Manor Downs is a small racetrack outside of Austin, Texas. It's used by trainers to get and keep their horses in racing condition—quarter horses mostly, the ears-back, flat-out sprinters of the horse-racing world. One day last week, shortly after dawn, eight or 10 people were in one of Manor Downs' small paddocks to pay a call on a 2-year-old quarter horse named Special Effort. The colt's owners, Dan and Jolene Urschel, had flown in a photographer from Oklahoma City to take some portraits of the animal. Special Effort, you see, is a very special horse; he's the first 2-year-old quarter horse to win more than $1 million in purses (Land Grant, a standardbred, was the first of any breed to win that much at 2) and the first ever to win the American Quarter Horse Association's triple crown for 2-year-olds. All talk stops as his handler leads him in. No one can keep his eyes off him; no one can keep back a look of delight. Not even the colt's trainer, Johnie Goodman, who sees Special Effort most every day. The colt looks that good.
Special Effort has not run since Labor Day, when he won the third leg of the triple crown, the $1.2 million All-American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. His payday for winning that 440-yard dash was $528,000—$210,800 more than Pleasant Colony earned for winning the Kentucky Derby. Special Effort hasn't trained since then; after winning nine races in nine starts, he's off until next May, when his 3-year-old racing season will begin. Yet he looks, well, perfect, as if he would like to go right now. The energy shows beneath his sorrel coat as it shines in the morning light. "He's an athlete type; he don't get real outta shape not doin' much," Goodman says.
The photographer tries to get Special Effort to stand just so, with four legs showing and head in profile, but the colt is having none of it. He stretches, then scratches his left front leg with the side of his head. He is not the squat, heavily muscled animal some might associate with a quarter horse. He was sired by a thoroughbred, Raise Your Glass, and his dam, Go Effortlessly, was three-quarters thoroughbred.
The only thing really spectacular about his conformation is what matters most: He's well balanced. His hocks are low, nearly brushing the grass as he walks, which gives the animal what quarter-horse people call "gathering" ability—the ability to grip the track as he runs. As he moves about the paddock, he does so lightly, like a cat through wet grass. But what Jolene Urschel sees in Special Effort today is the same thing she and her husband saw the first time they watched him race. "He's got a big heart," she says. "He sure does," agrees Goodman. Then, unable to resist, he adds, "But like women, sometimes you got to build 'em one."
This gets a big laugh, even from Jolene. Goodman obviously knows a lot about women, perhaps even more than he knows about horses. He's a good-looking man with a big, meaty handshake that proves beyond question that he used to be a construction worker. When Jolene innocently asks him if he likes to hunt, Goodman kind of shuffles his feet and gives her that easy grin, then tells her that the other day he had killed a 10-point buck with a boat oar. What he actually says, is, "Killed one with the bo'der th'other day. Tehn po'nter." Everybody kind of smiles and thinks maybe they've misunderstood that gentle drawl. Dan Urschel says, "With a what?"
"That's what I thought you said."
It was no easy water shot, either. The deer was on a dead run and Goodman just whaled it upside the head with the oar. "Got it in mah freezer right now," Goodman says.
"Was the season open yet?" Urschel asks, amused.
Goodman bought his first quarter horse 15 years ago for $500. He'd never spent much time around the track, never owned a horse before, but had always kind of liked them. When that first horse, Glory's Hemi, won a few races, Goodman started to get a reputation as a horseman. Three years later he gave up his hard hat and went into training full-time. Just over a year ago he spotted a yearling colt in Seguin, Texas that had been raised by a man named Allen Moehrig. That colt was Special Effort. "For $20,000, he sure looked like a runner to me," Goodman says. "He looked just like he does now, only smaller." Eventually, Goodman's ex-father-in-law, Allen Taylor, bought the colt.
Quarter horses are raced primarily in the South and West with the biggest tracks in California and New Mexico. The first major race of the 1981 season for 2-year-olds and first leg of their triple crown was the Kansas Futurity at Ruidoso Downs on May 31, a $608,668 event. It was at time trials for the Kansas Futurity that people began to take notice of Special Effort: He won his 350-yard heat by an astounding 4¾ lengths.
Enter Dan and Jolene Urschel of Canadian, Texas. Three years ago the Urschels, whose 30,000-acre ranch in the Texas panhandle is peppered with gas wells, got into quarter-horse racing in a big way, and since that time they have been buying the best 2-year-olds they can find. "For some reason the quarter-horse business got started off wrong and all the big purse money goes to the two-year-olds," says Urschel, who would like to see the financial emphasis shift to the more physically mature 3-year-olds, as is the case with thoroughbreds. Since April 1980 the Urschels have criss-crossed 300 acres of their 3 Bar D ranch with 11 miles of board fence, all of it painted white, a little bit of Kentucky out on their half-desert, tumbleweed-ridden home on the range. They own 40 horses right now, including Pie in the Sky ($600,980 in winnings), Pass Over ($521,172), Miss Thermolark (world champion quarter-horse filly in 1978, $498,877), and Bold Ego (the thoroughbred who finished second in this year's Preakness, $422,676). All that in three years. Says Urschel, who also runs 2,000 head of Holstein cattle on the ranch, "Horse racing isn't really any more treacherous than the cattle business, not if you're buying proven winners."
Which is exactly what he set out to do when he saw Special Effort run. The two horses that Urschel had brought to the Kansas Futurity both failed to qualify for the 10-horse final, so, through an intermediary, he approached Taylor about buying Special Effort. Urschel was hoping he could pick the colt up for $500,000—after all, Special Effort had raced only twice—but Goodman said that Special Effort was worth $1 million. The Urschels thought about it overnight, then wrote out a check. "We never do anything fast," Jolene says.
Her husband looks up incredulously. "We don't?"
That Sunday, Special Effort came from behind to win the Kansas Futurity final by a length, with W.R. (Billy) Hunt up. His share of the purse was $260,522.
That was as close as Special Effort came to losing in his nine starts. The second leg of the triple crown was the 400-yard Rainbow Futurity at Ruidoso, the finals of which were held July 26. Special Effort won by 1½ lengths and collected $232,536—some $30,000 more than Pleasant Colony earned for winning the Preakness. In the 18-year history of the Rainbow Futurity, only one other champion had also won the Kansas Futurity—Tiny's Gay in 1974. No horse had then gone on to take the All-American Futurity and the triple crown. Such is the nature of racing 2-year-olds on a heavy schedule.
The week before the All-American the Urschels decided to protect their investment by selling lifetime breeding shares in Special Effort. Quarter horses can be bred more than 100 times a year because artificial insemination is allowed by the American Quarter Horse Association. (By contrast, a top thoroughbred stallion, which must breed naturally, can realistically be bred to no more than 60 mares a year.) The Urschels put 100 shares on the market at $100,000 each, reserving 50 shares for themselves—in effect, putting the value of Special Effort at $15 million. The shares sold out in two days. "We priced him too low," Urschel says.
On Labor Day the horse fulfilled expectations by taking the All-American Futurity on a muddy track. He did so in fine fashion, withstanding a bump from another horse out of the gate to blow by the field, winning by four lengths, the largest margin in the 23-year history of the race. It completed the Triple Crown and pushed Special Effort's winnings to $1,026,721, a record for all quarter horses. His breeding shares are now being traded for twice their original $100,000 purchase price.
Happily, it will be a while before Special Effort is retired to stud. "I like to see a racehorse run," says Urschel, who dreams of his colt becoming the second to win the quarter horse triple crown for 3-year-olds, those races consisting of the Kansas, Rainbow and All-American Derbys. My Easy Credit did it in 1977. Goodman thinks it's possible. "He can do it if he keeps his mind on racing and off'n the mares," he says.
Back at Manor Downs, Special Effort has finally decided to stand still for the photographer. Urschel is happy just watching him, pleased with everything about the sorrel horse. "He's kind of got the right color for me, too," he tells his Learjet co-pilot, Dave Harter, who also owns a breeding share in the horse.
"I know he does," says Harter. "Green."