SI Vault
Pat Ryan
September 26, 1966
Miles from nowhere, out in Billy the Kid country, quarter horses compete (right) for the richest purse in the world, and you can still get a match race there for $100,000
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September 26, 1966

The High Rollers Of Ruidoso

Miles from nowhere, out in Billy the Kid country, quarter horses compete (right) for the richest purse in the world, and you can still get a match race there for $100,000

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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 3�-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 lam� 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."

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