It is a big land and rough, and it is a big race and rough. They suit each other eminently well. The country is New Mexico, and the race is the richest of all, the $430,600 All American Quarter Horse Futurity, held each Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs. It is the High Noon of horse racing.
If the race draws as few people as Gary Cooper's gunfight did that day on Main Street, it is understandable. "The track lies 70 miles west of Roswell," says the 1966 edition of the track press book. That may be enough for anyone who knows how local hero Billy the Kid used to ride off in the sunset toward Turkey Canyon, but everybody else will need a map.
Roswell is actually the second largest city in New Mexico, with a population of almost 40,000. It lies in the southeastern part of the state, 150 miles northeast of El Paso, on plains so sparse that a single sheep pasture may be five miles wide. It is a silent country of dry creek beds and stony soil where the only noise is the whine of automobiles on Highway 70 bearing transients heading west toward the pine-cool Sacramento Range. In the foothills there are apple and pear orchards and alfalfa fields. And more than a mile high there is Ruidoso (pop. 3,500), a town of motels, billboards and neon, the kind of place that makes a tourist feel at home. People settled this country late, and brought with them the temporary things of contemporary society. They built with plywood, used gaudy colors, parked pink and blue house trailers in the valley and sprayed turquoise paint wildly about, as if warring against the gray-brown land.
Not that the town always depended on a paint can for its color. For years Ruidoso (which means noisy in Spanish) had been wide open, a place where "they'd spit on the ground and run a foot race for $10,000." In the Central Bar and Grill there were dice, roulette and, on occasion, Clara Bow in person, while out to the east, on the Miller Homestead, ranchers matched their fastest horses for $50,000 or so.
September 25, 1966
There was hardly a week during the summer when somebody wouldn't pull into town from Carlsbad or Midland, get boasting over corn mash about the speed of his horse and end up broke in Mr. Miller's meadow. By 1948 there was even a race meeting of sorts. The track was a rocky incline and had no inside rail, and the jockeys' room was a clearing surrounded by hog wire.
"We had a lot of fun then," said an Oklahoma stockman the other day in Ruidoso. "I'd say we had a good bit more fun than we do now. I remember once matching horses for just two sacks of oats and another time drawing so much money out of the bank that they told us to go down the road to the next town to get the rest. There was $75,000 on that race."
Oklahoma Oilman A.B. Green, who came to this year's All American Futurity with a filly named Barbara 3, told of racing her dam for $10,000 in a match out in the Texas brush. A.B. has always liked dressing fancy—at Ruidoso he wore a black silk suit, silver-striped tie, diamond stickpin, alligator shoes and Stetson—so when he heard there was a chance for action across the state line he put on his city clothes, hitched his trailer to his Cadillac and set off. When A.B. arrived, he recalls, "there was a horse under every blackjack tree. They figured I was a drugstore cowboy, so I got a match right away." But whatever they thought of A.B. they weren't going to take any chances on his horse. The Texans had a wooden, handmade gate, and they wired A.B.'s stall door shut. When the break came his horse jumped forward, but the door didn't open. Finally the mare bolted through and still won the race by inches.
This penchant for matching horse for horse, dollar for dollar, has long been a part of quarter-horse racing, although the sport has become big time, and many states, knowing they will not collect a percentage of the money bet, forbid such races. These statutes have no more effect than Prohibition did. Even under the binoculars of the state racing commissioners match races are frequently held. Two horses can work out together from the starting gate during training hours, and who is to know if they are out for exercise or for $10,000?
Last month in Ruidoso a Texas oilman announced at a cocktail party that he was willing to match his horse against any 2-year-old in the world for $100,000. No one took him up on it, and the horse was beaten in an ordinary race the following day.
"Quarter-horse owners believe in their horses," says Stan Snedigar, the executive secretary of Ruidoso Downs. "They are willing to back conversation with money, and they don't ask odds like Thoroughbred people do. Thoroughbred owners have grown accustomed to getting odds from the pari-mutuels, and now they won't wager without them. With us it has always been horse against horse. That's how quarter-horse racing began. It is how Thoroughbred racing started, too, but they've gotten away from the original idea."
The first quarter-horse meeting with legalized pari-mutuel betting was held in Tucson in the early 1940s. The average purse was $50, and the biggest stake offered anywhere that year was $100. Now the winner of the All American Futurity receives $198,300, and the total purse offered for the Futurity is $62,900 more than the richest Thoroughbred stake anywhere.
Other aspects of quarter-horse racing, however, have been changing more slowly. Many horses are still branded, and it is not unusual to see a flying I or a crossed J or the number 14 burned into a winner's flank. No longer is the branding done to discourage the horse thief—at least, not always. Rancher Walter Merrick, who had a horse entered in the recent Futurity at Ruidoso, remembers trying to think up a brand for his stock years ago. He went out in the field and counted 14 head, and in one of the West's least imaginative moves he decided 14 would be his brand. When Merrick developed a fine strain of racing quarter horses they all bore that brand, and people began to associate 14 with quality.
Another thing that has not changed much is the closeness of owners to their horses. The morning of the Futurity, Chester Maddon, who started a colt called Bright Rebel, was asked how he'd spent the night. "It was chilly," he said. "My bald head got cold." For several nights before the Futurity he had put a cot across the front of the stall and slept with his horse. "We all do it," he said. "Anyone who has a good colt. It's not so much that another horseman might do something to affect your horse. But gamblers might hire someone."
The bright front that the Ruidoso track now presents has been fashioned by 53-year-old Gene Hensley, a stubble-faced promoter who bought controlling interest with some friends in 1953. As he explains it: "I'd been in the wholesale liquor business in Phoenix, and that'd been pretty rapid and I was looking to get out of it. Some guys heard about this rundown plant and came over after me. We bought control for around $100,000. It was kind of a challenge." How much of one can be assessed by the present value of Ruidoso Downs: $4 million.
By 1958 Hensley had decided to concentrate on quarter-horse racing. There was no way a small track could compete in Thoroughbred circles, and Ruidoso was certainly in good quarter-horse country. That year he announced the first running of the All American Futurity. The track put up less than $10,000—even now it puts up only $25,000—but entry fees have inflated the total purse. There were 522 original nominees in the 1966 Futurity, and their entry fees totaled $405,600. Hensley, like the promoters of Thoroughbred racing's two biggest purses—the $367,700 Arlington-Washington Futurity and the $275,000 Garden State—has taken advantage of the gambling instincts of horsemen. Owners will pay large entry fees to nominate untried yearlings and 2-year-olds for rich races, in the hope that their colts will turn out to be of stakes caliber. "The big purses these days are for 2-year-olds," Hensley says, "because you have to get the entry fees in before a horse is proven. When a horse is older, the owner knows what he's got, and that's the end of the gambling."
The purses in the All American have grown—$202,425 in 1961, $302,060 in 1964, $419,460 in 1965—and so has Ruidoso. Private planes began landing regularly, and the airport runways had to be paved and lengthened. Pave the runway and you have to pave the sidewalks. They tore up the wooden planks that had served as sidewalks in Ruidoso for as long as anyone could remember and laid cement ones. In 1961 a dual highway was built through the center of town.
The race has had an even more startling effect on the quarter-horse industry. Although the quarter horse got his name for his speed over a quarter of a mile, by the late '50s there were many who did not have the stamina to go 400 yards at top speed. There is a saying that speed deteriorates into speed, and when two fast quarter horses were bred to each other the offspring might be faster but often could not carry the speed as far as his sire and dam could. The large purses offered by Ruidoso for 2-year-olds over 400 yards put a premium on stamina as well as speed. So quarter-horse men began breeding Thoroughbred stallions to their cow ponies, figuring that the offspring would have more staying power. Thoroughbred stallions like Three Bars, who was claimed by a quarter-horse breeder for $2,000, began to influence quarter-horse racing significantly. Another Thoroughbred castoff, Top Deck, had three starters in this year's Futurity and was the grandsire of two others. Even Noor, the horse bred by the Aga Khan who beat Citation four times, sired a good quarter horse.
The legalizing of quarter-horse racing has made breeding these horses a major industry in states like California, Texas and Florida. In 1945 only 684 were registered in the AQHA studbook, but last year there were 53,000. It was no wonder then that, three weeks before the Futurity, Ruidoso found it still had a field of 73 for the big race. To reduce the number, eight elimination races were held over the 400-yard Futurity course, with the 12 horses who turned in the fastest times qualifying for the big race. One of the entrants turned out to have been given a heady dose of Ritalin, but he still did not run fast enough to qualify. And two others, one of them A.B. Green's Barbara 3, tied for the 12th spot in the field. This meant the owners would have to draw lots to determine which horse would start, but Green wanted none of that if he could make a deal. He went to the owners of the other horse and offered them $3,000 to pull out of the Futurity before the draw was made. They refused, saying they thought they could beat Green's filly any day. All right, A.B. said, let's match-race the two of them for $10,000, and the winner gets to start in the Futurity. His challenge was turned down, but A.B. won the draw anyway.
By race day the favorite was Top Ladybug, a sorrel daughter of Top Deck, who had recorded the fastest qualifying time (20.30 seconds), had won nine of her 11 races and had already earned $82,337. The morning of the Futurity she stood outside her ramshackle stable—"It looks like she lives in an outhouse," said a cowboy—and her owner, Marvin Barnes, appraised her confidently. "I don't think a horse alive can outrun her if she breaks good," he said. "I wish I could handle her in the gate myself. It has cost me $60,000 already, because she got bad breaks out of the gate. I think in big futurities they should let a trainer start his own horse." Barnes was touching on a sore point. The start is as important in a quarter-horse race as it is in an astronaut launch. In a 400-yard race a horse that is left at the gate has no time to recover.
Anyone can come up with a good racehorse, as kings found out centuries ago. Consequently, the owners of the horses in the final All American field were as varied in background as the people who use a public phone booth. Movie Star Dale Robertson was one. There were millionaire ranchers and dairymen, among them Californian G.D. Turnbow, who bought his colt for $100,000 last spring.
But also from California came the manager of a livestock ranch who had brought a ragged colt named Scarecrow that had been running in $3,000-to-$5,000 claiming races until five months ago. He borrowed $7,500 to make the entry fee and put the colt in the race. After all, 10th-, 11th-and 12th-place finishers in the Futurity collect $2,000 each.
From Florida came Go Dick Go, who had been trained by Owner Joe Leitner in his 3½-acre backyard in suburban Tampa. Leitner, 38, a lithographer-pressman for Continental Can, bought his first racehorse for $150 at the age of 18. Since then he has cared considerably more about horses than his work in the factory—pressing beer and coffee labels on tin cans. He has spent his free time training his horses and taking them to unofficial meetings around the state. Quarter-horse racing is not held at legalized pari-mutuel tracks in Florida, and when Leitner arrived at Ruidoso Downs three months ago, pulling his horse in a trailer behind his Pontiac, it was only the second time he had been to a recognized racetrack. The biggest purse Leitner had won was $5,000, but he had hoped ever since he bought Go Dick Go for $1,000 as a yearling that the colt would make it to the richest of all races. He did not enter the horse in the Futurity as a yearling, the way most horsemen do, but waited until Go Dick Go had won the Rebel and Florida futurities. The colt had also won some match races. Asked how much these races had been for, Leitner replied, "I'd rather not say. The purse is whatever we put up and what we bet on the side."
As soon as Leitner knew he had a good horse, his attention began to wander from beer labels. "My husband must be the sickest man Continental Can ever had," his wife Fay said before the All American. "If he needed to come out here to see the colt he'd have to go to the doctor to get sick leave. He's had headaches, ulcers, a hernia. You name it, he's got it." Fay Leitner often works as a secretary to supplement the family income, so if she did not take too kindly to her husband's hobby horses it was understandable. "I detest horses," she said, a sentiment any housewife is entitled to if she has five of them living in her backyard.
Leitner took Go Dick Go to Ruidoso early in order to get him used to the altitude and to find out just how good the horse was before posting the $13,000 needed to make him a late eligible for the Futurity. After the colt ran second in a stakes race despite a 104° fever, Leitner decided the Futurity would be a good gamble. How much of a gamble he never quite realized. When he periodically left Ruidoso to go back to the can factory he entrusted the horse to a 22-year-old trainer, Clarence Jay. Jay did all he could with the horse but finally had to tell Leitner that "the colt is broke down in front, and the only thing to do is try to hold him together." Leitner was still confident. He brought a jockey. Buddy Nesmith, all the way from Florida, because the boy had ridden Go Dick Go there and Leitner had "liked his style in the bushes."
The Labor Day crowd began drifting into Ruidoso Downs early in the day. Admission was $1, and the best seat in the grandstand (which seats 3,500) cost only 75¢. A good many of the crowd of 9,000, however, just put blankets down on the asphalt apron and sat on pillows, or squeezed canvas chairs along the rail. From there they could stare across at the place where the infield lakes used to be until all the water ran out the gopher holes.
It is remarkable that so many people want to see an event that is nothing more than a 20-second charge down a straightaway. "I think they like the quickness of it," said a track publicity man. "After all, the West has always been a place of quick decisions."
Because 2-year-olds are erratic, and quarter horses, in general, are often fractious in the gate in their eagerness to be out of it, starts often leave something to be desired. "The stewards," Gene Hensley explained, "allow a little bit of bearing in or out so long as a horse doesn't wipe out the field." (How much latitude they allow was demonstrated in the Kansas Futurity raced at Ruidoso two months before the All American. The winner started from the No. 10 post but finished 400 yards later along the inside rail.)
The break in the All American, however, was so smooth it would have suited the stewards at Saratoga. Top Ladybug got the first call, and Chicamona, the filly in which Dale Robertson holds an interest, got the second. Go Dick Go, who was 8 to 1 in the betting, was fourth, as Scarecrow and Barbara 3 broke 10th and 12th and lost all chance. Ladybug held her lead for an eighth of a mile, but near the paddock gate Go Dick Go surged up to finish a head in front of Chicamona, with Ladybug third.
As the horses crossed the finish line, Trainer Jay came bounding up the racetrack from the paddock. Joe Leitner, meanwhile, was running down from the grandstand, and when the two men met they hugged and swung each other around. Then, as the horse was being led into the winner's circle, there was a shout that resounded over the din in the grandstand: "I love you. I love you. I love you." It was Fay Leitner flying across the track in her brown slacks and gold lamé slippers. Screaming her excitement, she rushed up to Go Dick Go and kissed him. Then she kissed her husband. Then the jockey. Then he trainer's wife.
Later she stared at the All American trophy and said, "Would you believe we have a trophy case?" There are five or six cups on the Leitner shelf already, and although the All American prize may be the shiniest, it will not be the biggest. "The management got a little frugal this year," one horseman said before the race, as he looked at the foot-high trophy on exhibition in the infield. "They used to give trophies that were six foot high, and you needed two men to carry them. I suppose this one has quality. They say it cost $300 in New York. But quality doesn't mean so much out here. What we really like is size."