The Rillito Runners

Some famous foundation Quarter Horses got their start racing in Arizona.

From America's Horse

Some of the most famous American Quarter Horses crossed paths with the Rillito Park racetrack in their racing careers, including Shue Fly, Joe Reed II, Joe Hancock and Clabber.

The track sat on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, and opened in 1943. Rillito Park opened after Hacienda Moltaqua racetrack, which was the site of the first Quarter Horse speed trials and where the basics of American Quarter Horse racing regulations were first established.

For instance, a six-horse starting gate was used, and the regulations stressed that a horse must run straight down the track so as not to bump or in any way interfere with another horse. According to the 1943 supplement of Racing Quarter Horses, racing officials felt that this was so important that they had the racetrack dragged before every race so that a horse’s tracks would reveal to the stewards if he had swerved from his lane.

But if Quarter Horse racing was born at Hacienda Moltaqua, it was raised at Rillito Park. Rillito was considered to be a model Quarter Horse track, with a half-mile oval and a

3/8-mile straightaway.

But according to Van Smelker, who worked at Rillito in its early days, things were exciting, to say the least. He said the finish line of the straightaway was almost at the turn. Also, he said that the width of the track on the straightaway was 45 feet, but it narrowed to 30 feet on the turn, causing a lot of horses to jump the rail instead of taking the turn. Later on, track owners banked the turn, which helped considerably.

Rillito was a testing ground for many of the ideas that are taken for granted on today’s tracks. Track officials even had the first so-called “photo-electric timer” with a photo of the clock on the race strip.

Smelker explained that they placed a high-speed clock next to the track, right on the finish line. Then they mounted a movie camera up in the judges’ stand and aimed it at the finish line. He said, “I was up in the judges’ stand keeping time, so I would put the switch to the clock in one hand and the camera switch in the other. Then, I would start the clock when the horses started. When they got close to the finish line, I would start the camera and leave it running until all horses had crossed the line.”

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Smelker said officials would develop the film and look at it frame by frame. When they came to the frame where a horse’s nose touched the finish line, the clock, which was also in the picture, showed how much time had elapsed.

Horses at Rillito were truly some of the best horses in the country. Many are remembered today as runners, but some were also cow horses. Sometimes they would spend the day before a race working cattle, and then be hauled a few hundred miles that night to race the next day. Here, from the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, is more on a few of those famous Rillito runners, who were later inducted into the Hall of Fame:

Shue Fly

Shue Fly was one of the best racing horses in AQHA history, being one of only three Quarter Horses to ever win three world championships.

The sorrel mare was foaled in 1937, but her breeding remains a controversy. Her AQHA pedigree shows she was by Cowboy P-12 and out of Lady Luck by Booger Red. Many involved in Quarter Horse racing in the early years had an unshakable belief that Shue Fly was actually sired by a Thoroughbred named Erskine Dale and was out of the Quarter racing mare Nancy M by Peter McCue.

There was no doubt, though, that the mare had great speed on the racetrack. Shue Fly was known for her ability to come from behind and win the race. Many believed she was either toying with the competition or just ran as fast as she deemed necessary.

Her most memorable race took place on March 15, 1942, at the World Championship Quarter Mile Race at Rillito.

As Shue Fly broke, she was startled when owner Bob Burris whacked her on the hip with his hat. She over-jumped and fell to her knees. Jockey Hank Laswell slid up on her neck. By the time she regained her feet, she was seven lengths behind. On a quarter-mile track, seven lengths could seem like an eternity.

The crowd began to cheer Shue Fly on. She began running and became a sorrel streak of lightning. Many would have sworn she was too far back to make it. She not only caught up to them but also passed the lead horse, Nobody’s Friend, to win by a nose.

That afternoon, Hall of Fame member Elmer Hepler bought the sorrel mare for $3,000. He raced her for several more years and began breeding her in 1948. Only four of her foals survived to maturity, and three went on to race. Those three were Little Fly, La Mosquita and Royal Charge, son of Hall of Fame member Depth Charge (TB).

Shue Fly died in 1963 at 26. She was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 2005.

Joe Reed II

With a bad left knee and an injured right foot, Joe Reed II did not have a lot in his favor. At least not as a racehorse, but the sorrel stallion had courage, heart and speed.

Bred and born on John Wesley House’s ranch near Cameron, Texas, Joe Reed II was by Joe Reed and out of Nellene by Fleeting Time (TB). The sorrel was born in 1936 and impressed House with his looks.

As a foal, “Joe” injured his left knee on barbed wire and spent his early years hobbling around. This did not deter Bert Wood of Arizona. It took some doing, but Wood convinced House to sell the 5-year-old stallion.

Joe was 7 when Wood entered the gimpy stallion in a Class B race at Hacienda Moltacqua racetrack. Joe had never seen a starting gate or run down a straightaway, but Wood still believed in his horse.

“Some horses are born to run,” Wood said. “Joe Reed II was one of those. It didn’t matter how old he was or how crippled. He did what he’d been born to do.”

Joe won his first race by half a length and the second by two lengths. His third race was the championship speed trials at Moltacqua. Joe Reed II beat the great Clabber, but busted his knee wide open during the race, ending his career.

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The races were run in a three-week span, and the performances earned Joe the 1942-1943 World Champion Racing Stallion title.

It took a little while for Joe’s popularity to catch on as a stallion. His first year at stud, he was bred to only range mares, which were at best described as average. By 1947, however, he was commanding a $100 stud fee and Wood was turning away horsemen.

Joe Reed II sired cutting, roping and running horses. His

best known son was Leo, a 1989 AQHA Hall of Fame inductee. Other well-known get were Little Sister W, Joak, Joe Queen and Tonta Lad,

all AAA runners.

Joe Reed II died in 1966 at 30. He was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1994.

Joe Hancock

During the formative years of AQHA, Joe Hancock caused a lot of controversy. Some swore by the stallion’s abilities and others cussed his breeding. Few horsemen could say what a Quarter Horse was, but they knew “it dang sure wasn’t a Percheron.”

Joe Hancock was foaled in 1923 and was by John Wilkins, by Peter McCue, and out of a half-Percheron mare. Joe Hancock’s breeder, John Jackson Hancock, lived in the Canadian breaks of the Texas Panhandle. The rancher kept a band of 35 to 40 mares, and periodically bred five or six mares to a small Percheron stallion.

As a long yearling, the brown colt was moved to Nocona, Texas, where John’s son, Joe lived. Joe ran a few ranch horses and did not need a stallion. The vet was called and the stallion was hobbled so he could be castrated. The vet, Jim Kingensmith, looked at the colt and said, “Joe, I’ve cut a lot of horses, and I’m fixing to cut another one. But damn, this is a helluva horse.” Joe looked at the brown colt, thought a minute, and said, “Let’s take those hobbles off.”

After using Joe Hancock on cattle, the rancher thought the horse might have some speed. The stallion was sent to Bird Ogles in Oklahoma to race. Ogles took the stallion to a county fair, and the racing secretary asked for the colt’s name, Ogles said, “He doesn’t have one, but he belongs to a man named Hancock. Just call him Joe Hancock.”

After scores of races, the stallion was sold to Bird Ogles’ son, George, for $1,000, an exorbitant amount during the Depression. The new owner turned around and sold the stallion to Tom Burnett, owner of the Burnett/Triangle Ranch for $2,000.

Joe Hancock began his career as a senior stallion for the Burnett Ranches. Horses such as Red Man, Little Joe The Wrangler, Joe Tom, Roan Hancock and Brown Joe are remembered for their powerful builds and level-heads. Horsemen remember half brothers Popcorn and Peanut, sired by Roan Hancock, who won the hearts of ropers Shoat Webster and Everett Shaw.

Joe Hancock died in 1943 at 20, and was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1992.

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Mention the name “Iron Horse” to an old timer and one horse comes to mind – Clabber. The hard-knockin’ sorrel stayed sound amidst hard use over many years. He was not good looking, but he could run, and this trait placed Clabber among the greats.

Clabber was foaled in 1936 on Frank Smith’s ranch in South Texas. His sire was My Texas Dandy, and confusion surrounds his dam. Later issues of the AQHA studbooks list Blondie S, by Lonestar as Clabber’s dam. However, Bob Denhardt and Melville Haskell, founder of the American Quarter Racing Association, list Golden Girl by Possum, as the correct dam.

Either way, there was speed on Clabber’s maternal side. In 1938, A. A. “Ab” Nichols of Gilbert, Arizona, bought the sorrel colt. The horse was not much of a looker. He was roman-nosed and his feet flared out like clapboard on the side of a house. Nichols entered the horse in his first race as “Clab Foot.”

Before long, the colt’s fans were calling the chestnut “Clabber,” and the name stuck. However, there was more to Clabber’s life than racing. Nichols would ride the stallion all day ranching, roping, heading and cutting cattle. Clabber was then hauled 100 or more miles to match-race three or four times a weekend.

The sorrel did not receive the special training or the bandages, blankets, liniment or special treatment other racehorses received.

Nichols once said, “He (Clabber) could outrun those pampered horses that smelled like a drug store any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

And Clabber did, earning the nickname “Iron Horse.” The American Quarter Racing Association named Clabber the world champion Quarter Running Horse and world champion racing Quarter Horse stallion in 1940-41.

In 1944, Frank Vessels Sr. purchased the sorrel and moved him to California. Vessels would build Los Alamitos racetrack and become a well-known racehorse breeder.

Clabber proved his worth as a sire. He sired Tonto Gal, who rated AAA; Wagon N, Clabber II, Clabbertown G, Clabber’s Flossie V and Clabber Girl.

Clabber died of a head injury on Vessels’ ranch in 1947 at 11. He was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1997.