A Steak Of Lightning

Posted by Speedhorse on 05/03/2021

Quarter Horse racing has changed a great deal over the years. Nowadays the race tracks have starting gates for the horses to start from, the horses are handicapped by adding weight to those horses whose records indicate that they are much faster than others in the same race. The race tracks are made to be smooth, level and soft to prevent injury to the horses hooves and legs. And probably the biggest change of all is the spectator facilities. There is comfortable seating available with a good view so that all can see the race from start to finish. Also, at many tracks there are lights installed so that racing can be conducted at night.

During the 1930s in Arizona, there were more than enough races held. The racing facilities were a far cry from what we have today, however. There is no comparison actually. People had to stand along the sides of the track, stand in the back of trucks and trailers, or hang from trees. Even the horses look different today. They should be faster since selective breeding has been in use by professional horsemen a considerable period of time. Perhaps if we could average out all of the horses that race, they are faster. I have a strong feeling, however, that a good many of the horses that ran during the 1930s could beat most of those running today. 

Perhaps the people who own and train the horses have changed the most. Those old time Arizona Quarter Horsemen knew their own horses, and they tried to know as much as possible about all the other horses around. In match racing they had to know the horse they were racing against. As one old timer told me, “You don’t have to own the fastest horse in the country to win at match racing. You just have to know the other horse well enough to know that yours can beat him.” 

Also, if one horse won every race that it was in, it became of little value since no one would race against it. To overcome this, some of the shrewd race horsemen would see to it that their horse lost occasionally. Of course, when they did this, they would have very little money riding on the outcome. 

One horse of the late 1930s that always comes to mind when I think of Quarter Horse racing is Clabber. Clabber was one of a kind. Clabber’s owner, A.A. (Ab) Nichols, was also one of a kind. Ab not only knew running horses, but he also knew a great deal about running horse people. It was indeed a pleasure to watch Clabber run, but as I look back on those days now, it was almost as good as listening to Ab Nichols getting a match race arranged. And I feel certain that Ab derived a certain amount of pleasure from those preliminary discussions, otherwise he would not have been so adept at it. 

I remember one such occasion when I was treated to Clabber’s running and Ab’s arranging. Several other teenage boys and I rode our horses out to where certain races were to be run. We arrived at the track, which consisted of running a road grader over a stretch of the desert and knocking down the sage brush and smoothing down most of the bumps, fairly early in the morning, but a good sized crowd had already arrived. 

We noticed Clabber tied to the back of a horse trailer with a small boy close at hand. We tied up our horses and went to locate Ab Nichols. When we saw that the preliminaries were under way, we would get close enough to hear it, but not close enough to interfere. We caught up with Ab just as he approached the Skinner trailer where Mrs. Skinner had a beautiful sorrel filly and a rather large heavy muscled bay mare tied. 

“Good morning to you, Mrs. Skinner,” Ab said as he feigned a tip of his floppy hat. Ab wasn’t dressed like most of the local horsemen. He had on an old floppy hat, flat brimmed, not the traditional Stetson Western. And, he wore bib overalls rather that the usual levis. As a matter of fact, he looked more like a cotton farmer than a horseman. Of course Ab had a purpose in dressing that way. Ab usually had a purpose in everything he did. 

“Good morning to you, Mr. Nichols,” Mrs. Skinner said as she pushed her own floppy hat back from her forehead. “And how is your favorite son today?”

“Just which one of my sons did you have in mind, Mrs. Skinner?” Ab asked as if he didn’t know. 

“I was thinking of your youngest,” Mrs. Skinner said with a twinkle in her eyes. 

“If you were referring to Clabber, I’d say he is fair health,” Ab said. “As a matter of fact, I was hoping to give him a little work out today.”

“You won’t get a race with us, Ab,” Mr. Skinner said as he walked up and shook hands with Ab. “You might get a race with those Gypsies over there,” he said with a wave of his hand in the direction of where several horses and buggies were standing near a small grove of mesquite trees. 

The term Gypsy as used by horse people in those days had nothing to do with the nationality of the people. It was a term used rather loosely to describe the kind of lifestyle of certain people. These people (Gypsies) traveled all over the southwest, usually in light weight wagons or buggies. They lived mostly by buying and selling horses to local people. And, they usually had at least one horse that they would race when the right occasion presented itself. Some of them were very astute horsemen and some of them just thought they were. 

Ab walked over to the Gypsy camp with us boys following close behind. He walked around and looked at each of their horses as if in great admiration of what he saw. A large unkempt fat man from the Gypsy camp walked out to meet him.

“Could I interest you in a good horse today, sir?” he asked Ab.

“No, I wasn’t thinking of buying any,” Ab said. “But I do admire good horseflesh when I see it. And you do have several good ones here.”

“Well, thank you, sir,” the fat man said. “Perhaps you had racing on your mind then.” 

“Now that you mention it, I do have a big gawky stud colt over there,” Ab said with a wave of his hand, “that I been wantin’ to try out. My son Buck wants to make a rope hoss out of him, but I can’t make up my mind.”

“Which one of these horses would you be interested in running him at?” asked the man.

“I’ve heard men say that they could tell running hoss just by looking,” said Ab. “But I don’t lay claim to that kind of know how. I’ll just have to leave that up to you. I do have to admit tho, that all of these horses here look too fast for that big, green colt of mine.”

By this time a tall, raw-boned man (by the name of Yates, as I recall) wearing a high-peaked hat walked up and was listening.

“Let’s take a look at your colt, old timer,” Yates said. “Maybe we can work something out.” Mr. Yates was apparently the leader of the Gypsy group.

We all walked over to where Clabber and the ever present small boy were. Clabber wasn’t a pretty horse according to today’s standards. He stood well over 15 hands and weighed well over 1200 pounds. He had extremely well muscled hips and hind legs. The muscle seemed to extend from his hips up along the loin and over the back. His chest was deep and broad and his forearms were well muscled all the way down to his knees. He was fairly heavy boned throughout, which gave one the impression that this was a horse that would never go lame. His most distinguishing characteristics were his gaskin muscles and his color. His gaskin muscles reminded me of a weight lifter’s biceps. His color was a highly unusual sorrel. Unusual in that it is very difficult to describe and there have been few horses that I am aware of that had the same color (Other than Clabber’s progeny of course). A very light shade of liver chestnut is about as close as I could come to describing his color. 

I never did understand why he was named Clabber. The name was so totally undescriptive. He was majestic, he was powerful, he was all heart, and he was so very, very fast. I would have named him something like Sovereign, Regent, Emperor, Imperator, Lord or King. His pedigree also illustrates a horse of exceptional breeding, particularly for the 1930s. His sire, My Texas Dandy, was by the Thoroughbred Porte Drapeau and out of Sadie M., whose sire was Little Dick. Clabber’s dam, Blondie S., was by Lone Star, whose sire was Billy Sunday.

Of course no two people see a horse in the same way and apparently Mr. Yates didn’t see the same things in Clabber that I did. Although he did see some things that his friends seemed to have missed.

“How far were you thinking about running?” Yates asked Ab.

“Well, this colt is kinda tall and leggy,” Ab said. “I figger, it will take at least 440 yards for him to get stretched out.”

“No! That’s too far. None of our horses can go that distance,” Yates said.

“Now, just a minute,” the fat man said. “Old Smokey just might be able to go that distance.”

Yates and the fat man walked off a short distance and appeared to be having an argument about the race. The fat man walked over to one of their buggies and called to someone inside. Pretty soon a small man emerged. His head and arms were about the size one would expect of a normal sized man, but his body and legs were so small that they didn’t appear to belong to his upper part. Not wanting to miss anything, I walked close enough to hear their conversation. 

“Spider,” the fat man said, “this old farmer wants to run his plow horse at Old Smokey and Yates is backing off. You take a look at him and see what you think.”

It wasn’t hard to remember the name “Spider,” since the name suited the little man so well. The name of Spider Gaines was new to me at that time, but we were to hear a great deal about him later on. He, as we learned later, had the reputation of being one of match racing’s winningest riders in that part of the country. Some people said that he would do just about anything, both ethical and unethical, to win a race.

Spider looked Clabber over with a quick look, stopping momentarily at his hips.

“It’s a piece of cake,” Spider said to Yates. “Smokey can beat the farmer’s buggy horse without taking a deep breath.”

Yates didn’t seem convinced. “Personally,” Yates said, “I’m not at all sure this man’s a farmer and that don’t look like a buggy horse to me.”

“Just leave it to me, Yates,” Spider said. “Have I ever lost a race on Smokey?”

“There’s always a first time for everything,” Yates said. “And I have a feeling that there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.”

“I’ll win it, Yates,” Spider said. “One way or the other.”

Yates turned and walked over to Ab then and said, “All right, old timer, we’ll run it your way. We’ll run Smokey at him for the 440.”

“Now just which one is Smokey?” Ab asked. “I don’t believe I’ve seen that one.” Spider Gaines walked around the far side of their camp and came back leading a slender grullo gelding, Smokey looked nothing like Clabber. He was very thin, and had a greyhound appearance. He was so narrow across his chest it looked like both front legs came out of the same socket. His pasterns flexed so much when he walked that he looked like he was coonfooted. Some of the people standing around started laughing. It was readily apparent that these people didn’t think much of Smokey. And, of course, that was exactly what the Gypsy group wanted them to think.

Ab wasn’t laughing, however. He looked Smokey over from head to tail. 

“Mr. Yates,” Ab said, “that’s what I call an honest to goodness race horse.”

“Well, sir,” Yates said seriously. “He’s better be if he’s going to beat that colt of yours.”

It appeared that both Ab and Yates knew running horses very well and also that they respected each other’s knowledge.

“Get your gear Clabber,” Ab said to the small boy. “This thing has gone too far to back out now.”

Spider Gaines got busy saddling Smokey and was ready to go in short order. It was apparent that he considered the small boy and Clabber no competition. Ab gave the boy a hand as he mounted Clabber.

“You left your bat,” Ab said.

“I won’t need it,” the small boy said. “Clabber don’t need any whipping.”

“You take it this trip,” Ab said as he handed the bat to his rider. “It just might come in handy somewhere along the line. And another thing,” Ab said. “Keep your eyes on that other rider. If he gets the break on you, you’re going to have trouble getting by.”

A large crowd had gathered by this time and were impatient for the race to start. People were standing all along the track. They were on top of cars and trucks, and if the mesquite trees hadn’t of been so small they would probably have been hanging from the limbs.

At long last the two horses moved down the track to the starting line. The race was to be a lap and tap start for 440 yards. The distance could have been slightly shorter or longer than 440 yards, however, since it wasn’t measured. Two men had “stepped it off.”

In a lap and tap start, there was no starting gates. Someone would take a stick and draw a line across the track to make a starting line. The horses would go on past the starting line, turn around and come back, usually at a slow gallop, and if there was no daylight showing between one horse’s nose and the other horse’s tail (a lap) the man starting the race would drop his hat and the horses would be off. If there was daylight showing between the horses (no lap), the starter would not drop his hat and the horses had to come back and try again. 

I was standing on the back end of a truck that had been backed up to the side of the track very close to the finish line and had about as good of a view of the race track as was possible. Ab, Yates and the fat man were standing just in front of me. I saw the starter drop his hat and both horses make the first jump. Smokey was off like a flash straight down the middle of the track. It looked like Clabber stumbled on the first jump. But I couldn’t be sure. He may have been bumped or the loose ground may have given away under him. He ran with such power it took a good firm footing for him to have his best race. The starter said later that Clabber was throwing dirt over a hundred yards behind him. 

By the time the horses reached the 100-yard point, Smokey had 2 lengths in the lead and it appeared he had the race well in hand. The fat man looked at Yates and smiled and said that he might as well go collect their money. I understand that Gypsies had made a number of side bets on the race. But just about that time, Clabber started stretching out. It looked like he had fired a rocket or something. It was the most awesome display of speed and power by a horse that I had ever seen. His stride, we stepped it off later, was over 25 feet and he was moving his legs like they were pistons. They were moving so fast that they were just a blur. He was hitting the ground so hard it looked like he would knock the wind out of himself.

Spider Gaines looked over his shoulder and saw Clabber coming. He started working old Smokey over with the bat, first with the right hand and then with the left. Clabber kept coming and just as he started by, Spider tried to move Smokey over in front of him. But Clabber had up such a head of steam by that time it didn’t work. As Clabber moved about a half of a length in the lead, the horses seemed to be tied together. I couldn’t tell for sure what was going on, but it looked like Spider had grabbed a hold of Clabber’s saddle blanket. About that the time he small boy raised his bat and hit something real hard. I think he hit Spider’s arm because Clabber immediately moved into the lead. It looked like Clabber was mad about something. The farther they ran the faster he went. By the time they crossed the finish line, Clabber was over 3 lengths in the lead and pulling away very quickly.

The fat man stood looking at the end of the race as if he couldn’t believe his own eyes. “Just like a streak of lightning,” he said. 

“I swear I’ve never seen anything like it in all my born days. That big horse is as fast as a streak of lightning,” he repeated. 

Yates pushed his hat back on his head and said, “Well there’s a first time for everything. I guess old Smokey had to meet his match sooner or later.”

People were shouting and waving and jumping. They knew that they had seen a good race and, of course, they were happy their champion Clabber had won. Most of those local people were big Clabber fans, and few if any would ever bet against him even in those very early days of his racing career.

“What happened to old Smokey, Spider?” the fat man asked. “Is he sick or something?”

“No,” Spider said as he dismounted. “Smokey ain’t sick. He just got beat by a better horse. I took at least 3 lengths away from that big colt, and he still beat us going away.”

Ab showed just a little bit of emotion then. He took off his old floppy hat and slapped his leg with it and said to Yates, “By golly, that gawky old colt can run some now, can’t he?”

“Yes, old timer,” Yates said. “I’d say he can run more than some.”

Clabber was very young and green in the ways of racing in those days, and while the local people all thought very highly of him, very few of them had any idea that he would develop into the race horse that he did later on. In the year 1940, Clabber was awarded the honors he so richly deserved: World Champion and Champion Stallion.  

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