The Bill Freeman Award is given annually to a cutting competitor who epitomizes the namesake’s tradition of pursuing excellence in the show pen. In 2018, that honor was bestowed upon trainer James Payne.
Payne, of Overbrook, Oklahoma, received the award during the 2018 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity. He said the award meant a lot to him due to the caliber of past recipients, as well as what the award stands for — the pursuit of excellence.
“I feel very honored,” he said.
For Payne, striving for excellence means seeking consistency. It’s having a program where he can get a high percentage of horses into the finals at any given show, as opposed to banking on big success from a few stable stars, he said.
“It’s not one or two horses. It’s not winning an event. That’s not what I call success,” Payne said. “What I call success is going to the show with eight head and making it [to the finals] on six and getting premium checks on the majority of them.”
Although Payne is a regular at the finals of cutting’s major limited-age events, he wasn’t involved in the sport while growing up near Hereford, Texas. However, horses were always around at his family’s place in the Texas Panhandle. His father, Jimmy, was a saddlemaker and his grandfather, Jim, worked at a ranch in New Mexico, he said.
“[We] always had colts that we were messing with, working with,” he said. “Always had young horses.”
Payne showed in local 4-H shows and at American Quarter Horse Association events. He did some reining, and that’s the direction his career seemed to be going when he took a job with Dick Pieper in Oklahoma. When that operation changed to cutting because foals by Pieper’s stallion, Playgun, began to hit the ground, Payne switched disciplines with them. He has been at it ever since, training for Polo Ranch before going out on his own.
He had another great season in 2018, guiding Mike and Brenda Armstrong’s PG Heavily Armed (Playgun x Not Quite An Acre x Bob Acre Doc) to the NCHA World Finals Show Championship and Classic/Challenge Open wins at the NCHA Summer Spectacular, Brazos Bash and The Non Pro Plus The Open.
On the futurity front, highlights from his numerous wins included riding Stylish Hailee (Halreycious x Keep Me In Style x Docs Stylish Oak) to Open victories at the Southern Cutting Futurity, Cotton Stakes and West Texas Futurity for owner Kathleen Moore, of Madill, Oklahoma.
The $364,894 Payne earned last year also propelled him to another career milestone — Equi-Stat Elite $3 Million Rider. As of early January, he had an Equi-Stat record of more than $3.1 million.
Although he’s had much success in recent years, Payne takes the most pride in how he and his wife, Nadine, built his training operation from scratch. Nadine, who has won more than $550,000 in the cutting pen, has had great success in recent years in the Non-Pro.
“We started from nothing and to have a program and kind of an engine that can produce a quality product, that’s probably more important to me than any championship or any success in the pen,” he said.
Although Payne didn’t know the award’s namesake, Bill Freeman, very well on a personal level, he recalled seeing the NCHA Hall of Famer compete at weekend cutting events in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the earner of more than $5 million and trainer of the legendary Smart Little Lena, Freeman’s reputation preceded him, but what stayed with Payne was the late trainer’s showmanship in the cutting pen.
The great trainers in the sport are able to find a way to win, even when they’re not on the best horse in the class, he said.
“They’re going to beat you on a lesser horse than what you’ve got and then, whenever they have the Futurity champion, they’re going to beat you hands down,” Payne said. “And, that’s what I call excellence.”
The Freeman Award is given out by a committee and rotates between a trainer and a non-pro. Last year, Equi-Stat Elite $2 Million Rider Paula Wood was the recipient. The 2016 winner was trainer Grant Setnicka, an Equi-Stat Elite $2 Million Rider.
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