So between the two drivers, they managed to make the return in a single trip.
Mention the Merricks of Sayre, Okla., and will get a nod of recognition from just about any horseman or woman over the age of 40 and in many cases much younger, too. Some of that younger recognition has to do with Joe Merrick’s adventuresome spirit and willingness to give new projects a try. Some of the younger folks, for instance, might associate the Merrick name solely with the Professional Bull Riders Assn. The Merricks ran the bull registry and helped set up PBR shows at arenas around the nation for four years. “We would have stayed on, but they moved their headquarters to Pueblo, Colo,” Joe said. “We didn’t want to move.”
Why leave all that history and family connection, he reasoned.
The Merrick name got its early recognition, of course, with Easy Jet, and Walter Merrick’s decision to infuse thoroughbred blood into the short-horse line. It transpired like this: Merrick chose one of his best mares, Lena Valenti, and bred her to the thoroughbred Three Bars. The result was Lena’s Bar, an outstanding race horse later bred to Jet Deck. Their foal was Easy Jet, a quarter horse racing and breeding legend who now has his final resting place on the Merricks’ 14 Ranch outside Sayre, founded by Walter and still part of the family.
Some bluebloods in the industry were thoroughly opposed to adding thoroughbred blood to their breed’s mix, but Merrick won over and the rest as been assigned to the record books.
Joe was born in 1957, the youngest of Walter and Tien Merrick’s four children. He and Sherry had been married 10 years when he brought a stable to Shakopee in 1986. “We were married in 1976 and we won a race the very next day _ that was our honeymoon _ at Ruidoso Downs,” Joe said.
They have been a team ever since. You will find Sherry attending to the various barn duties many mornings while her husband is ponying a horse to the track. Friends describe the Merricks as devout Christians who let their actions and treatment of people speak on their own and never proselytize.
Both of them pitch in with just about anything that needs doing, working shoulder to shoulder with their hired hands. Their friends and acquaintances describe them as true horsemen in every sense of the word. You need only see one of them break down after losing an animal to understand their passion for horses, despite Joe’s insistence on not becoming attached in a business like horse racing. You will know that Sherry sometimes is grieving the loss of a beloved horse at the claiming box if she’s missing from the barn for a couple of days.
You will understand Joe’s love of horses, too, by his forgiveness for their misdeeds, even major ones. “We planned on being at Canterbury last summer,” he said, “but then I had the accident.”
Merrick was ponying the well-bred Indy Express to the track at Will Rogers Downs when his saddle horse drifted a bit too close. “It was my fault,” Merrick said. Indy Express tried to take a bite out of the horse’s neck and, when Merrick tried to wave him off, got Joe’s hand instead.
A stud like Indy Express has a vice-like bite. He took all of Merrick’s left thumb, including the lower part of the hand and left it dangling. Merrick was air-lifted from the track and his thumb was reattached. The healing process prevented his planned trip to Shakopee for the summer. Today, he has some numbness to remind him of the incident
“He said he can’t hitch-hike any longer because people don’t know which way he’s going,” Stancato said.
Or as Merrick also put it: “There are things in this business that will test your mettle.”
The Merricks have three children _ Kyle, 33; Kori, 27 and Kari, 20.
Kyle was a good high school running back but, as Joe describes it, was genetically handicapped at 5-feet-8 and 185 pounds _ yet very fast, with 4.4 speed. An excellent student, he had an offer to Penn, but chose instead to get a degree in range management at Oklahoma State University. He handles the cattle along with the bucking-bred bunch at the 14 ranch founded by his late grandfather.
Kari spent parts of the summer at Canterbury. Kori lives in Oklahoma and is married to Cody Whitney, who had a 94.74 ride aboard three-time PBR Bull of the Year LittleYellow Jacket in 2004 and has ridden in several PBR finals.
So, there are quarter horses, thoroughbreds and bulls in the Merrick family history. There is also music. Joe has recorded two CDs _ a third is in the can _ with songs he has written that would draw solid reviews on any two-step floor. Or you can simply sit and enjoy some of the tunes inspired by Merrick’s life and the people in it.
On the CD “Ranches and Rodeos” he has recorded a song called ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Easy Jet’. On the album “New Bad Habits” there is ‘Quarter Horse Rider,’ ‘What Makes a Cowboy’ and ‘Don’t Give Up.’
Joe Merrick was 12 years old during Easy Jet’s phenomenal two-year-old season in 1969 when he won 22 of 26 races, including the All American, a season that culminated with various awards: World Champion Quarter Running Horse, Champion Stallion and Champion 2-year-old Colt, the first two prestigious awards rarely given to a 2-year-old.
Walter Merrick hauled the precocious colt to track after track, and Joe frequently was assigned guard duties in a stall near the horse. Tracks, especially the smaller ones, had very few security provisions at the time. “I’d sleep in that stall,” Joe recalled, “with a pistol that was almost too heavy for me to lift.”
Easy Jet stayed safe through it all, although Joe recalled occasions when “someone would drive up to the barn and shine their lights in on the stall.”
Roused from his slumber, Joe would sit up in the stall, the lights in his eyes but only momentarily. “When whoever it was saw me, they’d move on,” he recalled. Still, he has wondered from time to time who occupied those vehicles and what were they seeking.
When he looks back now, it was a special time. “It was a magical time,” he said.
Merrick got on Easy Jet’s back only once, taking him to the barn. One of the hands gave him a funny look and asked “what I was doing,” Joe said. “It was my one and only chance to get on that horse.”
Easy Jet not only won the All American, he sired three winners of the race: Easy Date, Pie In The Sky and Mr Trucka Jet.
Walter Merrick sold and reacquired Easy Jet a couple of times. He syndicated the horse during the oil boom in 1980 when Easy Jet’s stud fee was $30,000. The horse was syndicated for an astounding $30 million, 50 shares at $600,000 each. Many of the investors were prominent in the oil and gas industries. When the industries went bust two years later, the deals dissolved.
“Everything tanked,” Joe recalled. “The economy went bad.”
Walter Merrick handled the situation just as he had the other vicissitudes of his life.
“Dad was just a cowboy,” Joe said. “He knew what it was to have money and not to have money.”
Maybe Joe sums it all up best in ‘What Makes a Cowboy.’
“No one knows what strikes the prose that stands the test of time
Or the tune that has that old familiar ring.
And heaven help me if I need a reason for my rhyme.
‘Cause no one knows what makes a cowboy sing.”
If Joe and Sherry Merrick never get their Seattle Slew or Affirmed, it will be just fine. They’ve got plenty to fall back on.’
“You know, maybe all you get out of this business when it comes right down to it,” he said, “are the memories.”
Some fine ones at that.