by Jolee Lautaret
Two World Championships in two separate events in 1962 achieved by a horse named Red Star Plaudit holds a very unique record in the world of professional rodeo, one that is not likely to ever be duplicated. The bay gelding won two World Championships in the sport in a single year and contributed to a third. Red, as he was affectionately known, carried his owner Sherry Johnson to the GRA world title in the barrel racing and close family friend Tom Nesmith to the RCA world title in the steer wrestling and helped the Oklahoman also claim the RCA All Around championship, all in 1962.
“He was one of those once in a lifetime horses,” said Johnson.
While this is often said by those ladies who have won the WPRA world championship, when Johnson says it, it carries a bit more weight.
After all, Johnson has trained six horses that have made an appearance at the NFR. She is a 12-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, the first coming in 1959 at the first GRA Finals and the last in 1991 under the bright lights of Las Vegas, a span of four decades. She was named the WPRA’s Coca Cola Woman of the Year in 1997 and in 2005 she was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Johnson first came to know Red when her husband at the time, Benny Combs bought the horse in partnership with his brother Willard. Red was a bulldogging horse and the brothers competed on him for a time before Benny and Sherry bought Willard out. Red was eight at the time and Johnson was in need of a horse to run barrels.
“I was afoot,” Johnson remembers. “We brought him home in the fall and I put six weeks of barrel training on him and took him to Denver.” Barrel racing seemed to come easy to the gelding and the pair placed second or better each round at the Stock Show until a tipped barrel in the short go cost them the championship.
“He was just one of those runaway freaks,” Johnson says of her horse’s style and quick understanding of the barrels. “It was one wild ride.”
Johnson credits the steer wrestling with teaching Red how to run hard through the pattern. Mistakes like going by the first barrel did not cost the horse time in his run like it might other horses.
“He ran as hard as he could,” Johnson says, “and never was bad to slip or stumble.”
Red was very independent according to Johnson, strictly business and not at all interested in attention from people.
“He tolerated me, I could brush him all day long and he liked that,” Johnson says, “but he didn’t like hugs or being petted.”
In fact, Johnson was the only human that Red seemed to like. No one else could catch the gelding when he was out in the pasture; Benny used to just send Johnson, saying “you go get him.” Johnson remembers a time during the Fort Worth rodeo when she sent her sister Florence (Youree) out to the rodeo grounds to feed Red.
“He booted her out of the stall,” she says. Luckily, she wasn’t hurt but definitely got the message. As for Johnson, she says she could have crawled between his legs and he wouldn’t do a thing.
Red was good inside and out – “he didn’t like Sidney, Iowa, but we could place, and Burwell” – but everything else was OK with the tough gelding.
Red won almost all of the big rodeos at the time with the notable exception of Denver, where something weird always seemed to happen. One year, Johnson remembers losing her reins at the second barrel. They flipped over Red’s head and were dangling from an ear, swinging near the ground, dangerously.
“I just thought, ‘I’m dead,’” Johnson laughs. The pair somehow finished the run and won second in the go round. “It wasn’t as dramatic as Charmayne’s run at the finals but I guess Red was pretty automatic.”
“We won Houston one year and won $650,” she laughs, “if that tells you how much times have changed.”
He spent his earliest years competing in both the barrels and steer wrestling at most of the rodeos.
“We would always ask that I be put to the bottom of the ground,” Johnson remembers. “The bulldogging was usually right before the barrels so if I was last, it gave Red a chance to catch his breath. I’m not sure they would let you do that now,” she adds, laughing.
Johnson recalls making the short round at Cheyenne one year.
“They put the barrels between the sections of bulldogging. The barrels ran from the opposite end. So, they ran steers on him in the first section and then I loped him to the other end to run barrels,” Johnson shakes her head. “Obviously, he was out of air and didn’t do as good as we hoped. After his run, we loped back down to the bulldogging end and Jim Painter won second in the average on him.”
Johnson said they didn’t limit the steer wrestling runs because Red made so much money, especially at the big rodeos. Johnson remembers getting a $1,000 bill from a steer wrestler in Denver after he won big aboard Red.
Despite running at a disadvantage everywhere, Johnson and Red were able to make the GRA Finals in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1960 and again at Santa Maria, Calif., in 1961. That year, Johnson won the GRA All-Around World Championship. Red was her mount for the barrels and her mare that she had run at the first GRA Finals in Clayton, N.M., in 1959 was her ride for the roping and flag race.
In 1962 Johnson and Benny, who was already a RCA world champion having won the steer wrestling title in 1955, decided that the time was right for Johnson to make a run at the world title in the barrels. They hit the trail hard. Johnson again qualified for the GRA Finals, that year to be held in Dallas, Texas. Red was 12.
Johnson recalls that Red was rarely in need of correcting but if he ever did make a mistake, the horse would pretty much correct himself. At the Finals in 1962, Red made one of his few mistakes.
“On the first barrel, he turned right back through himself, and ended up on the same side,” Johnson remembers. “Needless to say we didn’t place in the average.”
In typical fashion, Red came back and won some go round money to finish out the Finals. Her year-end total was enough to take the world title by about $800 over Wanda Bush. They won $7,899 for the year.
Meanwhile, several guys rode Red to the RCA’s National Finals Rodeo, including Nesmith. He won $17,000 en route to his title.
“We never tried for a world title again,” Johnson says. But she rode Red to five more Finals qualifications, including the first year that the GRA was included with the NFR at Oklahoma City in 1967.
“I just thought that was the biggest deal in the world, another of my goals accomplished,” Johnson states. “Growing up we used to go to the rodeo at Fort Worth. As a kid, all I wanted was to one day get to ride in the grand entry,” Johnson remembers. “Then the first year I ran barrels there . . . there was no greater thrill than running down that long alley to the first barrel – it was a blind alley like so many others back then – knowing that your horse was going to turn.”
When Johnson and Combs divorced, Red became strictly a barrel racing horse. He was retired at age 18.
“He was still sound and I didn’t want to cripple him,” Johnson says. Her young daughter Becky rode the horse some in his retirement. “She kinda balanced on the reins and didn’t hit as many barrels as I did!”
After several years in her pasture, Johnson sent Red to a family friend whose young daughter rode the horse. They kept him in the front yard.
“I loved being able to look out the kitchen window and see how the day was going for him,” Johnson says. Sending Red away was a tough decision and she asked the new owners not to tell her when the aging horse passed away.
“Of course, I cried when they finally told me,” she admits. “You know, I think a barrel racer gets to know her horse almost better than her husband. You know their feelings so well.”
No horse in the history of professional rodeo can lay claim to the accomplishments that Red achieved. Two World Championships in two separate events in the same year. Not to mention a hand in two all-around titles in both the GRA and RCA.
“He was just awesome.” Johnson knows better than anyone.