Steve Van Bebber, the top quarter horse trainer in the country this year, was found dead Tuesday afternoon of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The world champion trainer in 1999 and the conditioner of world champion Tailor Fit, winner of last year's Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos, Van Bebber, 50, was found in a motel room in Brenham, Texas.
According to Det. Michael Davis of the Brenham Police Department, police were called when Van Bebber, who had checked into the motel Sunday, failed to respond to knocks on his door. He was found with a wound to the head and a gun was found nearby.
"The investigation is still pending, but we are going on the idea that he died by his own hand," Davis said.
No autopsy was ordered, but toxicology tests were performed and the results from those tests aren't expected for three to four weeks.
A trainer since 1973, Van Bebber, who is survived by his wife, Janet, and daughters Taylor Ann, 3, and Stefanie, 19, ranks third all-time among quarter horse trainers in America with 1,847 wins. He is sixth in purse earnings with $9,750,961.
Heading into the final weeks of 2000, Van Bebber was on top nationally with 143 victories and earnings of $2,202,472.
"I am just shocked at the news because Steve was such a positive and alive individual," said jockey Gilbert Ortiz, who rode many horses for the trainer. "With his family and his success, it's stunning that he would do this to himself. Right now we have to do what we can to comfort and aid his family."
Consistently the leading trainer at both Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, Van Bebber had been pointing Tailor Fit to a defense of his Champion of Champions title, until a leg injury sidelined the California-bred.
Betty Jane Burlin purchased Tailor Fit, the son of Strawfly Special, from original owner Tom Ward. The horse has won 16 of 25 and has earned more than $711,000. Before Van Bebber's death, plans called for him to continue racing in 2001.
"Steve's awesome in the way he treats all of his owners by always going the extra mile," Burlin, who owns a real estate company, once said. "He does a lot of things for his owners at his own cost and that's something we all appreciate about him.
"I would have quit the business a long time ago if it wasn't for Steve."
Van Bebber was reportedly facing a Jan. 9 hearing with the stewards at Sam Houston regarding two positive drug tests for a couple of his horses.
Chip Lewis, the attorney who had been representing the trainer, was quoted recently as saying that "a lot of evidence" had been collected to show "overwhelming proof" that Van Bebber shouldn't be held responsible for the positives.
A memorial service is being planned at Sam Houston.