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Photo by Primo Morales

Justin Wright an NRCHA Million Dollar Man

Justin Wright’s 17-year journey as part of the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s competitive circuit has reached a benchmark of note as one of the organization’s newest One Million Dollar Riders.

“I remember my first several embarrassments,” he joked when asked if he recalled collecting his first check in 2002, a year in which he won $8,319.

The 33-year-old has come a long way, that’s no exaggeration.

“It was very satisfying and something you always hope and dream of,” he said of joining the illustrious club, “but as it got closer and closer and more of a reality, it sure sunk in that it just meant more and more to me.

“It’s an honor to be in that group of horsemen.”

Wright is coming off triumph at the Idaho Reined Cow Horse Association’s Redtail Ranch Futurity last month. 

Astride Woodya, Wright and his Eric Freitas-owned mare (Woody Be Tuff x CR Dees Boon Meow x Peptoboonsmal) — which he didn’t even plan to take to Idaho — rode to a 594.5 composite and a check of $17,072.

Wright’s career began as a non-pro, riding horses from his family’s ranch in San Juan Bautista, California, the son of acclaimed horse breeders, including legendary stallions Smokum Oak, who sired and Smokums Prize. On the ranch stood 40-60 broodmares.

“My parents were really good to me,” Wright said. “Being able to sneak one of those colts out and get to learn on starting those colts” was an advantage to learning. 

His DNA is horses. 

“I think I was 14 when my dad took me to my first real NRCHA show” to compete, Wright said. “I hadn’t a clue. I’d watched a bunch of old videos of my brother and dad when they were competing. That’s all I knew until I started going to those shows. It was eye-opening. In 15 years, it had changed a lot from the videos I was watching.”

He opened eyes at age 16, winning three buckles — youngest rider, top five in the Amateur Division and third in the Limited Non-Pro Division — at the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno. He was believed to be the youngest rider ever to make the finals at the time. 

It was a result that, he said, left him in “disbelief.”

In 2017, though he had already won more than $500,000 and finished in the money in big events, he won his first premier open event, the NRCHA Derby Open aboard 2012 Stephen Silva-owned gelding Lil Bay Hawk (Catty Hawk x Little Gray Freckles x Playgun). In the immediate aftermath, he didn’t remember any part of his decisive fence run, lost in the moment.

“It was a huge … a weight off my shoulders, I guess you could say,” said Wright. “Those premier events as an up-and-coming trainer, they look impossible to win. So, it was gratifying. It meant a lot to me, getting that first one. 

“It gives you a sort of confidence that you can compete with these people. It was definitely a confidence boost.”