Carson Valley cowboy still riding strong
Who: Tom Long
What: Cutting horse trainer, breeder
Where: Diamond J Ranch, Carson Valley
Product: Owner and breeder of “Cats Gotta Diamond” winner of $150,000 top-10 finisher in the NCHA Open Futurity finals. On He’s Gotta Be Good, Long said: “This is the first baby by my staff to hit the ground. His daddy is my stallion, Cats Gotta Diamond” … we won $150,000 on him and his mother was a little mare by the name of Little Chill Rey, who was by Dual Rey, and we won about $50,000 on her.”
National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame cowboy Tom Long not only continues to ride strong at 66 years young, he appears to be improving with age.
You might even say he’s riding on top of the world these days. Just consider that Long returned home to Carson Valley with a championship from the recent National Cutting Horse World Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, where he culminated a season-long run aboard “He’s Gotta Be Good” to win the NCHA $5,000 novice class championship on Dec. 3.
“It’s a great honor for the ranch and for that stallion … the whole deal,” Long said. “It’s kind of a fairy tale the way it worked out because it was quite a contest actually down to the last cow that we cut in Fort Worth.”
How close was that? Long and “He’s Gotta Be Good” — a seven-year-old gelding owned by Phyllis Sorbet of Bakersfield, Calif. — bested Gavin Jordan and CR Kitty Gotta Gun by a margin of just $46.95 to clinch the title. As far as comebacks go, this would be the equivalent to a baseball or football team coming back after mid-season to win on the last play of the World Series or Super Bowl.
In this case, it represented a season that started on New Year’s Day 2016 and culminated with Long’s repeat of world championships he won back-to-back in 1985-86.
“He came from a long way behind to catch the leaders; we passed them when we went to Fort Worth … after a lot of running and a lot of miles,” Long said.
He went on to point out that a decision to compete for the title wasn’t made until the middle of summer.
“It just started to happen,” Long said. “The lead horse, unfortunately, got hurt in a contest and had to take time off. That’s when we started running hard.”
They were still in second-place, $990 out of the lead, upon their arrival in Fort Worth.
“The horse that had been hurt, they had rehabbed her and got her back for that show,” he said. “Her first go-round wasn’t really good and our horse had a really good go-round and won enough to go into the lead.”
That set the stage for an exciting finish in what is known as the pencil-final go-round — “You get paid on your average also” — explained Long, who scored a 219 and 218.5 in both go-rounds.
“He ended up being second in that go-round and I ended up third in that go-round, so the money got even closer,” he added. “And the determining factor was that average. I had beat his horse and two other good horses in the average and that caused my horse to stay in the front to be world’s champion.”
Long went on to point out that “He’s Gotta Be Good” actually left Fort Worth as a double winner when Sorbet rode her horse to championship honors in the non-professional division.
Perhaps that was a fitting outcome considering the time Long and Sorbet have put in with this horse. They even collaborated on the name; it was Benjamin at birth, changed to “He’s Gotta Be Good” for registration purposes.
“Phyllis really didn’t care for the name and neither did I. So she said, ‘Let’s change it’ and she started a let’s name the horse contest,” Long said. “We were writing names down and I called her one day on the phone; I said, ‘With his pedigree, in my mind, he’s gotta be good.’ She just went dead silent on the phone and then she says, ‘Well, then that’s his name … He’s Gotta Be Good.’”
A LONG TRAIL
A native of Illinois, Long grew up in the Midwest where his father worked as a farm manager, and eventually moved to California shortly after graduating from high school in 1966 in Jefferson City, Mo. His passion for training cutting horses evolved before he decided to leave Brentwood, Calif. and move on to greener pastures in Nevada, so to speak. Once here, Long collaborated with Mike Winkel — known in Northern Nevada as an executive of Reno Buick GMC Cadillac — and took his career up to a whole new level.
“I had an opportunity to come to Nevada with Mike to come train for him, I thank him for getting me exposed to the big league,” Long said.
His office today is the Diamond J Ranch — which comes with a scenic view of Jobs Peak — where Long and his staff train and breed their horses with assistance from nearby Great Basin Equine Medicine.
This cowboy has no plans to retire anytime soon, either.
“I’m one of the older (competitors); I only think you’re as old as you let yourself feel,” Long said. “There are older gentlemen and women who are still cutting, and cutting tough. I’m not going to give it up until I can’t get back on. And right now, I feel good. I get a sore back and hips and all that kind of stuff, just from the work and so forth, but I think everybody in their own right, wakes up sore in the morning and have to go to work. So I do the same thing.”
At the end of the day it all comes down to good “horseflesh,” if you ask Long.
“It’s a great sport,” he said. “It is something that you have to be athletic, you have to have, what I call, a little cow in you to do this event to an upper end.
“The biggest part, a great cutting horse does the job for you,” he continued. “Once you drop your hand, that horse is on his own. Once you’re on a really trained horse, you would be amazed at how much that horse can do for you.”
No doubt, this is a team sport in which winning or losing is determined by a rider and horse being able to make the job look easy.
“You and the horse have to be one; you’ve got to be in unison the whole time,” Long explained. “You have four helpers, you’ve got two turnback men, you’ve got herd holders and you’ve got that horse. So you’ve got five other minds, plus the cow’s mind, working out there. So this is a deal where you don’t just accomplish it overnight because you’ve got live variables.
“But when you go make a good run, you’re ready to go again because the adrenaline and the whole atmosphere of being successful in the cutting pen is huge. You try so hard to get all of those elements to go together, and boy, when it does, oh man, you’re in heaven,” he added with a wide grin.
This is no ordinary spectator sport, though. It takes a trained eye to truly appreciate any given competition.
“You’ve got to love this sport to sit there and go through the monotony of watching the same thing over and over and over,” Long said. “Once you know what you should really be looking for and you can see what excels and what does not, at that point, you get to where you pay a lot of attention to what the upper end does … and how you get there.”
Many of the popular spectator sports — football and auto racing, just as an example — offer an element of some danger, he went on.
“People love that excitement part of it,” Long said. “But just to sit there and just watch for two-and-a-half minutes of right turn, stop; left turn, stop; it gets pretty boring. When you see the good ones, though, I’ll tell you what, the hair will come up on your neck and you’ll sit up on the edge of your chair and you’ll watch them.”