All American: The Marfa Lights

A mysterious light may shine brightly on All American day.

Quarter Racing Journal

The Marfa Lights and trainer Jim Helzer. PHOTO: Richard Chamberlain

The Marfa Lights have shined in Texas for a long time. Now they shine in New Mexico.

Sent to post as the favorite in the fifth heat on the first day of trials for the All American Futurity (G1), The Marfa Lights scored by 2 1/ 2 lengths in :21.510. The time held as the third-fastest of the 10 qualifiers. The sorrel colt by One Famous Eagle is trained by former AQHA President Jim Helzer.

“I wish I was the owner of this colt, but I’m not,” Helzer said, with a laugh. “But anyway, it would be nice to win the All American as a trainer, too.”

As an owner, Helzer won the 1990 All American Futurity with Refrigerator, who was conditioned by Dwayne “Sleepy” Gilbreath. Both Helzer and Refrigerator are in the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

An earner of $4,960, The Marfa Lights is one of five All American qualifiers with only three career races to its name. With Larry Payne in the irons each time, the colt finished fourth in his first start, a May 27 trial to the Ruidoso Futurity (G1), but bounced back to a neck win in a nonqualifying time in the July 8 trials to the Rainbow Futurity (G1).

“We started breaking the colt in late November,” Helzer said. “I called the Harpers in December and said I believe you’ve got a runner here. We had only been riding him three weeks at that point, but he was so athletic and so smart.”

Helzer took The Marfa Light to Remington Park at the end of March.

“I called Larry (Payne) and said, hey, I think I’ve got a pretty darn nice horse here,” he said. “We need to breeze him and if you’re interested, come by and we’ll breeze this colt about 220. So I put another pretty nice horse in there with him, and that was the first breeze for both of them. We were just going to breeze them 220, but this big boy works half a mile. So from that work on, he’s just made steady improvement, week by week. We got him up to Ruidoso, and started him in the Ruidoso (Futurity) trials. He had his head turned to the side when they kicked the gate and he broke dead last, but ran up there to get fourth. There was no need for to push him because he wasn’t going to have the (qualifying) time, so Larry took care of the horse.

“Then we waited again until the Rainbow trials,” Helzer continues. “Tried him again, and he had another bad start. He was running dead last with 220 yards or less to go, and he just went flying and won that race. Didn’t go fast enough to qualify.

“Then we decided not to give him another race until the All American trials,” he said. “Matter of fact, I didn’t even breeze him between the Rainbow trials and the All American trials. You just can’t take him like a normal horse and breeze him 220. He’s gonna work half a mile, regardless. Even putting draw reins on him and with Larry anchoring him down, he’s gonna work half a mile, period. So I elected not to work him. It’s all worked out right so far. Labor Day will tell the story.”

Bred by Vessels Stallion Farm, The Marfa Lights is by champion and leading sire One Famous Eagle and is one of nine winners and the earners of more than $1.7 million from 13 starters out of the champion First Down Dash mare Your First Moon ($750,726), the reigning 2-year-old in 2001 who died of colic in June. The Marfa Lights is a full brother to Grade 1 winner Moonin The Eagle ($556,100). Your First Moon also is the dam of champion Moonist ($878,468) by Separatist, and stakes winners Jess My Moon by Mr Jess Perry and and Grammy-winning musician Lyle Lovett’s Stray Cat, the only American Quarter Horse sired by the legendary Thoroughbred Storm Cat.

The Marfa Lights races for Michael and Beth Harper, who live in San Antonio, Texas, and formerly bred and raced horses in the name of their Butterfly Cattle Co. The Harpers since 1988 have bred 68 winners and the earners of more than $2.3 million, including champions Quick Fun ($387,476, who for owners R.D. Hubbard and Ed Allred finished second in Refrigerator’s All American) and Darlin Sixarun ($437,075, who for Ernesto Guerra and Gene Voss was second in Noblesse Six’s All American); Grade 1 winner Specially Fast ($190,544); graded stakes winners Ronas Sound ($149,648) and High Siete ($106,765); and six other stakes winners.

The Harpers purchased their latest All American qualifier for $145,000 at the Ruidoso Select Yearling Sale, when he went through the ring as My First Selfie.

The sorrel colt is named for the famed Marfa Lights, which often appear on clear nights between Marfa and Paisano Pass in the Chinati Mountains of Presidio County in the Big Bend region of West Texas, where the Harpers have a ranch. First described in the historical record more than 130 years ago, the mysterious balls of light seem to move about, split apart, melt together, disappear and reappear. Explanations for the phenomena have ranged from electrostatic discharges to moonlight shining on veins of mica to the ghosts of conquistadors searching for gold. According to The Handbook of Texas, the most plausible explanation is that the lights are similar to a mirage caused by an atmospheric condition produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air that bend light. The Marfa Lights have become such a tourist attraction that the Texas highway department constructed a parking and viewing area on the highway nine miles west of Marfa.

You can also see The Marfa Lights on Labor Day at Ruidoso.

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