Hall of Fame Part II: Joe Kirk and Mr San Peppy

Joe Kirk and Mr San Peppy made significant marks on different areas of the Quarter Horse world.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

At the 2012 AQHA Convention in Las Vegas in March, six new inductees will join the prestigious walls of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame. The new inductees include Gordon Hannagan, Walter Fletcher, Bob Loomis, Indigo Illusion, Streakin La Jolla and Hollywood Dun It.

In April, America’s Horse Daily will feature biographies about the new members of the Hall of Fame. Until then, enjoy this series about the people and horses honored in 2011 by induction into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

Joe Kirk Fulton

The American Quarter Horse owes a debt of gratitude to Joe Kirk Fulton.

The lifelong horseman has improved the breed, and Quarter Horses are better for having “Joe Kirk,” as he’s known throughout the industry, on their side – not only as an owner and competitor but as a breeder for 50 consecutive years.

“They have been my hobby; they’ve been my love,” says the 79-year-old Lubbock, Texas, businessman and rancher. “My dad bought me my first Quarter Horses when I was probably 14 or 15, and from that day forward, I’ve just continued to acquire good mares and tried to raise some awfully nice colts. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve raised a few pretty nice ones.”

Though he grew up an only child, Joe Kirk was never alone. He was raised with a few backyard horses on a small acreage near Lubbock, where his family made a fortune in banking, and pipeline oil and gas. In the late ’50s, he and his father, R.H. Fulton, bought the local Plains National Bank, which he sold in 1988.

Joe Kirk and his father also developed a major cattle operation on their Quien Sabe Ranch (Spanish for “Who knows?”) near the Texas Panhandle town of Channing. Encompassing about 150,000 acres of the rough and rugged Canadian River Valley, the ranch, depending on rainfall, can run 4,000 to 6,000 head of Herefords and crossbred commercial beef cattle.

In 1952, while a student at Texas Tech University, Joe Kirk became the school’s first mounted mascot, performing as the Masked Rider in parades and at football games, including the following year’s Gator Bowl. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he showed halter and cutting horses. He also bred and raised American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer Peppy San Badger, the legendary “Little Peppy” who won the 1977 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity and 1978 NCHA Derby before becoming one of the all-time leading sires of cutting and cow horses.

Before Little Peppy was even nursing his mama, Joe Kirk began turning his well-honed eye to racing. In 1973, his homebred Flaming Jet ran second in Timeto Thinkrich’s All American Futurity. The third all-time leading breeder of racing Quarter Horses, Joe Kirk has bred the earners of more than $16 million on the track, including world champions Dashs Dream and Special Leader, and 72 other stakes winners.

“The thing I like most is to raise a colt and race it,” Joe Kirk says. “I’ll buy a broodmare, but I don’t want to buy a yearling. My kick is being able to figure out what mare to cross on what stud, raise that colt, race him and have success. When you can do that, the colts will sell. Like (Grade 1 winner and top sire) Mr Eye Opener – I’m very proud to have raised that horse, even if I didn’t race him. That’s where I get my pleasure.”

He points to Dashs Dream both as his greatest pleasure and as the pinnacle of what he has accomplished with Quarter Horses.

“I named her right,” he says, “because she was a dream.”

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He has spread the dream around to others, also, as the breeder and/or owner of stallions that have sired the earners of more than $60 million. That kind of expertise led to his service as an AQHA director and director-at-large, and as chairman of the AQHA Stud Book and Registration Committee. He was also recognized by the AQHA Racing Committee with the Gordon Crone Special Achievement Award. Joe Kirk is a former president of the Texas Quarter Horse Association and an out-of-state director for the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association. He also has served on the board of directors for Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in Texas and on advisory boards for Los Alamitos Race Course, the veterinary college at Texas A&M University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

“From his involvement with halter and performance horses to breeding cutting horse legend Peppy San Badger to his breeding and racing world champions Dashs Dream and Special Leader, Joe Kirk has been the model of versatility,” says AQHA Executive Committee member Johnny Trotter of Hereford, Texas. “His broodmare bands for both running horses and ranch horses are legendary. … Joe Kirk ranks as the only AQHA member to breed and own two different winners of the prestigious Champion of Champions (race).”

Joe Kirk’s fascination and involvement with the fastest and most versatile horse on earth extends far beyond the competition phase.

“I like a good horse to ride,” Joe Kirk says. “I like my cowboys at the ranch to be mounted on good horses. They appreciate that. It makes it a lot easier to keep good cowboys.”

That fascination began long before winning races or bringing home blue ribbons was any kind of concern. As lifelong friend Ray Weed recalls, “When we were in high school, one of our mutual friends would tell me, ‘Well, Joe Kirk’s gone to Kansas to look at a Quarter Horse,’ and I’d think, in my little world, ‘Why in the world does Joe Kirk have to go to Kansas to look at a horse? There are plenty of horses here in Texas.’ But that’s how much he loved them.”

Mr San Peppy

Not many horses can be said to have changed the course of an entire industry, but Mr San Peppy did just that for two segments – ranching and cutting.

In the 1960s, Gordon B. Howell was an American Quarter Horse breeder with equal interests in cutting and in racing. He had a pretty good stallion, Leo San, and a pretty good mare, Peppy Belle by Pep Up by Macanudo. He bred them seven times. Their first foal, Peppy San, was foaled in 1959 and eventually inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1999. Leo San and Peppy Belle’s last mating produced Mr San Peppy in 1968.

Gordon asked Bubba Cascio to start Mr San Peppy, but Bubba didn’t have time and recommended cowboy Buster Welch as being able to handle the sorrel colt’s feisty temperament.

Buster and Mr San Peppy got along well enough that the colt never made it to the racetrack. Instead, Buster’s son, Greg, rode Mr San Peppy in the 1971 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity. They didn’t win that, but just a few months later, they claimed the NCHA Derby open title.

While Mr San Peppy was getting started in cutting, the historic King Ranch in Texas was looking for a top sire. The ranch sent about 10 mares each to four of the most famous stallions of the day for test-breeding, hoping that a good stallion prospect would come from one of the crosses.

“My dad told me that I wouldn’t get what I wanted, and he was right,” explains AQHA Past President Stephen “Tio” Kleberg, the great-grandson of the ranch’s founder. “He told me, ‘There are many male horses, only a few sires.’ ”

While waiting for the test foals to mature, Tio went to a few cutting events and eventually saw Mr San Peppy. By that time, Buster had purchased the stallion and was hauling for the NCHA world title, which they won in 1974.

After a few test breedings, the King Ranch was convinced of the stallion’s merit and bought him in 1976. Buster went along to keep the horse in shape. Between visits to the breeding shed in 1976, Mr San Peppy won the NCHA world championship and claimed the AQHA senior cutting world championship.

“Winning the NCHA made him a cutting sire,” Tio says. “Winning the AQHA world championship made him an American Quarter Horse.”

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Back at the ranch, Mr San Peppy got down to business, both working cattle on the ranch and siring colts with his same athletic ability, while Buster managed the ranch’s development program and helped train the colts and teach the ranch’s other cowboys his methods. Ranchers and cutters from as far away as California brought their mares to Texas.

“We got a three-for-one deal when we bought Mr San Peppy,” Tio says. “The horse and Buster and (Buster’s wife) Sheila.”

The stallion’s foal crops, meanwhile, were proving themselves. Mr San Peppy earned more than $107,850 in NCHA competition. His foals won more than $2.63 million in NCHA competition, not to mention earning more than 3,200 points in AQHA competition. Two of his most famous offspring are Peppy San Badger, a 2008 American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame inductee who won the NCHA Finals in 1981, the NCHA Futurity in 1977 and the NCHA Derby in 1978; and Tenino San, an inductee into the NCHA Hall of Fame. The offspring of Mr San Peppy’s daughters earned more than 6,000 open, amateur and youth AQHA points in performance events, more than $4.6 million in NCHA earnings and more than $3 million in United States Team Penning Association earnings.

Less measurable but no less important is the stallion’s effect on the King Ranch remuda and on the other ranches where no performance records are kept except in cowboys’ memories.

“His blood is in every horse on the place, top or bottom,” Tio says. “To have him inducted into the Hall of Fame means everything. Everything.”

When the stallion died in 1998, he was buried on the ranch where he was ridden every day – carefully, because he kept his famous temperament to the end – and where his offspring are still making good cowboy memories.