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.