Heading to California, the riders are sore, and not just from their saddles
July 11, 1976

It is time to forget about tall ships and wagon trains. They have had their day, accomplished their Bicentennial missions, and have managed to eclipse almost completely another event, The Great American Horse Race, which last weekend clip-clopped into Hannibal, Mo., the hometown of Mark Twain. All but seven of the 91 competitors who took off virtually unnoticed from Frankfort, N.Y. on Memorial Day are riding hard for Sacramento, Calif., now 2,000 miles away, though the promoters are so low on money that the contestants have had to pool their resources to keep going. Happily, the $50,000 purse is assured, under lock and key in a Chicago bank.

The horses are as diverse as the riders—Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss, an Australian and a bona fide Austrian count are among the competitors. Their mounts, in every type of harness, are multihued: Arabians, Appaloosas, Morgans, Irish Connemaras, a Tennessee Walking Horse—and five mules. The Teutonic group rides Icelandic ponies, small (54") but tough steeds, boasting five gaits and Beatlelike flowing manes. A Canadian named Sonny Ferris entered a Russian Orloff—a part-Arabian, part-Polish draft horse standing a regal 17 hands—and hired as its rider Cathryn Vallet, who had come to America from France in search of a mount. The Orloff, Ferris announced, was bred to win (he seemed to insinuate that an extra bone in the horse's body was the secret of success), but by the end of the first month the Russian horse was running—or walking—sixth. At veterinarian checks the big stallion did a nervous tap dance, waiting his turn among mares and geldings.

As the race moved through western New York, Juel Ashley, who owns a spread in Ada, Okla., took a three-hour lead with his Arabian, Hammond's Pride, but near Kankakee, Ill. they were overtaken by—how humiliating!—Lord Faunt LeRoy, a mule ridden by Virl Norton of San Jose, Calif. The mule remains minutes ahead as the field approaches the halfway point in the elapsed-time event.

Clearly, the riders are having fun, though they are feuding with management. At Watkins Glen last month there was an old-fashioned cowboy-style fist-fight in front of a campground saloon.

One way or another they are determined to get to California. Darrell Nielsen of Escalante, Utah summed it up at the very start: "Anyone who tries to stop this race is going to have to shoot my horse out from under me." And if that's not the spirit of '76, what is?

PHOTOJAMES DRAKEIn fifth place is 18-year-old Valorie Briggs. PHOTOJAMES DRAKECarrying the flag, but hardly the promoters' banner, riders are in a revolutionary mood PHOTOJAMES DRAKEBreeding may tell over the long haul, but at present Virl Norton's mule is in the lead. PHOTOJAMES DRAKERunning last is Bill Gerhardt, but he has 2,000 miles to close the gap. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEHumane societies insist that horses be checked closely and constantly. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEOn looks, the winner would be Cathryn Vallet's mount, an Orloff stallion.