Twelve days before last Christmas, Steve VanBebber left Sam Houston Race Park to drive the 90 miles or so to his Texas horse farm. Janet VanBebber, his wife and assistant trainer, had just traveled from New Orleans and remained in Houston to supervise their stock.
VanBebber didn't reach the farm. He checked into a motel in nearby Brenham and killed himself with a handgun.
There was no note, but Janet VanBebber, although stunned when notified of her husband's death, had a good idea what his last words might have been.
Steve, quarter horse racing's premier trainer, had been accused by the Texas Racing Commission of illegally drugging two of his horses. Even after paying lawyers more than $40,000 to fight what he considered spurious charges, VanBebber, 50, figured he was looking at a five-year suspension for each case.
"He talked often about what those 10 years would do to him," Janet said. "He said that his life with horses would be over. Everything that he had built his life around was going to be gone."
Besides his wife, VanBebber left behind a 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, the 3-year-old daughter he had with Janet, and a stable of 100 horses.
"Most people would have spent six or seven months feeling sorry for themselves," another trainer said recently. "But not Janet. She's tough as nails, and she grabbed the bull by the horns and went with it."
Janet VanBebber says she had little choice. She had young Taylor Anne to support and her father, Gene Newcomb, was also on the payroll at the farm.
"I guess there were a few options," VanBebber said. "I could have bought some of the horses from the estate and went out with them. But I chose the toughest option. I just picked up the reins and kept going. Most of our clients stayed with me. Either through emotion or just faith in our program, they stayed on."
One of those 100 horses has stayed on too. Tailor Fit, trained by Steve VanBebber and voted world champion (horse of the year) in 1999, is a 6-year-old gelding now and still winning races. Overall, he has won 19 times and earned $976,065. Janet VanBebber will saddle him Sunday night at Los Alamitos, where he'll try to win the Champion of Champions race for the second time. It was Tailor Fit's Champion of Champions win in 1999 that clinched his world championship. Also in the field for Sunday's $500,000 race is A Ransom, last year's Champion of Champions winner and eventual world champion.
Even when her husband was training Tailor Fit, Janet VanBebber had an affinity for the horse. When he was a yearling, she picked him out at an auction and bought him on behalf of client Tom Ward for $24,000.
"I thought he was good value for $20,000 but when the bidding continued, I didn't know if I should stay in," she said. "Then I decided that if the price was going to be more than $20,000, I would pay the extra $3,000 or $4,000 myself."
Ward raced Tailor Fit for two years, winning about $150,000 in purses with him, then got out of racing and sold his horses in a dispersal. Betty Jane Burlin, a Texas realtor and longtime client of Steve VanBebber, bought Tailor Fit. Janet said the price was a six-figure sum, but couldn't remember the exact amount.
Tall and red-haired, VanBebber wore big cowboy hats--mostly black--and was usually seen wearing smoked glasses. He was a solid horseman, but was also known as a guy who could readily persuade a client to buy a horse if he liked one.
"I would have quit the business a long time ago if it hadn't been for Steve," Burlin once said. "He's the main reason I'm still in racing."
VanBebber won 1,947 races and in 2000 alone his horses earned $2.2 million. On the track, he left his widow some tall mountains to climb, and Janet VanBebber, 35, is proud of what she's accomplished this year: 14 stakes wins overall, a high winning percentage, and at Sam Houston she won 58 races, tying her husband's track record.
"I've tried to run a stable that's more quality than quantity," said VanBebber. "To establish my credibility, I needed to keep the numbers up and maintain the same level of success."
Of the title at Sam Houston, VanBebber said:
"It was bittersweet to win it without Steve. I'm glad we just tied his record, and didn't exceed it."
The VanBebbers met at a horse auction in 1989. She was a California bloodstock agent who trafficked in both quarter horses and thoroughbreds, and she sold him a horse.
"The next thing I knew, I was living in Vinton, La., [the home of Delta Downs]," she said. "That was real culture shock. I grew up in California and went from living in Huntington Beach to a place that had two stoplights and a Dairy Queen."
The VanBebbers had tried for five years to have a baby before Taylor Anne was born. But the child's exciting arrival and the plaudits for national training awards in 1998 and '99 were overshadowed by the horse-drugging charges. Janet VanBebber said she worked hard to lift her husband's spirits.
"Looking back is 20-20 vision, of course," she said. "But living it, if you had asked me then if I ever thought Steve would do what he did, I would have said no. I used to tell him that this drug thing was just God's way of slowing us down. But his anxieties wouldn't go away."
She was asked what she would eventually say to her daughter about her father.
"I'm glad I'm very much involved in my faith to help me through all this," she said. "I'll tell her that her daddy's an angel now. I'll tell her that he's gone because for a moment the devil got hold of him."
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At a Glance
* Sunday: The $500,000 Champion of Champions, a 440-yard race for quarter horses 3 years old and up. It will be the 13th race on a card that begins at 5:30.
* Where: Los Alamitos Race Course.
* Saturday: The $1.25-million Los Alamitos Million Futurity, a 400-yard race for 2-year-old quarter horses. It will be the 12th race on a card that begins at 6:30.