Ranch Horses

Joe Hancock, a Singular Sire

One of the best-known sires of Quarter Horses, Joe Hancock, wasn't included in the first 20 foundation stallions.

One of the best-known sires of Quarter Horses wasn’t included in the first 20 foundation stallions.

THE WHOLE story of Joe Hancock as a great Quarter Horse sire is unorthodox, to say the least. In spite of his unconventional looks and blood, many claim him to be one of the greatest all-around sires of ranch and rodeo horses ever. His offspring could run a little, too, as that astute Carlsbad, N.M., race horse man, Elmer Hepler, proved.

One of the best-known sires of Quarter Horses, Joe Hancock, wasn't included in the first 20 foundation stallions.
A photo taken in Oklahoma, probably about 1927, shows the famous horse in racing shape.

Had Joe Hancock looked a little more like our ideal of a Quarter Horse, and if he had had a little more Quarter Horse blood, he would certainly have been placed among the first 20 registered stallions, the numbers AQHA reserved for those animals considered influential foundation animals.

If a person really tried, he could claim that Joe Hancock had only one-eighth Quarter Horse blood. His dam was a work mare whose sire was a Percheron. I never could run down her pedigree any further, although I made two trips into Oklahoma to try to find some Quarter Horse blood.

Joe’s sire was John Wilkins by Peter McCue. John Wilkins had a Thoroughbred dam. Only when you get back to his grandsire, Dan Tucker, can any Quarter Horse blood be found. In other words, Joe was one-eighth Quarter Horse, three-eighths Thoroughbred, and four-eighths unknown or draft horse blood.

His looks and blood meant nothing on the short tracks when he was matched, but when he ran as a Thoroughbred it did matter. By judicious care on the part of his trainer, he merely looked like a somewhat coarse Thoroughbred. This was done by keeping him in racing trim and by keeping his mane, tail, and fetlocks trimmed.

The reason he was registered as a Thoroughbred was that after he had cleaned up all available match-race prospects, nobody else wanted to try to beat him. He could not get a profitable race in Oklahoma. The Hancock backers liked to bet on Joe because he always won. They needed a chance to cash in on his speed. The best bet was to register him as a Thoroughbred. There were many Thoroughbred races at county fairs, and there were people with money who went to these organized races, so Thoroughbred papers were obtained.

Joe Hancock is listed by the Jockey Club in The American Stud Book (Volume 14, page 506) as Brown Wool. His birthdate was given as 1925, and his dam’s name as Maggy Murphy. He had a couple of good years on the organized tracks, but as he matured he looked less and less like a clean-bred Thoroughbred.

After Joe retired, he still ran a few match races when they could be arranged. He would no doubt have vanished into the obscurity that surrounds old race horses had he not caught the eye of one of the best horsemen of his time, Tom Burnett of the 6666s. Tom enjoyed a short race, and prided himself on always having a top sprinter. When one of his best race horses lost a quarter-mile race in Oklahoma to Joe Hancock, he promptly bought the horse and had him taken to his Triangle Ranch. He ran Joe a few times and then began using him as a sire.

Tom Burnett was an interesting individual any way you looked at him. The Burnett family were outstanding cattlemen. Their only close rival was the neighboring Waggoners, who branded the reversed three D’s. The Osage Reservation in Oklahoma had provided cheap grass for the Burnett livestock, and the family did well financially. They sank much of their money into Texas land, knowing their Oklahoma grass would not last. They also leased an additional 300,000 acres from the Kiowas and Comanches. Quanah Parker was a personal friend, and that eased the Indian problem. When oil was discovered, they found that their ranches were right on top of the oil. The boom town of Burkburnett, Tex., was named for them.

Tom spent most of his years in Iowa Park, Tex., and his daughter, Anne, married J. Goodwin Hall, commonly known as Jim. Jim was active in the organization of the American Quarter Horse Association, and became its first treasurer. The Burnetts have continued to support the AQHA. Anne and Jim’s only daughter, also named Anne, is today an honorary vice president of the association.

Jim Hall’s interest in the Quarter Horse began with his marriage to Anne Burnett. He was especially partial to Joe Hancock and a stud named Tom, the main stallion of the Burnetts until Joe Hancock arrived. Tom was a grandson of Peter McCue, as he was sired by Midnight. When we registered the Burnett horses, Jim helped select about 50 mares and stallions for entry into the registry. Jim also organized the Quarter Horse Camp Meeting Association, the first of many organizations to spin off the American Quarter Horse Association. It was designed to promote races for those interested in running their horses. Their best race meets were held in Eagle Pass, where Helen Michaelis was the motivating force.

But back to Joe Hancock. Since I have been somewhat disparaging of Joe Hancock, one might wonder why and how I registered him. As secretary of the newly formed AQHA, that was my job. Here is how I entered him in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Official Studbook and Registry of the American Quarter Horse Association:

“455. Joe Hancock-brn. s. 1923; Tom L. Burnett Estate, Fort Worth, Texas. Sire, John Wilkins by Peter McCue by Dan Tucker; Dam unknown (It is said Joe Hancock’s dam was half Percheron. His brilliant racing record and his great colts make this seem unlikely and unimportant).”

When Helen Michaelis became secretary, she changed Joe Hancock’s registration, leaving out all reference to his cold-blooded ancestors. I had enough evidence about Joe’s dam so I could have left out the “it is said” part of his entry. However, as we were just starting a breed association, his exact breeding was of little actual importance. To continue with Helen’s feelings about Joe Hancock, she wrote me as follows in the 1950s:

“Some have said Joe Hancock was a freak. Had he been a freak or sport he would not have been such a strong breeder of outstanding Quarter Horses . . . whether one admires draft blood in his Quarter Horses or not, Joe Hancock’s descendants look a lot more like Quarter Horses than some fifteen-sixteenths Thoroughbreds of today who have been registered.”

So far I have only touched lightly on Joe Hancock’s conformation and characteristics. Joe stood a little over 16 hands, had prominent withers, a straight shoulder, and a straight hind leg. He was a bit too long in the back for me. I like a close-coupled horse. Except for some white on his face, he was dark brown, so dark many people called him a black. He was considerably larger than we wanted our Quarter Horses to be, but he was well balanced. His grandsire, Peter McCue, was also large-16.2 and 1,430 pounds. Tom Burnett thought he was one of the greatest Quarter Horses that ever lived and he saw that Joe got his share of good mares.

Joe Hancock’s breeder was undoubtedly Walter E. Hancock of Perryton, Oklahoma. He also owned a Peter McCue stallion he called John Wilkins, after the noted short-horse man of San Antonio. The only colt of note by John Wilkins was Joe Hancock, as far as I know. Joe was foaled in 1923 or 1924, depending on whom you wish to believe. I looked at his teeth in 1938, but they were so well used I could not tell within several years.

Soon after the AQHA was established, Jim Minnick and I drove by the Triangle Ranch to see Joe Hancock. From Cottle County, where the Triangle is located, we drove on across the state line to Perryton to see and talk to Walter Hancock and John Ogle. John Ogle trained and raced Joe until he was purchased by. Tom Burnett. Tom could not wait to run Joe against a fast horse the Waggoners owned. The race was matched to be run on Waggoners’ track located on the Three D’s. Joe Hancock won so handily that the jockey riding the Three D horse could not have thrown a rock far enough to hit Joe as he crossed the finish line. Joe was timed by both camps at 22 ¾ seconds for the standing-start quarter mile.

One of the best-known sires of Quarter Horses, Joe Hancock, wasn't included in the first 20 foundation stallions.
Joe Hancock as he looked when turned out with his mares in 1940. Photo by Bob Denhardt

It is true that Joe Hancock first established his reputation on the short tracks, but his permanent fame was to come as a sire of using horses on the Burnett Estates. He lived out his life, shortened by an accident, on the Triangle Ranch. He was turned out each spring with a selected group of mares, most of them sired by the Burnett stallion Tom.

In July of 1941, while out in the pasture with his mares, he almost cut his front foot off on some loose wire. The ranch veterinarian was called, Dr. Phillip Smith of Abilene, and told to do anything he could to help the horse. Joe had been in the pasture with his mares for a day or two before the accident was discovered. It was two more days before Dr. Smith could come to see him. Screwworms and proud flesh had pretty well taken care of the foot.

Joe was loaded into a trailer by Dr. Smith and taken to Abilene so he could have constant attention. When the cut was about cured, he was returned to the ranch. By the following spring he was out in the pasture with his mares. Dr. Smith continued to make regular visits to check on Joe.

However, when things go wrong, they never seem to stop. In 1943 Joe Hancock foundered (laminitis), and his one good foot gave way. Joe was destroyed on July 29, 1943.

In the eyes of most cattlemen, the top horses are those natural cutting and roping animals. It seems they have to be born with this cow sense. No stallion had ever produced more top ranch and rodeo horses than old Joe Hancock. He was a strong-enough breeder so that even his sons and grandsons bred cow horses. John Burns, who managed the Burnett Estates during the Joe Hancock era, felt that the colts were good because they were fast.

Joe Hancock’s blood was popular all over, but especially so in Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. A few examples follow: Red Man, owned by Kenneth Gunter of Benson, Ariz.; Joe Tom, owned by the Burnett Estates in Texas; Texas Tom, by Joe Tom, owned by Mrs. W.S. Fulton of Dragoon, Ariz.; War Chief and Little Joe the Wrangler, both owned by Elmer Hepler of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Today, Joe Hancock’s blood is carried by literally hundreds of using horses across the United States. He should have been included in the list of foundation animals of the American Quarter Horse Association.

This article was originally published in the November 1988 issue of Western Horseman.

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