The richest quarter horse in history has come full circle, from humble beginnings in 2009 to quiet retirement just 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, the story of how one horse became a legend in quarter horse racing.
He spends his days relaxing in a Quanah, Texas pasture, a horse who, like any true Texan, is fond of wide open spaces, the wind in his mane, and warm sun, cool shade, or rain on his back. Retired in December, 2013 from an unparalleled career in a demanding and often unforgiving industry, the running-bred American Quarter Horse gelding known as Ochoa earned the good life by leaving his mark on quarter horse racing history. His 2011 win in the 2.4 million dollar All American Futurity boosted his lifetime earnings to an unforgettable $2,781,365.00 from 15 total racing starts, setting the bar for the future of quarter horse racing.
Bred and owned by the incomparable Johnny T.L. Jones and his wife Brenda of the J Bar 7 Ranch LLC, (see sidebar) there is more to Ochoa’s story than can be written. No press release, race promotion or social media page can fully describe the horse that has become a legend as the richest horse in quarter horse racing history. Those who have met the sorrel gelding in person all leave with a smile, affected by his personality, charm and charisma. The confident and gregarious nature of Ochoa wins them all over, but really, as Ashley, Brenda’s daughter says, “He thinks everyone who comes to the ranch is there to see him.”
MAKING A CHAMPION
In 2006, Johnny purchased Stoli’s Fortune, the mare that would become Ochoa’s dam, at the All American sale in Ruidoso. He liked her size and her strength, her pedigree was solid and so she came home to the J Bar 7 and was started in training. Even though Johnny didn’t like the look of one ankle, he thought she was worth a gamble. However, in her very first start on the Ruidoso track she suffered an injury that ultimately would end her career. At home, Johnny gave the ranch staff instructions to get her back to health, then began the search for a stallion that would complement the mare. Without a race record to fully gauge her potential as a broodmare, Johnny carefully chose “Tres Seis,” a young stallion who had recently run 2nd in the All American, the prestigious race that has defined quarter horse racing for years. On March 11, 2009, a particularly cold and wet spring in north Texas, Ochoa was foaled.
The sorrel colt spent his first year like all the J Bar 7 yearlings, playing, growing, and learning how to “be horses” on the grass pastures and clean paddocks of the ranch. As the young horses developed, Johnny and Brenda watched them every day, eventually deciding which would be sent to which yearling sale, and which would be held back for training. Both Brenda and Johnny remember baby Ochoa as being the first to come to the pickup to say hello, a personality trait that has never wavered.
Raising horses, not a business for the weak at heart, is about promise, potential, and with luck some profit, but the latter never comes easy. To thoughtful breeders like Johnny and Brenda Jones, it was their hope that J Bar 7 stock would be cared for, trained and promoted like champions and along the way become “solid citizens” of the breed and ambassadors to the sport of quarter horse racing, no matter which barn they were standing in. All good breeders hope that their stock becomes the next foundation for the future of the breed and the sport or use for which they are bred. There is no greater achievement for those who love their breed than to have one of their own reach the pinnacle of a career. It’s what defines a good breeder. Even though their work was geared to sell each year’s yearling crop, every now and again, a special horse comes along for which there is just not enough money to buy. Such was the situation with young Ochoa, although it was Brenda who initially saw his promise.
That year’s sale colts were prepped over the summer by Brenda, her daughter Ashley Crow and husband Josh, and Ashley’s good friend and ranch employee Whitney Gibson. The young horses needed to learn a multitude of skills but primarily, to stand tied, lead quietly, load into a trailer, tolerate bathing, brushing and having their feet handled. They also needed to be physically fit and in perfect condition for the moment they stepped foot into the sale arena. Fresh from the freedom of the pasture, the young horses also had to learn to tolerate stall confinement. This last lesson was perhaps the least favorite for the sorrel colt named Ochoa. He never learned to like a stall, but he quickly became everyone’s favorite. One day when Ashley had Ochoa out grazing on a lunge line he bolted, running the length of the driveway while dragging a stubborn Ashley far behind. She would not let go, and, Ashley said from that unique vantage point she was the first to learn that the colt was going to be a world class runner.
When Brenda scheduled the delivery of the yearlings to the Ruidoso Select Sale, she didn’t tell Johnny what her plans were for the sorrel colt who had caught her eye and stolen her heart. She knew more than anyone that a working ranch like the J Bar 7 doesn’t function solely on love and smiles, it needs cash to operate. She also knew that with his knowledge of the yearling market and the pedigrees of each year’s colt crop, Johnny needed to expect a predictable amount of income from the sale so the daily operations of the ranch could continue. This year was no different. On the day the four colts were loaded for the trip, Brenda nervously kept her secret to herself.
After the sale that night, she unloaded the colt at home and walked into the house to find that Johnny had already gone to bed. But she couldn’t sleep until she had confessed her deed. After a moment to comprehend that his wife had turned down a good and fair price for a colt who showed no more promise than any of the others, Johnny said “Well, Brenda, maybe he’ll win the All American.” And with that, they went to bed.
THE MILLION DOLLAR ROAD
Now that he was home for good, the decision to geld Ochoa was made before he turned two years old, as Johnny knew that with his build he would likely develop too thick of a neck as a stallion to be much good on the track. After initial training at home, Ochoa’s soon-to-be brilliant career was guided by Sleepy Gilbreath, a Ruidoso Hall of Fame trainer and trusted boyhood friend of Johnny’s. Under Gilbreath he proved to be a star student, and when Johnny saw him work for the first time in Oklahoma, he was more than impressed with the colt’s power and speed. “He was drowning the other colts,” said Johnny. When training operations moved to a new race meet at Ruidoso, Gilbreath put the sorrel colt in a schooling race. Johnny recalls picking up the phone one day and hearing the rough voice of R.D. Hubbard, Ruidoso track owner. “Well, your horse just ran in a schooling race. Broke last. Won by 3.” Ochoa would never learn to break well from the starting gate, no matter how many times they tried, or techniques they used. It seemed, said Johnny, that he was always paying attention to something else when the bell rang and the gate opened. In spite of this, once he was clear of the gate and running, the horse was all business in every race. He simply loved to run.
Only 15 races define Ochoa’s career. With 11 wins, 1 second and 1 third place finish, his was a career that ran as hot and fast as he himself did on the track. Johnny said that maybe, just maybe if the horse had been paying attention in the gate on the day he ran the Ruidoso Derby, he might have won that one, too. But he simply forgot to leave the gate on time. While it didn’t bring many smiles that day, it has made for good storytelling since, and has become part of the charm that makes him Ochoa.
What was next for the horse who had conquered quarter horse racing’s toughest challengers? Don’t miss next month’s issue.