The Horseman and His Apocalypse
A very good quarter horse trainer has a very bad day.
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Served by a gravel road on the outskirts of Goliad, La Bahia Downs lacks the refinements of its counterpart in Ruidoso, New Mexico, the home of the world’s richest horse race. The parking lot in Goliad is a traffic-worn pasture; the wooden grandstand bleachers are sheltered by a corrugated tin roof. And that Saturday last spring the weather added to the look of desolation. Headlong winds from a late norther assaulted the infield Johnson grass and shoved the chill factor down to fifteen degrees. In makeshift concession stands, shivering housewives handed out coffee and barbecue to lines of customers dressed like duck hunters. Waiting for the first race, the fans huddled for warmth, swigged whiskey from flasks, and improvised wagers. “Two to one on any even-numbered horse,” one offered loudly. “Take advantage of me. I’m drunk.”
Moving around the horse stalls at La Bahia Downs was H. C. Werner, Jr., known among friends and in his profession by his boyhood nickname, Bubba. Werner wore the boots and jeans of a cowhand, but his quilted jacket, haircut, and slightly weatherbeaten good looks were those of a prosperous 40-year-old rancher. Though Werner has a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Texas, horses have always been his life. As a boy he hung around his father’s racetrack in Kerrville; in college he was a rodeo performer; after graduation he peddled veterinary pharmaceuticals. He began as a part-time trainer, hauling his clients’ horses to run weekends on the small-town tracks of Texas, but in 1969 he quit his job to train full-time. For a young man with a wife and two children, it was a precarious move. Quarter horse trainers charged client owners $12 to $14 a day to work with their horses, but that barely covered the overhead of feed and stabling, and ordinarily a trainer’s share of track winnings was only 10 per cent. Ironically, Werner’s lucky break came when an owner fired him.
After a profitable two-year-old season in 1971, the owner of a gelding named Come Six concluded that Werner’s expensive services were no longer needed. Come Six then started disastrously as a three-year-old. Pleading hurt feelings, Werner finally consented to train the gelding again on a 50-50 basis. Come Six was World Championship Gelding three years in a row and finished a four-year career with $345,322 in winnings. Werner’s share enabled him to buy a 76-acre training ranch between New Braunfels and Seguin, but more important, he was established as a trainer who turned also-rans into winners. Werner’s growing reputation meant that more and better horses came his way. In 1973 his horses won $466,000, ranking him second among quarter horse trainers nationwide. In 1974 he led all trainers in races won at Ruidoso Downs, the most prestigious quarter horse track in the country.
Werner is dispassionate when he works with a horse, thoroughly at ease, yet he is almost never seen on horseback, getting around instead in a Lincoln, a six-passenger Cheyenne pickup, an electric golf cart, a private airplane. He is a moody man, hard to read. At times his features harden into a stony lack of expression one young woman calls his “macho pout.” Other times a bemused smile plays at the corners of his mouth. Then suddenly he grins largely, loops his wrists across his steering wheel, and drawls one of his jokes, maybe the one about the horseshoer he knew who had a girl friend named Snort. Bubba Werner can be the most charming horseman afoot when he wants to be, but that Saturday morning in Goliad he was in a foul mood, and not only because he was cold.
Earlier in the week Werner had sent a colt to a veterinarian for x-rays of his hind legs, along with a mare that needed to be “pinfired,” a painful, temporarily disabling treatment for the horse’s equivalent of shinsplints. Instead the vet x-rayed the mare and pinfired the colt, so both horses were hobbled for more than a month. Then at 3 a.m. on the morning before Werner departed for Goliad, his fastest three-year-old died from colitis. When the owner of the mistakenly pinfired colt called about the x-ray results, Werner grunted, “These damn horses” and hung up.
A South Texas sheriff owned one of the two-year-olds in Werner’s stalls, and after showing the horse to friends the sheriff asked Werner, “Is he doing any good?”
“Hell no,” Werner growled.
The sheriff’s face fell. “Well he looks good.”
“Yeah, he eats fine, but he can’t outrun me.”
Wounded and embarrassed, the sheriff retreated, but commanded as he left, “Run him anyway. Maybe he’ll get lucky and slip up on somebody.”
Bubba Werner is part of an American sport conceived east of the Appalachians during the late seventeenth century and reborn west of the Mississippi 300 years later. American colonists contented themselves with straightaway quarter-mile horse racing because it was expedient; a race street was easily roped off in early Philadelphia, but construction of more elaborate racetracks was assigned low priority in a wilderness society. Virginia planters developed a horse that excelled in those all-out sprints by breeding long-legged English runners to stockier, more muscular horses of Spanish descent. Imported from England in 1752, a stallion of Spanish bloodline named Janus was the standard of that crossbred excellence, recognized today as the forebear of the quarter horse breed. Most of the Spanish stock, however, arrived overland, traded eastward from New Spain by the semi-civilized Chickasaws and Choctaws. By the late eighteenth century oval tracks were a luxury Easterners could afford. Quarter-mile racing passed out of fashion, and thoroughbreds captured the imagination of sporting horsemen.
Quarter horses worked their way west pulling buggies and herding cattle. Their speed, stamina, agility, and calm temperament suited them perfectly for ranch and farm work. But in the twentieth century American agriculture became mechanized. The number of horses employed in American agriculture peaked in 1910 at 23,016,000. In the 1950 census the number had dwindled to 5,310,000. The American horse was clearly in danger—a big hungry beast that had outlived its usefulness.
Threatened with the breed’s extinction, Westerners for the first time expressed interest in a quarter horse registry. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was chartered during the Fort Worth Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show of 1940, with Texans elected to 17 of the 30 seats on the board of directors. By prior agreement of those directors, the grand champion stallion of the 1941 exposition, a King Ranch horse named Wimpy, was the first entry in the new breed’s studbook. Many horsemen had favorite cow ponies of the bull-necked, fast-starting variety that became the first registered quarter horses, but the doors were left open to build and vary the breed by requiring only one parent of AQHA registry. There were color restrictions—no white above the hocks, no spots on the body—but even without a registered parent a properly muscled horse could earn registry with a strong showing in AQHA-approved competition. Headquartered after 1946 in Amarillo, the AQHA had registered more than a million quarter horses by the mid-Seventies—the largest equine registry in the world.
As the American horse became less a source of animal labor and more a symbol of pleasure and prestige, quarter horses were bred and trained exclusively for showing, rodeo performance, cutting horse competition, and—with greater hoopla and glamour—for racing. There was money in horse racing, and more money in breeding if one owned a racehorse that won. As this emphasis on racing increased, the good- natured little plugger with the bulging chest and powerful hindquarters was gradually bred into a horse with longer legs and neck and a more high-strung disposition, for some of these registered quarter horses were now as much as 31/32 thoroughbred. European horse racing may have been the sport of kings, but in the popular imagination of the American West, quarter horse racing was identified with the common man. The names of the horses—Rule the Roost, Timeto Thinkrich, Cadillacking—implied that these high-priced animals represented the hopes, dreams, and life savings of men dissatisfied with their rungs on the socio-economic ladder. Sometimes this was the case: one of Bubba Werner’s 1975 clients risked his feed store and hog farm to buy a pedigreed foal that ultimately flunked the test of Werner’s training. More often, though, the running quarter horse was the plaything of the nouveau riche entranced by the heroic myth of the Western horseman. For every one-shot gambler among Werner’s clients, there were a dozen oilmen, lawyers, politicians. If an owner’s racehorse won, he had invested wisely. If not, a losing sports venture was a convenient tax write-off. Either way, he could congratulate himself on having carried on the frontier tradition.
Modern, organized quarter horse racing surfaced in Tucson, Arizona, during the mid-Forties. Three decades later the AQHA recognizes 92 quarter horse tracks in 23 states and Canada. Eighty-two of those sanctioned tracks are located west of the Mississippi. The largest and richest tracks are in California and New Mexico, where racetrack betting is legal. In those states the sport’s primary distinction is the gaudy richness of its purses: the ultimate quarter horse race, the Labor Day All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, offers a total purse of some $1,030,000, with an estimated $330,000 for the winner and $500,000 in excess proceeds earmarked for an All American Derby the next year. In Texas the illegal status of racetrack betting results in one of the state’s more colorful hypocrisies. Californians consult racing forms and wager impersonally at pari-mutuel ticket booths, but Texas racing fans judge horseflesh by eye and place bets by handshake along the rail. In New Mexico the sport is supervised by a racing commission that rakes the state’s tax share off the top; in Texas the local sheriff or police chief is usually on hand to arbitrate the more volatile disputes. Unfortunately, local control means less control and more abuse. With no laboratory technicians to analyze the winning horse’s urine, half the entries might be “hopped” into a lathered, twitching, chemical frenzy. With no positive means of verifying a horse’s identity, a fast bay could be dyed black and slipped into a county-fair race as an unknown. In order to protect its registered animals and preserve the integrity of the sport, the AQHA sanctions only the most substantial quarter horse tracks in Texas and provides officials to monitor their meets. Located in Colleyville, Graham, Midland, Brady, Del Rio, Uvalde, Laredo, Columbus, and Goliad, those approved tracks operate on a financial shoestring. Yet that does not mean there is no money in Texas quarter horse racing. The sport relies heavily on sweepstake races, which require owners to meet a schedule of eligibility payments starting as early as twenty months before the race. Dozens or even hundreds of owners might make some of the payments before the field narrows to ten finalists and twenty consolation qualifiers, so even the Texas purses are nothing to sneeze at. La Bahia Downs offered a $151,600 purse for its Texas Futurity last year, the time trials of which had lured Bubba Werner to Goliad.
Werner trains older, experienced quarter horses and even a few thoroughbreds each year, but a successful season depends largely upon the two-year-old quarter horses, for they run for the largest purses. Werner’s grooms call the two-year olds “babies,” and infant horses they are—voraciously hungry and growing fast, frightened and unbroken when they arrive at his training ranch in January. By mid-May, when Werner ships his herd to New Mexico for the summer season at Ruidoso, he is supposed to transform those half-wild animals into eager, dependable race horses. One of the ways he spots the runners and weeds out the slow and injury-prone is to start the two-year-olds at spring meets in Columbus and Goliad, introducing them to the stress of paddock and starting gate and crowd. Often the stress wins out. Panicked young horses turn upside down in the gates, veer from rail to rail bouncing off each other like dominoes, refuse to run at all. In those early races Werner’s jockey watches a two-year-old’s ears: if they are laid back the colt is willing to run, if they are lowered sideways he is preparing to buck, if they perk up the crowd has just captured his attention, and he is likely to slow down for a closer look.
Compounding the indignity is the likelihood Werner’s horses will lose. Quarter horse racing in Texas is a springtime circuit from one approved track to the next. The Texas season is over by the time the New Mexico season begins, so two-year-olds trained for the Texas circuit have several weeks’ head start on Werner’s. A struggling Texas trainer likes nothing better than a win over a big-money hot-shot like Bubba Werner. Then there are the owners, those weekend horsemen, who show up playing the role and expecting miracles. For Werner there is no enjoyment in racing horses at La Bahia Downs. As far as he is concerned, any track in Texas is a “bush track,” a trip back to the minors. Seven times that Saturday in Goliad he stalked 300 yards into the cold, wet wind to head his horses into the starting gate. Not once did he hurry back to be photographed with his wife, horse, and clients in the winner’s circle. None of his horses qualified for the Texas Futurity finals. By the time darkness fell and the two-year-olds were loaded back into the trailers, Werner was in no mood to celebrate Easter.
The next day he was back in Goliad to run a couple of three-year-olds. Waiting for the call for trainers, he sat in his pickup with his wife and a friend from New Braunfels, searching a newspaper sports section for pro golf results and grumbling about the way races were run at Goliad. The judges equivocated on close calls, and people kept asking to see his identification badge. Gate-watchers at Ruidoso Downs knew what Bubba Werner looked like. He was through with this Mickey Mouse operation. Next spring he was going to start his horses at Sunland, a small pari-mutuel track across the New Mexico border from El Paso.
A white Cadillac jostled to a halt in front of the pickup, and the driver, a scowling man wearing a string tie and Stetson, waved a hand at Werner and got out of the car. An attorney and lobbyist in Austin, he had come to reclaim a two-year-old that hadn’t lived up to its pedigree. Werner’s friend started to scoot over and make room for the disgruntled owner, but Werner told him, “Keep your seat. He don’t want in here.”
A seven-mile strip of neon with a ragtag settlement of house trailers, tourist cabins, A-frames, and subdivisions creeping up the forested walls of a canyon, Ruidoso was not the New Mexico that enchanted D. H. Lawrence. To the west, on Mescalero Apache reservation land, is a 12,000- foot peak that sustains the town in winter as a ski resort, but the larger tourist attraction, a five-eighths oval track with a 5000-seat grandstand and a sign advertising The World’s Richest Horse Race, lies to the east, on the fringes of the pines. Beyond that is cedar country, then no trees at all, and, finally, the road back to Roswell.
Between the mountain and track was a virtual colony of West Texans. Drawling voices expressed surprise that six-packs of beer couldn’t be bought on Sunday; plaques on restaurant walls expressed support for athletics at Texas Tech. From late May till Labor Day the Texans come to Ruidoso to blow a hundred or two at the race track and frolic in the cool night air before heading home to face the prolonged summer. Some had considerably more than a hundred or two; so much the better for Ruidoso Downs.
The first weekend of racing at Ruidoso had not been a good one for Werner. None of his horses won, and the two-year-old colt that belonged to San Antonio politician Nelson Wolff died from a twisted intestine. Coming up was the real start of the Ruidoso season—a five-day Memorial Day holiday schedule climaxed by the Kansas Derby for three-year-old quarter horses. Most important, though, were the 26 races Thursday and Friday, time trials for the $375,000 Kansas Futurity for two- year-old quarter horses, the first jewel in Ruidoso’s triple crown. It was the first big test for Werner’s two-year-olds. He hoped they were ready for it.
Early in the week Werner exercised his sore-legged horses in a million- dollar swimming pool, napped for an hour at noon, ran off a couple of grooms who failed to feed their horses, went drinking at night with friends. By Wednesday he was edgy, for the owners had begun to arrive, wondering why their names were misspelled on the racing programs, congregating around Werner’s stalls to discuss breeding in an idiom specialized and impassive enough for Wall Street. On Thursday, while the owners chatted and the grooms bathed that day’s runners, Werner’s jockey, Wayne Morrison, rode his morning workouts, then drove home to rest a couple of hours. He had the short legs and muscular torso of a professional bronc rider, and he would have dwarfed Willie Shoemaker, but that was all right: quarter horses didn’t haul their jockeys as far as thoroughbreds did. Apprenticed in California by a top quarter horse jockey named Bobby Adair, Morrison went to work for Werner in 1974, ranked ninth that rookie season in the final Ruidoso Downs standing, and followed his boss back to Texas driving his own Lincoln Continental. Morrison is handsome, well liked, confident, and unintimidated by the prospect of riding 22 races in two days. He frankly expected to ride three winners and to qualify three or four more for the next round of the Kansas Futurity trials.
The crowd which partially filled the grandstand on Thursday was neatly segregated. At ground level, on wooden bleachers and in canvas folding chairs, were the railbirds: retired couples, ski-season hangers-on, off-duty roughnecks and cowhands. Above them was the patriotically decked-out All American Turf Club. A few chairs at those tables cost Werner $800 for the season, but he rarely went up there. The All American Club is frequented by trainers’ wives and friends, official guests of the track management, and booted, leisure-suited owners who swirl liquor and ice cubes around in their plastic glasses, laugh too loud, and gamely feign an air of sporting nonchalance. On the same level, partitioned by glass, is the posh and carpeted, ultra-exclusive Jockey Club Incorporated. That crowd would be at home in the sky boxes of the Astrodome. Their drinks are served by waitresses costumed like fox hunters.
As the first horses left the paddock, dust billowed down the canyon and the infield flags stood straight out. “Kinda windy here, ain’t it?” a man along the rail said. “Reminds me of Lubbock.” At Ruidoso trainers aren’t allowed to head their own horses into the starting gate; that is the duty of a crew of “headers” in white coveralls who pass the time between races shooting craps. As the first heat of horses entered the gate, Werner took a seat in the bleachers and prepared to watch his inexperienced entry, Reller’s Image, follow the lead of the overwhelming favorite, a brawny Oklahoma colt named Bugs Alive in 75. “Damn it all,” Werner said suddenly. “Mine’s rarin’ up.”
Hooves flailing, Reller’s Image twisted and struggled and went completely over backward while Morrison scrambled for safety. Down at the gate, a header got the filly to her feet again and the veterinarian instructed Morrison to climb back on, but no horse was going to run well after such an experience. As expected, Bugs Alive won like Secretariat and Reller’s Image ran a dispirited, badly beaten last.
Werner anticipated no more success in the second race of the day. He figured his entry, Chick Charger, was badly outclassed by Johnny Who, a long-legged East Texas colt that won the Texas Futurity two months earlier in Goliad. Werner was not surprised when Morrison’s quirt failed to inspire Chick Charger, but he lifted his eyebrows and shrugged when Johnny Who finished only seventh. Past the finish line the jockeys stood up in their stirrups and their horses slowed down rounding the curve, but like a truck with locked steering and no brakes, Johnny Who bore straight for the rail, front legs wobbling. The horse collided with the rail, recoiled, and rolled over kicking in the dirt. His jockey was thrown into the grass on the other side of the rail. A terrible ballet ensued in which first the horse, then the jockey, tried to get up but fell back. Finally, as separate ambulances headed for the scene of the accident, both horse and rider lay still.
A few minutes later the track announcer said dramatically that the jockey Teddy Wolf was up and moving under his own power, then solicited wagering for the next race. “That horse was dead before he hit the rail,” a young track veterinarian from Colorado Springs said as Johnny Who was hoisted into the bed of the horse ambulance. “Heart attack. All that trying to get up was reflexes.” The family of owners walked back in front of the grandstand arm in arm and sobbing, but Johnny Who’s trainer went to a concession stand and ordered a ham sandwich. The demise of Johnny Who was unfortunate, but not unusual. At Columbus earlier in the spring, a horse broke a leg and crashed through the rail, crashed back through the rail impaling itself, and died gushing blood like a broken water main. The year before one of Ruidoso’s top trainers lost twelve horses during the three-month season, one while he was standing in the winner’s circle.
Werner turned his third horse over to Morrison in the paddock, then took a seat in the bleachers beside a hawk-nosed trainer named Bubba Cascio, the two-time winner of the All American Futurity. In appearance and style, the two Bubbas might have been brothers. “Well, one of mine flipped and the other one didn’t run,” Werner said. “Wonder what this one’s gonna do.”
Locked in the steel gate, Sabra Jet loomed abruptly taller than the other horses, as if trying to climb out of the enclosure, then in a flurry of violent motion disappeared from sight as Morrison bailed out again. Maddeningly, over the next hour and ten minutes so did each of the next four horses wearing Werner’s orange blinders. Two of those he thought were winners, or at least qualifiers, but they were through before they cleared the gate. By midafternoon Werner was sick at his stomach and Morrison was battered and bruised. Their last hope for the day was Jody Oh, a San Antonio colt that ran a close second to Johnny Who at the Texas Futurity before coming to Werner’s stables. Jody Oh broke clean in the eleventh race and led for 200 yards, but faded badly and finished third in a fast heat, Werner’s only qualifier of the day.
For the trainer who won most often in 1974, the third day of the 1975 Ruidoso season had been a total disaster, the most nightmarish experience of his career. After the thirteenth race, Wayne Morrison dressed slowly and hobbled sorely toward his car. That night almost everybody else associated with the Werner operation sought the solace of alcohol.
On Friday the newsman for KRRR radio in Ruidoso concluded his noon broadcast with a cheery summary of Thursday’s races, casting The Bugs as a superhorse but making no mention of Werner’s problems or Johnny Who. “I’d just as soon those owners would stay away from my barn today,” Werner snarled at one of his grooms that morning, but by midday the grooms were concentrating on staying out of his way. Studying a patch of sodded ground in front of his stalls, Werner grumbled, “I didn’t think that grass was growing but it is. You could fertilize it with the damn cigarette butts. Look at that. That’s all they’re good for around here—drink coffee and throw their damn cigarettes around.”
In a stall attending one of Werner’s horses, a groom was asked if Bubba weren’t a little hard to work for.
“Oh hell,” the groom said. “Hard ain’t the word for it.”
The nightmare recurred. Werner’s first horse on Friday went over with Morrison in the gate. The second horse broke clean but ran slow, then the third Werner entry threw Morrison over the back of the gate. He landed on his hand and broke his thumb. No longer confident, his hand taped and hurting, half an hour later Morrison waited on Go Chanty for the fourth race to begin. The wait was too long for Go Chanty. Another horse fought the gate and had to be scratched by the track veterinarian, then without warning Morrison’s filly drove right at the iron barrier confining her. Morrison went down in the gate beneath his horse, and before Bubba Cascio pulled him out the front those iron-shod hooves stabbed him several times. Go Chanty returned to the paddock for a change of riders. Morrison held his side and headed for the x-ray room at the local hospital. “Never,” he said when asked if he had been seriously hurt before. “I’ve had ’em break a leg and throw me, but nothing like this.”
“You haven’t been around here as long as the rest of us,” an older, sympathetic jockey replied.
Werner fared better with a New Braunfels jockey named Richard Castro riding in relief. Only one more horse fought the gate, and in the eighth race Castro rode Werner’s first winner of the season. Werner managed a smile after that, but he knew by then that his misfortune had been too uniform and consistent for mere happenstance. He was definitely doing something wrong. As to what, theories abounded. One young trainer blamed Werner for bringing his horses along too fast, yet Werner’s grooms insisted this year he had slackened the pace of his training. As always, when something went wrong for a trainer, there was dark conjecture that the starting-gate panics were chemically induced. One man observed that after Wayne Morrison went to the hospital, Werner’s horses calmed down.
Werner doubted his jockey was at fault, but he was too tired and beaten to advance theories of his own. He was a field practitioner of animal psychology, and, while he could scrutinize his horses, come to know them as individual personalities, train them to respond to certain stimuli, he couldn’t interrogate them. “I don’t know,” he replied when a friend asked why his horses were turning over in the gate. “If I did I’d do something to make them quit.”
In the paddock with his last horse, Werner expected no pleasant surprises. A rangy gray colt, Sevencomeleven had never been in a starting gate until two weeks ago. Werner had very little to say to the gray colt’s owner, an Ohioan who wore a western suit, reptile-skin boots, a lot of Indian jewelry, and smoked a long cigar.
After Castro was in the saddle, the owner hurried up to the All American Club to place his bet, but Werner stood beside the fence next to the rail. A number of friends gathered around to heckle. Earlier in the week Werner had been ribbing a jockey’s agent about his divorce proceedings; now the agent was exacting revenge. Werner shrugged and said he had just come from the winner’s circle. “You started two hundred head,” the agent hooted. “What kinda percentage is that?”
Ranked with Werner and Cascio as one of the top three trainers at Ruidoso, J. B. Montgomery is a large man with craggy features and a booming laugh. “I hear they’re layin’ ten to one that Werner’s horse’ll flip,” Montgomery announced loudly. Werner’s smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and his rival went on, “Bubba, yours are flippin’ in the gate and mine are fallin’ down comin’ out of it. If we could get ’em together we’d be all right.”
Down the way the number-one horse went up in the gate and over. Werner apprehensively watched Sevencomeleven in the sixth stall, but somebody said the gray horse looked utterly calm. “Yeah,” Werner said, “and he’ll stand just that still when the gate opens. That’s the problem.”
The banter seemed to relieve the strain on Werner, and for the first time in two days he grinned broadly. “I think I’m gonna start backin’ mine into the gate, so when they flip they’ll be ready to go. Let ’er rip, tater chip.”
The clang of the starting gate interrupted Montgomery’s guffaw and the thoroughbred cow ponies barreled toward them. Tiptoeing to see, Werner stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and murmured, almost like a prayer “Come on, gray.”