If the late C. S. Howard had been born into money and a membership in the Jockey Club, all this might never have happened. Such a proud, confident man might simply have laughed in the cowboys' faces and thus might not have had his wallet picked in front of 10,000 people.
But the knowledge that he had earned his silks the hard way had always prompted C.S. to regard a challenge not as a sporting proposition but as an out-and-out declaration of war—and Howard never backed away from a good fight.
They knew this, of course, in the business world. Howard had started from nothing and had built himself an empire of automobile distributorships on the West Coast. The smell of gasoline and the purr of the luxury-car engines made him a fortune, but deep down inside what C. S. Howard really cared about was horses.
Howard got his start as a horseman in the 1930s when he spent $7,500 to acquire a workaday horse that was being used mostly in minor stakes races, leaving bigger events to his more affluent stablemates at the Wheatley Stable. The horse, a bay colt by Hard Tack out of Swing On, was named Seabiscuit.
Howard ran him everywhere he could. He ran him in so many places that rail-birds nicknamed the horse " Marco Polo." When the Biscuit finished his racing career at the age of 7, Howard had banked over $400,000. More important to Howard, who was fiercely loyal to his four-legged mint, Seabiscuit had gone east to Pimlico and there, in November of 1938, he had beaten heavily favored War Admiral by four lengths in a match race that gripped the entire country's imagination.
Seabiscuit was the rock upon which Howard's racing stable was founded. The Howard ranch in Mendocino County became a showplace. Into this world in 1947, Howard brought an English sprinter named Fair Truckle, a beautiful animal that ran short distances at blinding speeds, setting Howard up for a comedown at the hands of as cool a gang of operators as ever hustled a bet. Their legs were bowed, their cheeks were tanned and they had spurs that jingle jangle jingled. They also had a sinfully ugly bag of greased horseflesh named Barbra B. They ran her at county fairs and dirt tracks and the so-called bullring tracks where Thoroughbreds and quarter horses were often thrown into the same races.
Barbra B was a quarter horse. The cow people will tell you that a quarter horse can beat anything this side of Cape Kennedy at a quarter of a mile. This may be overstating the case but it is true that quarter horses are bred for this distance, that they accelerate with the quickness of an irritated cobra and that nonquarter horses that race them under their ground rules are generally owned by people who do not like money. And it is true that quarter horses have run 400 yards in something under 20 seconds.
It is also true that one day Barbra B had beaten a Thoroughbred to a positive frazzle, and somehow the cowboys learned that this same Thoroughbred had done rather well with Fair Truckle. Armed with this knowledge, the Arizona Mafia descended upon Box 47 at Hollywood Park where C. S. Howard was soaking up the sun. They stood there and they began to talk about the fact that Sea-biscuit had to be one of history's most overrated horses. C. S. Howard began a slow burn. Then they called Fair Truckle a plow horse, and C. S. turned medium rare. By the time an alert usher had offered to evict the hecklers, C. S. was positively charcoal gray. Then they dangled the bait.
"How much?" he snapped in uncontrolled anger. "Put up or shut up."
"Waal," a cowpoke drawled thoughtfully, "I reckon we could raise 50."