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.
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."