1908: the year of the Great Horse Race

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Shown in this circa 1884 drawing are Fort Lewis on the left, Pagosa Springs on the right and the Pagosa Hot Springs in front center.

Since man first started riding horses, there has always been the question, “Which horse is fastest?”

The year of 1908 went down in history as the year of the Great Horse Race in Colorado and Wyoming. The Denver Post decided to sponsor a 600-mile race between Evanston, Wyo., and Denver, Colo. The race attracted a lot of attention and was the subject of an Oscar-nominated film titled, “Bite the Bullet.” Wouldn’t you know it also attracted the attention of former Archuleta County Sheriff Billy Kern?

Kern was not wearing a star any more. At the time, he was delivering milk in Pueblo, Colo., using a wagon pulled by a 35-year-old horse. We’re not told if this was the same horse Kern used to chase outlaws while in Pagosa Country. Besides Kern, there were 24 official entrants.

It was six in the morning of May 27, 1908, when the Denver Post sponsoring train dubbed “The Pony Express” pulled into Evanston, the starting point of the race. Late season snow flurries covered the ground. Evanston seemed determined to set a new Wyoming record for rip-roaring western hospitality. Out of the freight cars came the horses, some loaded at Denver and others at various stops along the way.

Dick Turpin, a coal-black, half-breed thoroughbred came out bucking and with his rider Jack Smith, the only entrant from New Mexico, put on a miniature rodeo for the enthusiastic crowd.

Adding to the excitement were two white broncs. Bob Brennan’s Lexus and Otto Rush’s Scotty, and another thoroughbred called Archie. Almost unnoticed by the gaggle of reporters was a chunky, strawberry roan picked up in Severance, Colo., and led by a big, unassuming cowboy.

When the dust settled, all of the horses, riders and their equipment were weighed for the record. Only the really serious — 25 riders and horse partners — were left by May 30, but they were an interesting collection. There were 13 so-called “cold bloods,” referring to broncos. They averaged 897 pounds and their riders plus equipment averaged 184 pounds. Completing the roster were 12 “hot bloods,” divided into six full bloods and six half-bloods averaging 955 pounds, with their riders and equipment averaging 188 pounds.

Favorites among the hot bloods were a Hambeltonian, Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. The cold bloods talked of Charlie Workman’s big brute, Teddy, of Arthur Holman’s well-muscled roan, of a blaze-face called Cannonball, of W.H. (Old Man) Kern’s rawboned bay called Dex and of James (Wild Jim) Edward’s eye-catching little sorrel, Clipper.

It was almost first light, 6 a.m. on May 30. The townspeople were still sleeping after the night before’s well-liquored festivities. The riders who had the good sense to rest up for the grueling race were on their feet, searching for a morning cup of black coffee.

Dan Vance, on Shorty V, was the first to approach the starting line on Main Street. He was soon joined by Dave Wykert on Sam, Nebraskan Dave Lee on Cannonball, Bob Brennan on white glistening Lexus, then the others with New Mexico’s Smith riding the high-stepping Turpin lining up last. Soon after lining up across the Main Street of Evanston, the riders heard “Go!” and the race was on, 25 horses and riders, each determined to be the first to cross the Denver finish line.

Continued next week.