One of barrel racing’s most beloved icons, John Read Foster’s been playing the game for nearly 50 years.
He might not remember the registered name of every horse that he’s owned, shown or admired, but John Read Foster can darn sure tell you how that horse was bred. He can tell you what it won and more than likely who was riding it.
A walking, talking barrel horse encyclopedia, Foster’s been “dabbling” in the barrel horse business for almost 50 years. He’s been an owner, trainer, a broker, a stallion owner, a breeder and event producer.
He’s raised his three daughters—Tracy Boles, Katy Shirley and Jonna Foster—in the business, and his wife, Zelda, has long been tolerant of his never-ending quest for the next best barrel horse. Now his grandchildren—Kaitlyn Boles and Mason Read Shirley—are catching the bug.
Many people new to the sport or removed from the aged event industry, don’t know him beyond his Blue Grass Truck and Trailer Sales, but he’s literally been there, done that and has the boots to prove it. If you ever get a chance to talk barrel horses with Foster, you’re in for a big treat.
Bitten by the Barrel Bug
Foster got his love of horses from his maternal grandfather John Cushenberry, who traded horses and mules. After watching a barrel race held at the local county fair, Foster was hooked.
“It kinda tripped my trigger when I saw that,” he says. “I just liked it. I liked the speed and the competition. In 1961, I traded two ponies and a cart for a barrel horse. Mushy, he was just an ol’ grade horse, but I liked it ever since. I was ruint from then ‘cause I’ve had one ever since.”
Like all competitive horsemen, Foster was always looking for a better horse.
“I never was satisfied,” he says. “I was always wanting a better one. There were a lot of times I didn’t get what I was looking for, but I never did stop looking.”
In his search for the next best barrel horse, Foster ended up “dabbling” in other disciplines like cutting, reining and Quarter horse racing.
“Before things got so segregated you could go to the cutting sales and buy a cutting horse that may have been out of a running-bred mare or vice versa,” he says. “Now, that’s all changed. Everything’s so segregated, or specialized to what you’re doing, whether it’s cutting or racing. You’ve got to have a certain pedigree to do it at all now.”
Truly versatile horses dominated the early decades of the performance horse industry. It wasn’t unusual to see horse win money on the track, win at halter and place in a performance class in short order. Yet, as prize money increased in the various disciplines horseman sought out the perfect horse for that specific event.
While other disciplines are intensely segregated, the athletic demands of the sport and time element of barrel racing has kept it open to all horses. Even so, clear patterns of superior performers have developed.
“Barrel racers have done this long enough that they sought the running horses that have enough brains to be barrel horses and the cutting horses that have enough run to be barrel horses,” Foster says. “They’ve kind of mixed that along the way and it’s a specified event now.”
Foster sees this as boon for the barrel horse industry as it has created a strong breeding and prospect market.
“Back then no one paid much attention to pedigrees,” he says. “Now, that’s really, really changed. And I’m glad for it. That gives people who want to breed and raise barrel horses a market. If you watch those sales, people have studied their pedigrees, and it’s not as much luck as you think. They have gone after those bloodlines that have made good barrel horses. Just look down the list of the horses at the World Futurity. There were very few horses that you knew nothing about whether they were in the barrel race or in the sale. That’s what excites me about it is the public is looking for that good horse with good pedigrees.”
But just because a horse has a great pedigree, don’t mean it’s a complete package. As Foster put it, “There’s a big difference between silk and satin.”
Foster likes strong conformation to go with good papers, but rather than pick a horse apart, he tries to judge on what he likes rather than what he doesn’t.
“A guy told me once to define a perfect horse is near impossible,” he says, laughing. “To find a perfect horse IS impossible. People say they’re going to buy that perfect horse that I don’t think is out there. When I look at a horse I got to see a lot of things I like about him. A lot of people look at a horse and start trying to pick him apart. If there isn’t enough right with him, I don’t want him anyway. I try to look for the good things rather than the bad things. If the good outweighs the bad and I like his papers, I’ll try him.”
Training and Campaigning
Foster entered his first futurity horse at the 1973 Texas Barrel Racing Association’s Futurity at Floyd Bolton’s place in Grand Prairie, Texas.
“It was the only one to go to,” he says. “It was a big thing in those days. They’d have about 3-400 horses. Everybody was all in the same place for three or four days and everybody learned from everybody. You’d watch someone work a horse, fixing a problem, and they might have done it a little differently than you would have. It might not work on every horse, but you might have a horse later on and that be the only thing that does work. We learned a lot from each other just by watching.”
In the early 1970s, Foster had one of the greatest barrel horses of that era—Howie Bars. The 1967 stallion by Bruce’s Question out of Miss Cooper 54, by Red Waggoner, was one of the all-time leading AQHA barrel racing point-earning stallions with 363 points and had several AQHA High Point titles to his credit throughout the decade.
It was Howie Bars that put Foster in the horse business. He was driving a truck at the time, but found out he was colorblind. So, he sold Howie Bars, built his wife a house and hung out his shingle as a trainer. It was 1975.
“There were a lot of horses by that stud that I ran for lots of people,” he says. Among them were Rob’s Troublemaker, Howies Okie Leo, Howies Oleos, and Howies Superstar to name just a few.
Another bloodline dear to Foster is that of Okie Leo, a son of Leo out of a daughter of King.
“One of the greatest horses I ever had was horse by the name of Okies Stardust, by Okie Leo,” he says. “Those Okie Leo mares were something else. The guy that owned him called me and told me he’d sell me some colts for good money, if I would show them in those registered shows. I bought those colts for $500 a round. If I’d had the foresight and the money, I shoulda bought me some of those Okie Leo mares. That could have changed my whole life.”
Foster remembers 1985 as one of his best years. At the Old Fort Days Futurity in Fort Smith, Ark., he had either owned or trained three of the Top 10 horses. At the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio, he either owned or trained four of the Top 10 horses in the registered barrels and he owned winner Lotsa Octane and second place Mister Big Bug.
While he’s had many different clients throughout his training career, he counts Ken Pruitt, Cecil Butcher III of Red Gate Quarter Horses and Charles Parks as his most during and loyal customers.
It was for Butcher that he rode and trained Magnolia Mistress, a daughter of Magnolia Bar out of Leolita Joe, by Leo.
“This Magnolia Mistress was sent to a pleasure horse trainer,” Foster says. “Every time you touched her face, she’d take her head and tuck it against her chest. I hated to ride her. I called Butcher and he said to keep riding her because he had too much money in her not to. When she went to working she never quit. You just never know. If Butcher had listened to me, she’d never made it.”
At the Old Fort Days Futurity, Butcher sold Magnolia Mistress to two-time WPRA World Champion Lynn McKenzie. Her daughters, Wendy and Jennifer, rode Magnolia Mistress with Wendy winning the 1987 and 1989 AQHA Senior Barrel Racing World Championships.
Foster put his training shingle on the mantel in 1989 and stepped away from competition the following year, though recently he cracked out at the local saddle club to compete with his grandchildren. He found that competitive fire hadn’t diminished.
“I’ve dreamt a little, but I’ve got an artificial knee now,” he says. “Those grandbabies darn sure make me think about doing a lot of things I shouldn’t.”
While he continues to break and start his 2-year-olds, most of his horses are now campaigned by others.
Just recently, Katie Brown won Saturday’s Open 4D at the Central Mississippi Futurity aboard Foster’s Fame Of Fortune, one of the few older horses that he has. Previously, Brown garnered accolades aboard Corey Breedlove’s mare Dealem Tiny, a Tinys Guy-Wonder Otoe mare that Foster had bred along with Charles Parks.
Foster also has an incredible gift for finding top horses. But getting all their names together is tough, because Foster isn’t one to brag.
In December, a horse he bought from Canadian friends and sold to Donnie Reece turned heads at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Traci Dawson had the daunting task of mastering a new horse in the pressure-filled Cracker Jack box, but for all the downed barrels, it was clear that Real Easy Doc had the goods.
Foster had picked up Real Easy Doc for the Walter family, whom he had sold Coloursomebugsonme, his most profitable futurity horse in recent years. Reece won the first $100,000 Pro Tour Futurity aboard Real Easy Doc as a 3-year-old before selling him back to the Walters.
He’s also pointed a lot of people in the right direction. Ask any barrel racing reporter and they’ll tell you “John Read Foster said” or “John Read told me about” comes up in a lot of conversations about winning horses and breeding stock.
Just ask Jud Little about Brownie Jones, who has sired a two-time futurity champion in his first crop of horses under Little’s ownership. Foster had purchased Brownie Jones, the last breeding son of Pa Jones, by chance after making a connection at NCHA Futurity. He sold him to Little a month later along with a daughter of Flaming Jet.
The Futurity Business
Foster’s seen a lot of things tried since his first futurity back in 1973. He’s even produced a few.
The Rocky Top Futurity in Herriman, Tenn., ran from 1994 to 2001 and paid out more than $200,000 over its history. Foster first produced the event with Mark Crump and Charles Parks, while he and his daughters managed the event in later years.
“When those futurities started there was one a year and those colts could have never started anywhere else,” he says. “It wasn’t long before there were so many of them that you couldn’t get to them all.”
Having too many to go to can be a problem as far as entries go in the long run.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you go to four or five and don’t draw a check, you ain’t going back,” he says. “You might stay on a more local level.”
When interviewed back in December, Foster stated the obvious in regards to the slot race futurities.
“The slot races have been good for us if we don’t get so many were you can’t fill the slots,” he prophesized. So far in 2009, one slot race didn’t fill, but was still held, while yet another was canceled due to lack of entries. “They’ve been great thing for our industry, but I don’t think can’t have one on every corner. It’s one thing paying the $5,000 to enter one, but it’s another thing to have enough horses worth entering. When you try to get that many good horses in one year, it’s tough.”
Foster mirrors a sentiment held by many within the barrel horse industry that was vocalized by Dena Kirkpatrick in the January 2009 issue of Barrel Horse News.
“I think our industry really needs a little glue amongst us,” he says. “We ought to unite a little more in some of these areas.”
Foster’s current project is the marketing and promotion of Famous JR, a stallion he owns in partnership with Mike Green, of Southern Rose Ranch, Pelzer, S.C. Famous JR is a 9-year-old son of five-time leading barrel horse sire Dash Ta Fame out of Some More Please, by Easily Smashed, the second most profitable broodmare sire over the past 10 years.
About four years ago, Foster took Honor Bugs, a daughter of Peptos Honor Jet out of a Copper Bugs mare, to the Old Fort Days Futurity in Fort Smith, Ark., with the intent of selling the mare. While there he visited with racehorse trainer Donnie Strickland in nearby Sallisaw, Okla., who was a part owner of Famous JR.
When he failed to sell Honor Bugs he had Strickland breed the mare to Famous JR. Foster later sold the bred mare to Amber Kinslow of Lafeyette, Tenn. When Honor Bugs had her colt, she asked Foster to come take a look.
“I thought, ‘Man, that’s an outstanding colt,’” he says. “I went and saw a few more in Sallisaw and thought “Man, I ought to get involved with that horse.’ That fall we got to Oklahoma City (for the World Futurity) and Mike Green had traded for half of that horse. I asked Mike if he would mind if I bought the other partners out.”
With a limited number of foals on the ground, three of his 4-year-olds were entered in the Elite Trailers Juvenile in Oklahoma City and two ran in 1D. Famous JR’s book has grown significantly over the past three years with 2008 being his first season to be booked full.
“I’ve seen a lot of those babies,” he says, “and I’m really impressed with a lot of them.”
If there are good horses to be bought or watched, odds are Foster’s there or meant to be there. Any given weekend will find him at a barrel race or sale. Or, he might be scoping out horseflesh at ranch on the South Texas Gulf Coast or escaping the heat with barrel horse friends in Canada.
Sometimes he shows up where you would least expect it like at the National Cutting Horse Futurity in Fort Worth. But, hey, it’s just down the road from the World Futurity in Oklahoma City, and he never knows what old friends he’ll run into.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot and I’ve met a lot of nice folks over the years,” Foster says. “It’s a tight knit group when you get to thinking about it. It’s been enjoyable meeting all the people. Without that camaraderie and the friends you meet, the rest of it not much important.”
Tanya Randall is an avid barrel racer and regular contributor to Barrel Horse News. She lives in California with her husband, Matt, and young son, Colton. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].