There's a little bit of cowboy inside everyone of us," says Ron Wilder, president of the Great Western Land and Cattle Co. "When we said we were gonna have a real 210-mile pony express race this year before our annual cattle drive, I bet we got 2,000 phone calls from guys in bars all over the country.
"One group said they were former cowboys now punching computers in Chicago. They sounded so serious that we sent them entry blanks. Another call came from some Air Force officers who planned to round up a string of horses by plane. We even had a couple of offers to organize pari-mutuels. On a trip to Philadelphia, I must have talked to a dozen executives who said they'd give $1,000 just to come West and follow our race and then camp out with us on our cattle drive. All dreamers, of course. When I invited them, they said they were too busy to get away. Besides, people simply won't believe we still have 200 miles of open trail in New Mexico where you don't hit a town or fence."
Call it the Buffalo Bill syndrome. Wilder encountered it a year ago when Great Western staged its first old-fashioned cattle drive from winter range near Grants, N. Mex., north through open Navajo and Apache country to summer grass at Pagosa Springs, Colo. The two-week drive, which included more than 600 registered Charolais cattle, cowhands, horses, chuck wagons and camp trucks, attracted throngs of tourists, photographers, television crews and a Wall Street Journal reporter.
"We could have moved the cattle by truck, the way everyone else does," says Wilder. "But cattle always lose some weight in trucks, and we wondered if they could gain by traveling about 14 miles a day on grass. They did."
It was also an admitted publicity stunt for Great Western, a fast-growing Albuquerque company that manages cattle for high-income investors. Great Western had a public-relations man on the trail to find bedrolls for visiting newsmen, to locate scenic shots for photographers and to teach the cowhands how to roll a cigarette in the saddle. Wilder wanted to kick off the trail drive with a pony express race last year but didn't have time to arrange it. When he announced the race this winter, he ran into a new problem. Many Westerners had serious misgivings about an endurance-type race for horses. Typical was the comment from Joe Hersch, president of the Citizens Bank of Pagosa Springs. "You can ruin a good horse by pushing him too hard. It isn't a matter of miles or hours—it's judgment. Once, in an emergency, I had to ride 30 miles up through these mountains, up to an altitude of 10,000 feet, and then ride back. It took 18 hours, but my horse was fine. By contrast, a couple of drunks attempted a race here once and killed two good horses in an hour and a half."
Other horsemen voiced another doubt. The horses used by the Pony Express in 1860 were mostly tough little mustangs, accustomed to the open range, and rarely raced at top speed. Today's horses, even ordinary working cow horses, are bigger and better bred, but more pampered, too. They usually ride to the cattle in vans and work half a day at a time. Could they race through the high rugged terrain in New Mexico?
Wilder took note of these misgivings when the contestants gathered in Pagosa Springs the day before the race. "We don't want this to be a do-or-die thing," he said. "We took 12 serious entries and narrowed them down to five, which is more manageable. We want to have a lot of fun and try something that no one else has done."
He said his own Great Western riders would forfeit their share of the prize money and suggested that the $1,500 pot be split four ways to ease the temptation of pushing the horses too hard. The teams agreed and voted for a split of 40-30-20 and a "hard-luck" 10. "We've earned the hard-luck prize already," deadpanned Harrison Elote, head of the team entered by the Jicarilla Apache Indian tribe. "Three of our best horses are sick." This was the first sample of Apache gamesmanship.
A discussion revealed that neither the Mackey Bros. entry from Ignacio, Colo. nor the Pagosa Springs Guides and Outfitters team was at all familiar with the route. A Great Western crew had marked the route with about 200 red stakes, but some of them were stolen by vandals. Also, an oilfield survey party had decorated part of the landscape with its own stakes. "Never mind," said Troy Phelan, one of the Great Western riders. "I'll be in the lead, so you guys just follow me."
Next morning, most of the leading citizens of Pagosa Springs (pop. 1,374) were at the rodeo grounds to see the start of the race. Charlie Vigil, chairman of the Jicarilla tribe, was asked to fire the gun. No one could find any blanks, so he used live ammunition. "It's O.K. to hit a rider," someone quipped, "but spare the horses."