Q-Racing Blog: Always a Colorado Cowboy

Jim Helzer has done a lot of things, but he's always been a cowboy.

Quarter Racing Journal

Jim Helzer has done a lot of things, but he's always been a cowboy.

Jim Helzer started his “professional” career as a Colorado cowboy. He lived alone in a mountain-ranch line camp. He grew up in northeastern Colorado, his family raising cattle and farming with horse-drawn teams.

Even though Helzer went on to become an entrepreneur — including building a roofing business that spanned nine states — he remains close to the horse. There’s a horseman in that cowboy.

Helzer has also served the horse. He is a past president of AQHA and a member of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

As an owner, Helzer reached the highest achievements.

“The first year we raced out here in Ruidoso was in 1980 and we won the (Rainbow) Silver Cup with Hempens Jet,” said Helzer.

“Refrigerator took us to the highest highs,” he continued. “He was an unbelievably good horse.”

The gelding won the 1990 All American Futurity, was a two-time world champion (1992-93) and retired as the sport’s leading money earner at $2,126,309 and stills holds down third position on the money-earning list as purses have grown. Example: If Refrigerator won this year’s All American Futurity, he would have taken $500,000 more than he did 26 years ago – just for that one race. And he has rightfully joined his owner in the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

The Marfa Lights. PHOTO: Gay Harris 

Helzer now has a horse that will be one of the live favorites in the $3-million All American Futurity (G1) on Labor Day, The Marfa Lights. One of the differences between Refrigerator and The Marfa Lights is that Helzer is not the owner, he’s the trainer.

Owners Beth and Michael Harper paid $145,000 for The Marfa Lights at last year’s Ruidoso Select Yearling Sale and asked their friend Helzer to train the colt. The Harpers live in San Antonio and have a ranch near the west Texas town of Marfa, Texas. The Marfa Lights is named after a phenomenon of “ghost lights” that occasionally appear east of Marfa.

“This is the first time that I’ve taken in an outside horse.” said Helzer. “Gosh, the Harpers stepped to the plate and bought a helluva horse. I am just elated to have him.”

The Marfa Lights showed potential at the earliest points in his training.

“When we were breaking him, I called the Harpers and told them ‘I think you have the real deal here with this guy,’” said Helzer. “This was back in December.

“We worked him the first time at Remington,” he said. “I told (jockey) Larry (Payne) that I think I have one that you need to come ride. We were going to work 220. Not only did we work 220, we worked a half-mile really, really fast. That morning they had the starting gate set up on the backside to get gate okays on 870 horses. Larry says, ‘My God, I thought I was going to have to go through one of those gates!’ But, he finally got him pulled up. We waited three weeks, I guess, and worked him again and then gave him a couple of short works out of the gate. He just takes to everything like a duck to water.”

Helzer was sitting next to The Marfa Lights stall and the strapping colt had his head out of the stall with his head was up, looking at everything around him.

“You can see how sharp and attentive he is; he doesn’t miss a beat. In the race the other day (his All American Futurity trial), they had that bandstand set up at the end of the grandstand and he did take notice of that.

“Larry just says, ‘Come on boy, let’s go.’ When we lope him, he still looks at the finish-line mirror, but he goes on by.”

The Marfa Lights is improving for Helzer and is, certainly, a colt who thrives at 440 yards. He was fourth in his trial to the $1-million Ruidoso Futurity (G1) at 350 yards and moved forward in his trial to the $1-million Rainbow Futurity (G1) over 400 yards. He won by one-half length, however his time was not fastest enough to qualify for the Rainbow Futurity.

In his All American Futurity trial, The Marfa Lights became one the favorites to win the All American Futurity. He started well from the seventh post position with plenty of racing room. The colt was on the lead halfway through the 440-yard test and then he showed he is a true quarter-mile sprinter. In the final 100 yards he easily expanded his lead to 2 3/4 lengths. His time of :21.510 was second-fastest time from 15 trials on the first day of two days of trials.

“I didn’t breeze this horse between the Rainbow trials and the All American trials,” said Helzer. “You get to second guessing yourself when it comes to racing. You say, ‘Boy should have I breezed him or not?’ Anyway, I didn’t breeze him, we just long-loped him because he’s not like a normal horse. You just can’t breeze him 220, he’s going to work a half mile whether you like it or not. So I elected not to breeze him and, as it turned out, everything was really good.”

The horse’s purchase price correctly indicates he is a good-looking, well-bred colt. Picked out of the Vessels Stallion Farm consignment, presented by Roger Daly, The Marfa Lights looks the part and has the breeding to be an important stallion prospect.

The Marfa Lights is sired by leading sire One Famous Eagle, sire of four All American Futurity qualifiers, and is out of Your First Moon, a daughter of First Down Dash.

Your First Moon was the 2001 champion 2-year-old and is the dam of two-time champion Moonist, who died from colic in June. He won 12 stakes, 24 of 34 races and $878,468. This is a classic Vessels’ family that traces to Do Good, his sixth dam, through Do Good Bam and Ought To Go. She is also the mother to The Marfa Lights’ full brother, four-time stakes winner Moonin The Eagle ($556,100).

“It’s been a terrific ride,” said Helzer. “I’ve been blessed with the ability to train these horses. I was a Colorado cowboy and had some really good horses.

“These horses teach you a lot, too. You learn from the horse. They are all different. They all want to be handled a little bit different. It’s just the little, bitty fine things that you pick up. If you don’t pick those up, then you are not a trainer.”

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