If he tells you a chicken could pull a freight train, you may want to go find a harness.”
That’s how World Champion header Steve Purcella illustrates the level of honesty with which his long-time friend and business partner, Johnny Trotter, operates.
“He’s just an honest guy,” Purcella said of the Texan and 4-Elite header. “I think he’s been that way forever, and I think it’s had a lot to do with the success he’s had. People have a lot of trust in him.”
By most definitions, Trotter, 67, has achieved tremendous success. To name a few of his ventures, he owns Bar-G Feedyards in Hereford, Texas, which has a feeding capacity of 125,000 head. Locally, he also owns Whiteface Ford and operates a trucking outfit. He is on the Board of Directors at numerous banks; he owns ranches in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mississippi; and in 2017, he became the co-owner of Ruidoso Downs Race Track in New Mexico. He served as the President of the AQHA from 2014 to 2015, and in 2016, he became a member of then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Agricultural Advisory Committee.
In 2004, Trotter was named Citizen of the Year in Hereford and Deaf Smith County, and he has been inducted into the Texas Cowboy and Texas Horse Racing Halls of Fame. In 2015, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from West Texas A&M, and the Gordon Crone Special Achievement Award from the AQHA Racing Committee; while in 2017, he received from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum the Chester A. Reynolds Award, named for the museum’s founder and offered to those individuals who have “notably perpetuated the legacy of the American West.”
It is success by most definitions, perhaps except for Trotter’s.
“I’ve gotten a lot of honors and recognition here in the last few years,” Trotter conceded, without much interest in talking about them at any length, “but it’s not about me. And, it’s not that I don’t appreciate them, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. I think it’s just about doing the right thing, being the right thing, and being with the right people.”
Before Trotter’s second-grade year, his father, a Methodist preacher, moved his family to Dumas, Texas, to serve the local parish.
“I can’t remember a time when my dad didn’t tell me, ‘You gotta treat everybody like you want to be treated,’” Trotter said. “‘And you’ve got to do exactly what you say, even if it takes the hide off.’”
At the same time, Trotter got his own horse and started paying attention to the cowboy culture surrounding him, riding out with the local ranchers he came to idolize at every chance. Trotter began day working, breaking colts, and shoeing horses, becoming as handy and trustworthy as he could manage.
“Something that has been real important to me all my life was to try to be known as a really good cowboy,” he started. “But I wasn’t very old when I figured out that there’s really good cowboys and really good cowmen, but not a lot of people that were both.”
When the family then moved to Hereford, where Trotter went to high school, just as the feed yards were being built up, he found work there, while also taking care of wheat cattle for the surrounding farms, and working for Tom Blasingame, the venerated cowboy of the JA Ranch.
Trotter tells the story (which Blasingame wrote about in an article titled “Singing Loop Ranch” in Accent West magazine) with humor, and for good reason.
Still in school, Trotter got a call from Blasingame during his lunch period to see if he could come help with an overturned double-decker cattle truck that had run off a muddy ranch road. The two cowboys—Trotter was the only one who responded to Blasingame’s call for help—cut the top off the trailer, and the cattle scattered across the miles, which would take them two more days to gather.
“The next day,” Blasingame wrote, “we started roping and tying them down wherever we found them. … About 1 o’clock, we met, and I asked Johnny how many he’d tied down. He said seven, as he had run out of anything to tie them with. He had used all his piggin’ strings, one bridle rein, saddle strings, and his belt. He had used his rope on the last one.”
When Trotter was asked where he’d been the last three days, he told his teacher, “I’ve been roping and tying down yearlings at the Singing Loop Ranch.”
It seems natural that Trotter would join the ranks of the team roping community, given his demonstrated penchant for roping fast cattle, but his work—and the lack of opportunity to rope as an amateur that existed before the creation of associations like the USTRC—kept Trotter out of the arena until he was 40 years old.
Twenty-seven years later, Trotter has won nearly $15,000 at the WSTR qualifiers in Andrews, Ruidoso, and Amarillo, as well as the USTRC’s Panhandle Classic in 2018. He’s roped a few times at the World Series of Team Roping Finale, and snagged the fast time in an early go-round once, but has yet to clinch a Finale buckle.
“It’d be fun to get your picture made in Las Vegas,” Trotter mused. “I’ve had a lot of friends that have done it. I never have roped real good out there, but it would be a lot of fun to win one of those big ones someday. Before I get too old.”
Trotter’s other big-win dreams are for the track, where the love of horses he developed in Dumas truly manifested.
“I’d like to win the All American Futurity,” Trotter said of the richest race for any 2-year old race horse in North America. “At Los Alamitos (California), we won the Two Million Futurity and we’ve won the Super Derby twice. At Ruidoso, we’ve run third through fifth in the All American, run second at the All American Derby twice, and won the Rainbow Futurity. But that All American Futurity is a hard one to win.”
Trotter is just as honest about his love of winning as he is about anything else, but when he talks about his horses, it reaches beyond honesty, toward reverence.
“I raise about 25 race colts each year,” Trotter offered of his breeding program. “A lot of those mares I’ve got are fillies I picked out as yearlings and raced. In fact, One Famous Eagle is the horse that’s kind of been putting me on the map. (Bred by Trotter and owned in partnership with Burnett Ranches, ltd., he is now owned by the One Famous Eagle Syndicate and stands at the 6666 Ranch). He’s probably the greatest sire alive, but I own his mother. I bought her as a yearling and raced her and still got her. She’s hard to get along with, but I get along with her good, you know; she doesn’t mind me.”
Trotter has another horse, Mr Secret Glory, by Hez Our Secret (who Trotter owned as a yearling and now stands at the Lazy E) and out of Eye of Glory, at the track in Ruidoso Downs.
“I walked in the stall with him the other day and we greeted each other. It’s a pretty special deal when you can raise ’em and they know you,” Trotter said fondly. “I’ve got another horse, Bodacious Eagle, that’s a 6-year-old now, and he’s run out nearly $1 million. I raised him and when I go in over there at the race track, he’ll stick his head out and nicker at me, you know, when he sees me. That means a lot to me, stuff like that.”
Since gaining ownership of the track and casino with three other partners, Trotter has been instrumental in bringing World Series Qualifiers to Ruidoso Downs, which debuted last year under the competent guidance of Troy Shelley, of Shelley Productions.
“I can’t say enough good about Troy Shelley and the way he does things,” Trotter stated. “We had nearly 2,000 teams at the May roping. And the town loved it. You couldn’t get a room. My friend over at the K-Bob’s Steakhouse said his receivables were up $4,000 that first night.”
For Shelley, roping in Ruidoso just makes sense, and he’s glad that Trotter recognized the potential.
“That number of entries to rope at a place they have to drive to is just awesome,” Shelley said, noting the difference between a destination roping and a roping in, say, Stephenville. “But Ruidoso is just beautiful in the summer. The weather is cool and there’s lots of things to do like watching races at the track or playing a hand at the casino.”
And when he really gets down to it, Shelley sees Ruidoso as a lot more than just a weekend destination deal.
“I think we’re on the front end of having a little Wickenburg up there, if you want to know the truth.”
Trotter, likewise, sees room for growth.
“My wife,” Trotter explained about his other half, Jana, “was one of the girls that bought a [race]horse together, about 15 years ago. That group of girls—there were about 10 of them— had a lot of fun, got a lot of publicity for the horse industry, and played around and made a little money in it, and had beaucous of fun.”
In Trotter’s mind, getting ropers to the track could introduce them to a whole world of opportunity and good times they didn’t realize they’d been missing.
“My thinking in moving that roping to Ruidoso,” Trotter continued, “was getting people exposed to the race horse industry and to maybe even put some groups together—syndicates or something. Maybe buy some horses, and enhance the race horsing deal and Ruidoso Downs and the casino. Really, it’s all about bringing people to town.”
But as the saying goes, the horse comes before the cart, so to further ensure the success of the roping, Trotter and Purcella furnish the cattle.
“It’s important to me,” Trotter explained, “that if I’m going to do it, it’s done right and it’s a good deal. We’re going to have two more roping this year, and I don’t have any reason to believe they won’t both be big ropings.”
Purcella witnessed that same level of care for a roping when he and Trotter introduced team roping to the already established Spicer Gripp Memorial.
“The Spicer Gripp would never be what it is without Johnny’s influence,” Purcella said. “I told him, I want a roping just for the ropers—no stock charges and add some money, and just have a good roping for the ropers. We set there in my house for about 30 minutes and Johnny raised $8,000 and added it all to the roping. That’s how the team roping got started at the Spicer Gripp.”
Now, for more than 20 years, Trotter has been adding money in the form of a $20,000 sponsorship though his company, Whiteface Ford, while the roping committee raises another $10,000. But it’s not just for the ropers: Proceeds fund the Spicer Gripp Memorial Scholarship Fund at West Texas A&M University.
“Most of those memorial ropings start out gung-ho, and in about four or five years they’re gone,” Trotter said. “And we’ve got some guys involved who really know—number one—how a production needs to be: How to run a roping, how to run a calf roping, how to run a tripping, how to run a team roping, and what all needs to go behind the scenes to make all that come off right.
“But in the final round of that deal” Trotter posited, “it’s got to have a purpose. It can’t just be a roping. So, we came up with the idea to support WTAMU several years ago and started a scholarship program along with it.”
WTAMU is just one Trotter’s many philanthropic beneficiaries. When asked what compels him to give so greatly, he says, “That’s something I’ve been challenged with all my life,” without an ounce of discernible humor.
“I don’t like to boast about it,” Trotter said, “but I’m into helping people now. We’ve got to help those who can’t help themselves.”
In his speech at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Trotter quoted a member of a commission who once held a dissenting opinion.
“Don’t listen to that Johnny Trotter,” the man is told to have exclaimed. “He ain’t nothing but a cowboy.”
Trotter looked out over the podium to the audience, opened his arms, and, with a sly smile, said, “I made it.”
While the story was one the crowd appreciated with much laughter, the truth is, being a cowboy is still very much a part of what Trotter aspires to.
“A good cowboy is a good bronc rider or roper or horseman,” Trotter determined. “And there’s lots of guys that don’t care about being anything but that. Then, most of the time, good cowmen or cattlemen are more business people than they are cowboys. And I really would like to be known as both.
“That was a goal I set for myself early in the game. I don’t know whether I’ll accomplish either one. But I’m going to keep trying.”