Drag racing on horse back. Pure speed. All horse. If you are looking for the fastest equine on Earth, look no further than the quarter horse. At their swiftest, racing quarter horses can exceed speeds of 55 miles per hour, meaning the only faster animals on the planet are the cheetah and the Pronghorn antelope. Of course, as the name implies, they are only at their best for a short distance.
Rest assured, a quarter horse is 100 % equine. The “quarter” refers to their preferred running distance, not their pedigree.
The first quarter horses were bred in the late 1600s and early 1700s in the American colonies in what is modern day Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Because those areas were heavily forested, there was no real space for horse racing. As a result, horses either raced down village streets, or they raced on a “quarter path” of about 440 yards that had been cut through the forest.
Champion caliber quarter horses can sprint 440 yards in 21 seconds, starting from a flat-footed standstill.
As result, colonists began breeding horses to run this distance. Many of the matings took place between mares they got from Chickasaw tribes and “blooded” stallions from England, which were the forerunners of the thoroughbred. The Chicksaw mares were of Spanish blood and traced back to Mexico and Spain.
This mix of Spanish and English blood more often than not resulted in a stocky, heavily-muscled horse that could sprint a quarter-mile faster than its competitors. The best of them were called the “Celebrated American Quarter Running Horses” and were the ancestors of today’s American Quarter Horse. As colonists moved west, the wild Mustang was added to the mix.
In 1940 a registry was formed to preserve the American Quarter Horse breed.
Through the passing decades, the American Quarter Horse has drawn the attention of horsemen the world over. Currently more than 30 different countries have full-fledged quarter horse associations that are affiliates of the American Quarter Horse Association.
“There are always exceptions in any breed, but quarter horses tend to have good, tractable dispositions, they are easily trainable, and they tend to be much more ‘people horses’ than other breeds,” the AQHA’s Richard Chamberlain explained. “Part of it is also the cultural aspect. One of the American icons known around the world is the cowboy. If you are interested in that kind of stuff, you are probably going to get a quarter horse.”
■ If you want to know what it is like to ride reigning world champion Cold Cash 123, visit youtube.com, type in ColdCashWork7 22 12, and go along for the ride as the champion works 220 yards in 10:87.
■ The American Quarter Horse Association is the largest equine breed registry in the world. It has registered more than 5 million horses since its inception in 1940.
■ There are 17 recognized colors of American Quarter Horses, including the most prominent color of sorrel (brownish red). The others are bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, dun, red dun, gray, grullo, palomino, red roan, blue roan, bay roan, perlino and cremello.
■ Unlike thoroughbred breed registries which require foals to be the result of a “live cover,” the AQHA does allow artificial insemination and embryo transfers.
■ The breed has a smaller market share and smaller average purses that the thoroughbred market, meaning the average race-bred quarter horse yearling sells for less than $20,000 at auction. In 2011, a total of 16,724 horses started in an official quarter horse race in North America.
■ The current world record for the classic distance of 440 yards is: 20.274, set by First Moonflash in 2009. The record was set during the Grade 1 New Mexico Championship Challenge at Sunland Park.
Built for Speed
Racing quarter horses are bred for one thing: speed. Champion caliber quarter horses can sprint 440 yards in 21 seconds, starting from a flat-footed standstill.
“It is drag racing with horses,” said Chamberlain. “It is an all out sprint, and it is a pure test of speed. There is no laying back and waiting to make your move or any of that. They are the fastest horses on Earth, period. It is a different type of horse for a different type of racing.”
One of the easiest ways to understand the differences between a quarter horse and a thoroughbred is to think of Olympic runners. Picture a gold medal-winning sprinter like Usain Bolt, and now imagine a champion distance runner like Mo Farah. Both men are amazing athletes, but physically, they are completely different. Such is the difference between a typical quarter horse and a typical thoroughbred.
“The first thing most people notice is the fact quarter horses are much more heavily muscled, and they have a much heavier hip,” said Chamberlain. “That is where the engine is. Those first few strides are powered from the back. In human terms, the thoroughbred is like the guy that is a distance runner: long, lanky, skinny.”
The classic distance for champion quarter horses is 440 yards, but they can runner shorter and longer.
About the farthest you will see a racing quarter horse be asked to go is 1000 yards, but that is almost a novelty event. A “long distance” race for a quarter horse is usually 870 yards, which is about 10 yards short of a half-mile.
“They can be highly competitive at multiple levels,” said Ty Wyant, media relations director at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. “But purses are much lower at 870 yards than the shorter distances, so you don’t see the high quality horses stretching out. Nobody breeds 870 yard horses, that just doesn’t happen. You would be broke in a hurry.”
Every sport has the end-all-be-all event to win, and for quarter horse enthusiasts, that race is the All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs. The 440 yard contest is for 2-year-olds, and from its inception in 1959 it has been the banner quarter horse race. When Galobar won the first edition, it was worth $129,000, making it the richest purse ever offered in quarter horse racing.
Then in 1978 the All American Futurity became the world’s first $1-million race for any breed. The purse kept growing and in 1982, it became the first $2-million quarter horse race. In 2012, it carried a purse of $2.4 million, which was the richest race for a 2-year-old of any breed in North America. In 2013, the race is expected to be worth $2.6 million.
“The All American Futurity is the cornerstone showcase of quarter horse racing,” said Wyant. “It is the race everybody wants to win. We also have the premiere sale going on at the same time, so it is sort of like Keeneland and Saratoga combined. We have all the high priced yearlings and everybody is here.”
Ruidoso is also home to the All American Derby, a race for 3-year-olds, which is expected to have a purse of $2.5 million in 2013.
For those with older racing quarter horses, the race to win is the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos Race Course in California. The Grade 1 race carries a purse of $750,000, making it the richest event for older horses in the nation. In total 27 of the 40 winners have been crowned World Champions since the race’s inception in 1972.
Some of the legends
Perhaps one of the best known American Quarter Horses of all-time is the great Refrigerator, who won the All American Futurity and is the only three-time winner of the Champion of Champions.
During a Hall of Fame career that spanned from 1990 until 1995, Refrigerator won 22 of 36 starts for his owner, former AQHA president Jim Helzer, and retired as the sport’s all-time leading money earner. In all, he was a champion 10 times and was named the sport’s world champion twice.
The gelding, who was named after William Perry, the defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, retired in 1996. Tragically, Refrigerator died at the age of 11 after he suffered a traumatic head injury while in rope horse training. He was euthanized in February 1999 and buried during a private ceremony at the Helzer’s JEH Stallion Station near Pilot Point, TX.
Another American Quarter Horse legend is Easy Jet. From 1969-1970, Easy Jet won 27 of 38 lifetime starts and went on to be one of the sport’s most prolific sires. The world champion’s influence is so strong that even though he died in 1992, Easy Jet is still the sport’s all-time leading sire by wins and is No. 6 by money earned.
When it comes to quarter horse stallions, though, a horse named First Down Dash is alone at the top. A world champion runner in his own right, First Down Dash is the sport’s all-time leading sire by money earned.
Nuts and bolts
One of the reasons the American Quarter Horse has gained such popularity is because of the versatility of the breed.
“In general, it is also the greatest cow horse on earth,” said Chamberlain. “There are a few lines in the quarter horse breed that produce extreme speed, and these are the ones we race. But there are other lines in the breed that produce extreme agility and athletic ability. These are the cow horses, the cutting horses, the ranch-type horses. They don’t have the ability to run a quarter mile in :21 flat but they can jump out of a roping box and catch calf or run a barrel pattern. They have quickness as opposed to ultimate speed.”
While many breeds are extremely strict about preserving bloodlines, the AQHA does allow quarter horses to be bred to thoroughbreds.
If a registered quarter horse mare is bred to a registered thoroughbred stallion, or vice versa, the resulting foal still gets quarter horse papers. As a result, the racing quarter horse has a lot of thoroughbred blood in it, but there are some restrictions.
These hybrid quarter horses are “appendix” registered. If an appendix quarter horse goes on to perform well enough to get a register of merit, then that horse is advanced from the appendix registry to the permanent registry.
Perhaps this continued infusion of thoroughbred blood is part of the reason many of America’s best known thoroughbred trainers cut their teeth in the quarter horse world. For example, while Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert are best known for their Kentucky Derby victories, they got their start with quarter horses.
In fact, many racetracks in the United States will host cards that feature both thoroughbred and quarter horse races. In some cases, the breeds are allowed to race against each other.
“I can’t give you a number, but I can tell you there are a whole bunch thoroughbred trainers that started with quarter horses,” said Chamberlain. “When you start with quarter horses, it is a much smaller world and there is less money in it. Very often, the trainer is doing it all himself. He is the guy getting under the horse and doing up the legs; he is washing the horse; he is literally doing everything except riding races. It leads to a much more fully developed all around level of horsemanship. You learn a lot.”