that total at Ruidoso Downs.
At Ruidoso Downs, Ochoa won the All American Futurity, Rainbow Derby, Mr. Jet Moore Stakes and the All American Derby. He is the sixth horse to win the All American Futurity and the All American Derby. The gelding was the 2011 champion 2-year-old, 2011 Champion 2-year-old gelding, AQHA Supreme Racehorse, 2012 champion 3-year-old, and 2012 Champion 3-year-old gelding. He is currently the American Quarter Horse Racing’s All-Time Money Earner.
Trained by Ruidoso Downs’ Racehorse Hall of Famer Sleepy Gilbreath, Ochoa dominated the 2011 All American Futurity by one-and-one-half lengths and the 2012 All American Derby by one-and-one-quarter lengths.
Ochoa also earned a berth into the 2013 Grade 1, $750,000 Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos in December of that year. A minor injury discovered in this race encouraged Ochoa’s owners to retire him from racing.
He was inducted into the Ruidoso Downs Hall of Fame in June, 2016.
Sleepy Gilbreath says that Ochoa is smarter than him, Johnny AND Brenda combined, but is lucky to have smart relatives like Johnny and Brenda. There is no doubt that Gilbreath, a legend in his own right and now semi-retired from the sport, knows horses and knows what they think. He has won the All American Futurity three times and the All American Derby three times, a record that still stands in the racing quarter horse industry.