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The village of Ruidoso Downs sits in the wide-open, empty lands of New Mexico where it is two folds of the road map between Tastee Freezes—out of the way, to be sure. But one weekend a year, modest small Ruidoso is transformed by an immodestly large sporting event, the $750,000 All American Futurity for quarter horses. It is nothing less than the world's richest event for horses of any kind.
The track hardly looks the part, being an enlarged five-eighths-of-a-mile oval surrounded by a rickety grandstand and barns, sheds and corrals that might have been picked up reasonably at a sheriff's auction of a busted ranch.
On the face of it, quarter-horse racing can be judged bush league, but only in the literal sense. The sport grew up and flourished in places and conditions quite beyond the pale of the official horse Establishment. Half a century ago cow-punchers and ranchers would amuse themselves on hot Sundays by match racing their stock. Later these men did quite well for themselves, what with beef cattle, oil and cotton futures. In their years of affluence they and their sons and grandsons, being sentimental, nostalgic and fiercely loyal men of the Southwest, did not forget their old companion, the working quarter horse. In fact, as time went on there was a tendency to immortalize the animal along with such things as the six-gun, chicken-fried steak and the oil depletion allowance as phenomena indispensable to the winning and keeping of the West. Across Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and into California, quarter horses began to be bred, raised, bought and sold exclusively as racing stock. Given their owners' temperaments and means, it was only half a furlong from there to Ruidoso Downs and its extravagant purse.
Actually, the Ruidoso race is a three-day affair. Early in 1970 some 877 yearlings were nominated for the 1971 Futurity. By late summer this year 138 of these horses, now 2-year-olds, were on the grounds at Ruidoso Downs, fit and ready to run in the big one. Since even in such a rough and ready activity as quarter-horse racing a 138-horse field is a bit too much, 14 trials were run off on Aug. 27. On the basis of time, 30 colts were selected for the Futurity, which is run in three sections. The 10 slowest (there was only about four-tenths of a second between the first and 30th horse) raced for a $64,000 consolation pot; the next 10 appeared the next day, running slapdash after $111,000; and the 10 quickest lined up last week for the $500,000 grand finale. Add all the money up, plus $80,000 or so in breeder and nominator awards, and you have a $750,000 horse race.
With such heady amounts at stake, quarter-horse yearlings are being auctioned these days for as much as $100,000. The genuine cowpuncher and his pony long ago were priced out of the market. Just how much money can be lost, as well as won, in the modern quarter-horse game was very much on people's minds over Futurity weekend. A stallion named Jet Deck, considered by many to be the fastest animal ever foaled and certainly the most prominent sire in the industry, was found poisoned to death in his paddock in Perry, Okla. a couple of days before. His estimated value: $2 million. His colts and fillies have won more than $2 million in the last four seasons, and the horse's stud fees annually totaled half a million. The motive for the crime was much discussed at Ruidoso. All that is known, however, is that sometime between two a.m., when a watchman last made his rounds at the Warren Ranch, and seven a.m. on Aug. 26 the horse was injected with a lethal dose of barbiturates. The Oklahoma Crime Bureau, which is carrying on the investigation, will say only that the killing is far from being solved.
A representative quarter-horse owner, though one not exactly typical of the Ruidoso Downs set, is Clarence Scharbauer Jr., who flew up for the Futurity from his Midland, Texas home. He is an executive director of the Quarter Horse Association and one of the sport's ranking owners and breeders. Scharbauer, by the rather high standards of Texas, is regarded as considerably better than well-to-do. "My grandfather and father were what might be called pioneers in the Midland area," he says. "They left me as comfortable as any young man could be. They started off ranching, but we got into a few other things—oil, banking and whatnot." All of which Scharbauer will explain but by no stretch of the imagination flaunt, being quite different from the super American, Texas variety, that he sometimes has been portrayed as. ("Those fellows never even came to talk to me before they wrote that stuff.") He is a soft-spoken, gentle and congenial man—the speech, gentleness and congeniality being of the country variety—but also worldly and witty, a fact that his manner tends to obscure. There was considerable talk around the Downs about an essay in a national publication describing the Futurity, the local scene and the quarter-horse clan. "I thought the way that fellow put those words together was just beautiful," says Scharbauer beaming in appreciation. "All about our weather-beaten faces and how we are so shy and rustic around strangers." Any man who can extemporize a parody of a parody deserves better than to be stereotyped.
Scharbauer owned only one horse that made it into the Futurity's final 30—Mr. Midland, who ran third and collected $13,000 in the second dash. However, two of the favorites in the final race were sired by Scharbauer stallions, which gave him a rooting interest.
This racing is a business now, and we work at it," Scharbauer says. "I got in late, not till 1959, and I guess I've done some dumb things. But maybe I'm getting smarter, at least I hope so. One of these years I'm going to win this race. I guess you could say it's one of the big ambitions in my life. I would consider it a great honor."
Money—and perhaps honor—aside, the All American Futurity itself is somewhat anticlimactic. This is true not only of this stake but of quarter-horse races in general. It is a fact that horsemen, struggling to get more races for their breed, face up to in private conversation while publicly touting "the drama and excitement of this explosive sport." Explosive it is, like a 100-yard dash, but too explosive to be much of a spectacle. Certainly not enough of a spectacle to watch with much enthusiasm half a dozen times in an afternoon. It is simply a full-out, straight-ahead 400-yard, 20-second-or-better dash—for the wire. Strategy, moves and stretch runs are negligible or nonexistent.
Bob Adair, the sport's leading jockey, who rode in the Futurity (he finished second on the favorite, Come Six), was discussing his profession prior to the race and explaining in the process a good deal about the structural deficiencies of quarter-horse racing as a spectator sport: "A couple of days ago I lost by a nose in a 350-yarder. The trainer said to me afterward, 'What were you doing just sitting there? How come you didn't work on him some?' I said, 'Why, I couldn't get my stick uncocked but about once in 18 seconds!' "