Even before Billy the fawn and Joe the myna bird and Lucy the sunburned Appaloosa mare got out of bed and made up their faces in the chill autumn morning, horse vans and trailers and trucks were converging on the little racetrack. They came up from Hutchinson, the big town to the south, and down from McPherson, the small town to the north, from Cimarron and Dodge City and Liberal to the west, from Emporia and Chanute and Parsons to the east, from any place in Kansas where men owned horses that they reckoned were faster than their neighbors'. The vans hauled elderly well-traveled Thoroughbreds and spritely naive young Thoroughbreds, palominos and paints, plow horses and quarter horses and show horses and Heinz-57-variety horses, any horses that could earn a buck under their own names or certain aliases. An occasional one would show up in drag, dyed or disguised or wearing a new hairdo so he would not be recognized as a previous winner on the track.
The setting was Hidden Valley Downs, a typical "bush track" out in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. If you really want to know how to get there—well, you go north from Hutchinson on Route 61 for about nine miles till you come to a crossroads called Medora ("crow-shootin' capital of the Yew-nited States"), where you will spot a blacktop county road leading eastward. You follow this road past a herd of black cows and a field of bursting sorghum, and then you turn south on a sandy road where the signs say "Horse Racing, Horseback Riding, Stables, Trail Rides Every Day" and "Riley's Auto Salvage, We Buy Autos in Any Condition, Used Parts Sold and Installed," and you follow this road across a bumpy spur of the Frisco R.R., past several hundred automobile cadavers rusting in peace, down a lane of sunflowers and into a vaulted copse of Cottonwood and mulberry and elm trees, and there it is, as conspicuous as a still in Harlan County Ky.: Hidden Valley Downs, home of a half-mile racetrack, Billy the fawn, Joe the myna bird and assorted specimens of Kansas wildlife. A sign advises you to "Ring Buzer for Service," and another gives notice that anybody galloping the saddle horses will be charged double. Consider yourself warned.
Hidden Valley Downs is unauthorized, unsanctioned and unknown except to devotees of the bush circuit, which is made up of half-mile tracks in towns like Eureka, Concordia, Emporia and Garden City in Kansas; Woodward, Arnett, Newkirk and Laverne in Oklahoma; Pueblo and Deer Trail in Colorado; Duncan and Douglas in Arizona; and dozens of others, with new ones springing up every year. Bush tracks are places where horsemen race free from the constricting influence of state commissions. Many bush tracks are so relaxed and informal that they will alternate horse races on an outer track with dog races on an inner track, plus an occasional unscheduled match race between horses whose owners have grown sick and tired of each other's bragging, plus a crap game among the exercise boys back at the stable. The main rule at bush tracks is that there are no rules. "That's one of the nice things about it," says Bill Rowland, owner of Hidden Valley Downs. "Our racing isn't cluttered up by a lotta regulations about the fouls and registration and stuff like 'at. It's strictly homemade racing, catch weight and no holds barred. If a man can find hisself a 85-pound jockey, why, power to him! We don't frown on much of anything. What you see here is horse racing in its purest form. At those big regulated tracks, the horses are incidental. Here on the bush tracks, the horses are everything, and the people are incidental."
Bill Rowland is a real estate man by trade, but he bears no more resemblance to your typical junior-chamber-of-commerce, hail-fellow, booster type of real estate man than he does to Hecuba. He was brought up on a Kansas farm. He does not say, "By cracky," and, "Aw, shucks," but you halfway expect him to. His voice has a high, reedy quality to it, a sort of agricultural tenor, and although he has done his fair share of wheeling and dealing, he still manages to project the innocent image of a man who believes that the game with the 15 numbered balls is the devil's tool, not to mention such sinful pastimes as horse racing.
"It's really hard to figure how I even started this track," Rowland tried to explain not long ago. "But after a whole lot of negotiating and problems and confusions I woke up one morning and found out that the bank and I were owners of 320 acres of undeveloped ranchland out here in the country, and then one day I was out looking over the place with my brother-in-law and we were standing on a little shaded hillock overlooking a big flat area and all of a sudden I turned to my brother-in-law and I said, 'Pork, I can see it right before my eyes. Here's the bleachers right where we're standing, and out there's the racetrack.'
"And he says, 'Boy, that's sumpin!'
"It just hit me, and I don't know why, me not particularly liking horses. And I had an old road grader, and I hired a man and he bulldozed me out a track in two months. We were lucky, because the sandy soil was just perfect. It's so sandy that this track is fast when it's wet and slow when it's dry; we never have a muddy or sloppy track. After it was finished we had a few races with horses from out around this neighborhood, and we started 'em with a flag, and it was a lotta fun. Then we found out about this eight-horse starting gale that was for sale down below Oklahoma City, and we bought it and towed the thing up here behind a pickup truck. That was a lotta iron to pull, let me tell you! We hauled it down to Main Street in Hutchinson and we put up a sign, 'Horseracing Sunday 2 p.m.," and we been goin' ever since."
Slowly Hidden Valley Downs shaped up in the vision of Bill Rowland. Unlike other bush tracks, which tend to be drab and colorless, this one became a watering place, an Aix-les-Bains on the arid prairie. Rowland dug six ponds and stocked them with 4,000 bass and channel catfish. He laid out riding trails and bought 15 saddle horses, including Lucy, a white Appaloosa mare who has to take sick leave now and then because she sunburns around the eyes. To amuse the children who would be attracted to the place, Rowland acquired a sort of homemade zoo consisting of the horses, Joe the myna bird, a goose, two ducks, a flock of pigeons, three peacocks, Billy the deer, a German shepherd, a Schnauzer, two Herefords and a black cow, and he took steps to protect the natives already in residence: badgers, horned toads, deer, hawks, turtles and a couple of dozen other species. Instead of erecting tasteless boarded grandstands, he laid out 24 long whitewashed benches on the hill overlooking the track, under the shade of a tall stand of elms and cottonwoods. The total effect is of a country track in the East Riding of Yorkshire instead of a bush track in dry and dusty central Kansas.
But the city slicker who stumbles into this pastoral setting of sweetness and simplicity on race day had better keep a firm grasp on his wallet, the rustic atmosphere notwithstanding. All the pet deer and mulberry trees and riding trails in the world cannot obscure the fact that Hidden Valley Downs, like Aqueduct and Epsom and Longchamp, is a place where people go to bet the horses. Pari-mutuel betting is illegal in Kansas, but head-to-head, horse-for-horse betting is so hard to police that it is all but ignored by the authorities in bush-track country. There are certain individuals who have carved out successful financial careers betting on horses in the boondocks, all against a backdrop reminiscent of National Velvet. Look at that dear little boy over there, standing next to his pet palomino, both boy and horse all curried and combed and entered in the 220-yard race for nonwinners on the track. But right behind them is a narrow-eyed fellow in a blue-jean suit and cowboy boots who goes from track to track picking people up by their pockets. He calls a mare a marr, and he likes the horses of a paller-meener keller and he will sit down and viz't with you by the arr, and when you get up you will discover that he has taken your shirt and your vest without disturbing your coat. Until you learn the ropes at the bush tracks, Hidden Valley Downs included, you would be wise to fade no bets. You might think that you're betting against a farm hoss named Old Yaller—that's how he's listed on the program—but after he beats your personal selection by six lengths you find out he is really a registered racehorse on French leave from the big show at Ruidoso (SI, Sept. 26), traveling under a pen name, picking up some loose change for his owner.
On the morning of a recent race day at Hidden Valley, the boys were entering their horses and jawing away in the little office presided over by Joe the myna bird and Ron Stull, who functions as race secretary and announcer on Sundays, Hutchinson stockbroker on weekdays and horse fanatic on anyday. "Whatever I say, that bird contradicts me," Stull complained to Bill Rowland.