All American: A Star at Sunset

The Zia Star prepares for the pasture after a long career.

Quarter Racing Journal

Mitch Mitchell feeds The Zia Star his favorite treat - a peppermint. PHOTO: Richard Chamberlain

The All American Futurity (G1) is the ultimate coming-out party for the best American Quarter Horses in racing.

This year’s running will also be a swan song for another of the best. The Zia Star will help guide the rising stars to the gate, and then go to pasture for a well-earned and richly deserved retirement.

“I’ve been outriding on him 14 years,” said Mike “Mitch” Mitchell, the outrider at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. “He’s quite the horse.”

The Zia Star was bred by Ruidoso Downs owner R.D. Hubbard and Hubbard’s longtime friend, trainer and ranch manager Don Farris. The dark bay gelding by Rime was foaled in 1996 out of Star Of Sierra Leone, a Grade 1-winning daughter of The Signature and world champion Denim N Diamonds. Earning $254,775 in six seasons in the trenches, The Zia Star won 13 of 43 career outs, scoring the first of his seven stakes wins, the Cimarron Handicap (R) at The Downs at Albuquerque, as a 4-year-old, and his last, The Lineage Championship (R), also at Albuquerque, as a 6-year-old.

“The Zia Star has a personality like no other horse I’ve ever been around,” said Mitch’s wife, Sandy Farris, the widow of Don Farris. “The horse has a sentimental place in my heart, because I lost Don in 1997. By the time ‘Zia’ was born, Don had more or less retired from racing and was on the ranch. He and Mr. Hubbard were at W.L. Mooring’s place, looking at the yearlings, and Don pointed one out and told Mr. Hubbard, ‘You know, Dee, I’d like to keep that colt right there, there’s just something special about him, he’s going to be a racehorse.’ And sur’nuff, Zia proved him right. It took him awhile to get rolling and become the stakes horse that he did, but Don certainly knew what he was talking about. Zia was a racehorse.”

The Zia Star shines bright in a constellation of his own.

“The companionship between Mitch and Zia is just unreal,” Sandy said. “Mitch and my granddaughter, Montana, are just tight, and she goes out to the barn with him quite a lot. Mitch has a chair by Zia’s stall and they sit there, and the horse will lay his head down in their laps between them and almost closes his eyes. You can tell he’s just in heaven. It’s unreal.”

So this is a story best told by the human who knows him best, the cowboy who’s thrown a leg across him more than anyone. Mitch, you’re on:

“Zia’s in the first stall in my barn. He deserves to be there. You ought to put your best horse where you have access to him. And this ol’ sonuvagun is Numero Uno.

“Two hundred and fifty-four thousand – we retired him as a 7-year-old and I took him home. We had him in a race (the Cimarron’ Cap in April 2003) at Albuquerque. Jimmie Claridge was training him. Jimmie didn’t want me to take him, and he told the horse, said, ‘Ol’ man, you’d better try hard today or you’ll have another wakening coming.’ The ol’ horse loped down through there – should have beat them for fun, but he’d had enough. He was done. I went over to the barn the next day, threw him in the trailer and took him home.

“For a week, I looked at that sonuvagun, thought, ‘Uh-oh, now what are we going to do?’ A neighbor needed some help moving cows, so we moved cattle. (laughs) We’ve been pals ever since. Welcome to my world, ol’ man.

“Zia picked it up right quick. This horse has always had such a smart mind. Jack Brooks broke him in Oklahoma, but the horse didn’t get much done as a 2-year-old. Jimmie got him as a coming 3-year-old, took him to his place at El Paso, played with him, fooled with him and kinda got to know him. Jimmie told me, said, ‘Mitch, this horse has got some talent, it’s there, I’ve just got to find it and bring it out.’

“As a 4-year-old, Zia ran some decent races, won a couple or three. As a 5-year-old, he was the New Mexico-bred horse of the year; as a 6-year-old, he was the New Mexico-bred horse of the year. Jimmie Claridge was right. The horse had talent and he found it.

“As a 7-year-old, Zia just started tapering off. He’d just had enough. You know, you try making a quarter of a million running your guts out at the wolves every time. . . . And he retired sound. A little stuff showed up later, but nothing major. He’s got a little knee that we take care of, but he’s 21 years old. It’s not anything much at all – what I call a campaign bump.

“So I got him home and played with him, rode him, gathered cows on him, and he come back to the work. He has such a great mind, always said, ‘Hey, I’m your friend. What do you want done? Let’s do it.’ I started calling him ‘Cowboy’ and he made a great outriding horse.

“When I’d go out and square up in front of the starting gate, it was game on. I caught the fastest sonuvaguns in the world on him. Like the time Noconi set up Jacky Martin, propped and dumped him, Jacky went down, and Noconi came blowing around by me and we just ran him down. This was really something: Noconi (a champion earner of $1.3 million) is loose, ol’ Cowboy’s packing 195 pounds and my saddle, and he just flat-footed caught him. I reached down, patted his neck and said, ‘Good pony.’ Ol’ Cowboy, he’d say, ‘Hey, I got this.’ All I had to do was just sit there, like riding up next to a Honda on a Harley: Let the clutch out, whatta you got?

“If you were any kind of a hand, you could ride him. One time it was raining here at Ruidoso and the track was terrible, just a muddy, sloppy mess so bad the riders weren’t wanting to ride. Rick Baugh was the general manager at the time and wanted to check it out himself. He asked me, ‘Mitch, can I ride your horse?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Rick stepped up on Cowboy. Now, look, that horse was full of himself. You didn’t have to do a lot – when you said game on, it was on. So Rick’s out there riding around on the track, and he was pretty jiggy-joggy by the time he gets back. Ol’ Rick comes riding up, stepped off, and said, ‘That horse doesn’t require a lot of smooching, does he?’

“Cowboy went on a pretty loose rein, eventually. Had to hold pretty firm at first. He was a tough, dirty sonuvagun to gallop. He’d go in a ring bit or a little snaffle, and pull your arms off. Those guys that got on him – two or three of my friends who used to gallop him – they’d come back cussing, and I’d tell them, ‘Hey, earn your money.’ Now, I’ve got a little heavier equipment on him and he drops his head. He was a racehorse, so I had to put a stop on him. But he’s got a brake on him. He said, ‘Oh, hey, look at this, that’s what I’m supposed to do. OK, got it.’

“In the afternoons at the races, when that ol’ horse gets to feeling pretty good, he’ll back up square to the gate, and stand there and point. When they kick it, he might buck and jump and play three or four jumps, and that just tickles me. And it tickles him, too. (laughs) He’s saying, ‘I thought I had you’ – and I’m saying, ‘You almost did.’

“He’s never backed off from anything. Bring it on. I’ve roped bulls on him, I’ve roped cows on him, I’ve drug calves on him, I’ve done everything on him that you can do on a horse. And he’s always said, ‘Hey, I got this.’

“He’s earned his retirement. He’s quite the horse. I’ve been outriding on him 14 years. And I would not hesitate on him now. Caught one the other day on him. A little girl come around the turn, the horse broke in two, and the girl pulled the ripcord. So we had to run a loose one down, went and caught her horse. No problem. I just let the clutch out, said, ‘Yeah, you still got it, Pop.’

“When I get him home and first turn him out, he’s a sonuvagun to catch. He goes to the far end of the pen and says, ‘No, you pick one of them other guys, I ain’t ready yet.’ But after about a week, he’ll be standing up there at the gate, waiting for me: Hey, what’re we doing today?

“He’s my ol’ friend. Whatever we’re doing, he’s part of it. We’ve been pals ever since we started. We’re buddies. He grabs my hat, he pulls on my shirt, he’s always messing with me. He’s still in real good shape. He keeps himself that way. And whatever he needs, he gets. Simple deal. Between me and Sandy, that ol’ guy does not want.

“I used to outride on a big buckskin I called ‘Jake.’ For about 10 years, Jake was about all I had until Cowboy started working. Jake lives out in a 5-acre pasture with a fat ol’ buckskin mare, and all three of them have been friends, so I think I’ll just throw ol’ Cowboy in with them. Keep big round bales out, there’s big loafing sheds they can get under, and welcome to your new life.

“So that’s Cowboy. Or maybe I ought to call him ‘GR.’ (laughs) Because he might retire and he might not. I like riding him. Sit on a Harley, let the clutch out.”

AQHA News and information is a service of the American Quarter Horse Association. For more news and information, follow @AQHARacing on Twitter, “like” Q-Racing on Facebook and visit