Sunday, April 23, 2006

SANTA FE TRAIL - Race calls for hoofing it 800 miles



BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle

Against the sun, 100 horses and their riders battle heat, dust and each other as they pound across the prairie from Santa Fe, N.M., to Independence, Mo.

That's how organizers of the Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race envision an 800-mile race inspired by the story of Francis X. Aubry. In 1848, he set the horseback record for shortest time traveling from Santa Fe to Independence: five days and 15 hours.

The 2007 version of the trip would take two weeks and carry a purse of $100,000 for the winner, say promoters Jim Gray of Ellsworth and Rob Phillips of Lawrence.

"We've had response from all over the United States from people interested in the ride," said Gray, owner of Drovers Mercantile, an Old West store in Ellsworth. "Dozens have said 'Yes, I want to do it.' "

Supporters say the race would promote history, horses and tourism along the trail, an important trade route before rails crisscrossed the West.

"Everybody talks about the Santa Fe Trail. They know it was an important part of history but only 1 percent can find it on the map or knows about it in person," said Dennis Latta, executive director of the New Mexico Sports Authority in Albuquerque.

The trail includes "open spaces, range cattle and antelope.... It's a horseback Iditarod, an animal Tour de France," he said.

But others are concerned about logistics and about the dark side of Aubry's ride.

"He'd ride horses to death," said Leo Oliva, a Santa Fe Trail historian and author.

"Some historians have not included him when they wrote about the brave horse rides because he'd abuse horses. To commemorate an Aubry ride creates a skepticism about the race."

Fame at what cost?

In his day, Aubry was the Dale Earnhardt of the Santa Fe Trail. He was so famous he was nicknamed the "Skimmer of the Plains." A Missouri River steamship was named the F.X. Aubry.

Aubry made a $1,000 bet he could race on horseback from Santa Fe to Independence in less than six days. His feat was unthinkable, even by today's standards.

But Aubry ruined six horses during the race. And his body was rubbed so raw from the saddle that, according to some accounts, his saddle was caked with his blood when he arrived in Missouri.

The Santa Fe Trail Association, the group dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting the historic trail, has discussed the race but stopped short of endorsing it.

Mike Pitel, volunteer publicity coordinator of the trail, said he thought it could be dangerous racing horses in ditches along major highways.

"When you are riding on the inside of a right of way and it's tallgrass, you don't know if your horse is going to step on a nail or a broken beer bottle," he said.

"I don't want to stand in the way of unbridled enthusiasm, but most of us are taking a wait-and-see approach to see how far this gets."

In the long run, he said, he hopes the race is a success.

"If it is, it will have a ripple effect on public awareness of the national historical trail."

21st century race

Gray said it's unfair for 21st century people to criticize the culture of the 19th century.

"We are not running horses in the same manner," he said. "We are not playing that game. Others can play it all they want to. We are having a horse race that is well taken care of.... And we are honoring Aubry because he was a man honored in his own time."

"The story of Francis Aubry is representative of the hundreds of people who just set out to accomplish something on the wide open plains," he added.

The race will be run by the standards of the American Endurance Ride Conference, which has been conducting endurance rides since the mid-1970s, Gray said. Competitors often race 100 miles a day, and typically those rides have 300 to 400 horses and riders.

The race would be run in segments, with teams using three or four horses per leg.

"We are talking about world-class, experienced riders," Gray said. "These are people who take care of their horses. There are veterinary checks at every point along the way. The guy you need to be worrying about is the fellow on the saddle. He's got to make the race all 800 miles. The horse only makes a portion of that."

The race would roughly follow U.S. 56 through northeastern New Mexico, the Oklahoma Panhandle and the length of Kansas.

Each night, the competitors would rest in a portable 50-acre race village, set up every 50 to 80 miles along the trail.

The most resistance to the race, Phillips said, "is from people who don't understand what the magnitude of the event this is going to be.

"We are doing this to show the Wild West is alive and well," said Phillips, owner of Free State Farm in Lawrence. "There's a lot of interest in it. Here, the Santa Fe Trail is our stage and the world is our audience."
Reach Beccy Tanner at (316) 268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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