For A Major Battery Recharge:
Try Ruidoso

Charles Carroll

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“Ruidoso” means “noisy” in Spanish and they say it was the babbling brook that the town was built on that was the basis for the name—and not the hordes of Texans who start moving in about now to get away from summer humidity of Dallas and Houston, and watch their ponies run.  But we New Mexicans have our doubts.

Ruidoso is one of the Meccas for horseplayers.  Saratoga, Belmont, Churchill Downs, Arlington, Del Mar, Hialeah…Ruidoso?  Yuh, as a matter of fact.

Summers in Ruidoso are no longer so tightly focused on horse racing as they once were.  The Inn Of The Mountain Gods, on the nearby and spectacular Mescalero Apache Reservation, pounded Ruidoso Downs’ cut of the gambling dollar for many years before the Downs was finally allowed to add slots just this past season.  Maybe more importantly, as far as marketing went, the casino did what casinos do:  it offered at least an okay place to sit and the normal amenities to make the average gemoke feel like he was welcome—while Ruidoso Downs has always been a horse owners’ club.  That’s how it started, and it has never quite gotten over it.  If you’re not a horse owner you are not quite charged with trespassing, but don’t even think about sitting down.  It has also never quite gotten over losing its claim to the “World’s Richest Horse Race,” which it held for many years, before Thoroughbred purses started breaking a million regularly.

Ruidoso Downs has had a couple of heydays; by far the most romantic was the first, when a bunch of rich cowboys and cowboy-wanna-bes first formulated the “All American Futurity” for Quarter Horse two-year-olds.  They put up the money for the purse, and you can almost picture the scenes and good, stout-hearted, cowboy times in the “Finishline Bar” up in the pines of the old town where Billy The Kid was a juvenile delinquent not so many decades earlier.  The purse for the All American Futurity was a million bucks—when a dollar would buy you a steak and a beer, so maybe multiply by twenty to get today’s value.  Whether the public came to their race was completely incidental.

The second heyday was the one I got to see.  This was when every backyard in Texas and Oklahoma sprouted an oil well and oil shortages put prices through the roof.  It became high sport in New Mexico to make fun of the Texas nuevos ricos (while at the same time, taking a pot-shot in our own backyards now and then, hoping for some Jed Clampert luck).  This is when mansions were built in the pines, and local society moved out of the bars into protected private gatherings in gated communities—and a half-dozen golf courses were built (in what I, almost begrudgingly, admit really is a quite beautiful high-mountain resort town).  Quarter Horses of fashionable racing bloodlines, and maybe something you’ve never heard of:  “Cutting Horses,” started selling for about the amount of the purse—as yearlings.  The cowboy mystique was still there, but its hold was beginning to slip.  One thing didn’t change: whether the public came to their race was completely incidental.

This second heyday ended in the ’80s, when Texas/Oklahoma oil values declined, and the summer residents started spending at least as much time with their $1,500 golf clubs as with their $150,000 allowance horses.

I haven’t been to Ruidoso Downs since the slots were added, and I’m not sure what I will find.  I have mixed emotions about them anyway.  I know they raise purses and they were a huge shot in the arm for nearby Sunland Park (a New Mexico track within spitting distance of El Paso, Texas, built there while pari-mutuel betting was outlawed in Texas).  But, I have this nagging nostalgia for live horse racing—being there, at the paddock, at the finish line—and although it covers all forms of horse racing, there is no stronger dose than the incredible experience of being close to Quarter Horse racing.

Until about ten years ago, getting a trainer’s license in New Mexico amounted to taking a written test, with no apprenticeship requirement, so I spent a lot of time rubbing and hot walking for one-horse trainers who trailered to the tracks.  Ruidoso Downs, for me will always be the premier place for getting close to horse racing—short of riding the pony horse.

Ruidoso is not easy to get to.  You can either fly into Albuquerque and drive southeast for about three hours, or catch a small plane between the two airports.  You might want to do this soon, since the town of Ruidoso is an even bigger fire hazard than Los Alamos (some houses and condos were actually built around Ponderosa pine trees which extend through their roofs—and six inches is considered a “fire break”).  Ruidoso had a good-sized forest fire at the same time as the Los Alamos disaster, but since it does not have a nuclear weapons lab (as far as we know), you probably didn’t hear about it.  The next time, without a lucky turn of wind, Ruidoso may disappear.  While it is still there, get there!  Get there because it’s kinda pretty.  Get there because it is the absolute mother lode of Cowboy Kitsch.  Get there because Quarter Horse handicapping can be extremely profitable (and they run a mixed card, so you get more familiar thoroughbred sprints as well—although it’s a bullring, with one of the longest runs to the turn you’ll ever see, and forget about the two-turn, 7.5f “route”).

But, most of all, get there for one special purpose:  to stand by the Ruidoso finish line during the Quarter Horse futurity and derby trials.  Not the big events themselves, when you are packed in bodies and noise of fellow groundlings who don’t have permanent name plates on tables in the turf club—but the earlier trials, when the fastest horses in the world are running as fast as they can, and you have some elbow room and only moderate noise from the crowd.  That is when you will feel the distant rumble come roaring down the track until the ground literally shakes under your feet.  The horses in a 350-yard sprint are not decelerating and they are not strung out along the far rail, 60 feet away—they are accelerating, as you will never see in a Thoroughbred race.  They are so close you’ll feel clods of dirt fly in your own face—not some distant jockey’s on a TV screen.  You will hear the outside horses huffing and puffing like freight trains and the jockeys' last-second yells and whacks of the whip, as they go by in the fastest gear that horses possess.

After you’ve done this you can go back to your comfortable seat at MGM, or NYOTB, and be good for another year or two.  This has nothing to do with handicapping—it has everything to do with recharging your horse racing battery.  The finish line experience at Ruidoso in a Grade-I Quarter Horse trial is not something you analyze, it is a physical experience that makes body and spirit come together with the pure instinct of why humans love horses and why this is the greatest sport on earth.


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