As the race wears on, Old Man Kern pushes for the lead

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Ethereal T. Walker ranch once stood on the east side of the intersection of highways 160 and 84. Walker was an early Pagosa Country settler who raised cattle and grain crops on this ranch. A soldier fighting for the south in the war between the states, Walker was heavily involved in local politics. The house shown in this picture was built by the same carpenter who built the house still standing on Mill Creek Ranch and others. This house has been moved to Holiday Acres, where it is being restored in a somewhat modified condition.

We’re continuing to write about The Great Horse Race sponsored by the Denver Post and run in 1908 between Evanston, Wyo., and Denver.

The race pitted the endurance of western broncs with their cowboy riders against Thoroughbreds and other breeds born and trained for horse track racing.

We’re recalling the story because one of the entrants was Old Man Kern, described as an old-time westerner. Billy Kern had spent much of his youth as a pioneer sheriff in Pagosa Country. For this race, Kern was riding a 35-year-old bronco named Dex who pulled a milk delivery wagon in Pueblo for his regular job.

Today we’re at the start of the fourth day of the race. A Wyoming cowboy named Charlie Workman, on a rip-snorting bronc named Teddy, owned the lead after covering 270 miles. Workman started this day from Fort Steele.

Kern had eased into second place at the end of the third day and spent the night in Rawlins, a short distance behind Charlie. That night he was joined by three other riders in Rawlins. The rest of the field, minus several dropouts, was scattered for a hundred miles behind the two leaders.

On the fourth day, the leaders moved into the middle third of the race with Medicine Bow on the horizon. Workman and Teddy clung to the lead throughout the day, but they were slowing. Kern on Dex was only two hours behind. Within another hour, Edwards on Sacred Clipper and Means on Jay Bird were there, too. McClelland limped in on Biley and dropped out.

From now on, Workman had company. On the fifth day, four men left Medicine Bow together. They were Workman, Kern, Edwards and Mean. All day as they rode through the rolling hills of southeastern Wyoming on their way to Laramie, they stayed bunched together.

Back along the trail, in the dark of a Wyoming night, a small strawberry roan responded to the urging of his lanky cowboy rider and closed on the leaders. A ruckus late in the night woke up the Laramie stable man. Out in the dusty street, Sam the strawberry roan was snorting and cavorting as his rider prepared to settle in for the night.

In the first light of early morning on the next day, five men sat on five creaking saddles as five horses left Laramie. The sixth day merged into the seventh with no overnight stopping. It seems as if the first seven days merely served as preparation for the final race to the finish line. Some issues had been sorted out. Only 15 of the original 25 racing partners remained in the race. And five of those 15 were front-runners.

Four of those front runners were broncos. Backers of the well-bred hot-blooders were suddenly quiet because only Jay Bird, a hot-blooded Thoroughbred, had a chance to win. Jay Bird was in fifth place.

Based on the standings so far, Workman on his long-legged bronco called Teddy had to be the favorite to win the $300 first place prize. Of course, at one time Workman had boasted of a lead of more than 30 miles. Losing the trail during a sandstorm had cost him plenty.

Who would have guessed that 50-year-old Old Man Kern on 35-year-old D (some accounts say Dex was 30 years old) would be pushing Workman for the lead?