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Working Ranck - June/July 2017

More Than a Racehorse Sid Vail was interested in racing and ranch horses, but Three Bars’ sons and daughters excelled at even more. For instance, among Merrick’s fi rst Three Bars race prospects, Matlock Rose and B.F. Phillips spotted the black stallion Steel Bars, ultimately agreeing to the $10,000 asking price after he’d been shipped to Centennial Racetrack in Denver. Returned to Texas, Steel Bars was grand champion at Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas — like some kind of quadruple crown — and overall high-point AQHA stallion. Suddenly Three Bars was considered more than a racehorse. Three Bars’ grandson Impressive is possibly the most famous halter horse ever. His grandson, Zippo Pine Bars, is revered among pleasure horse breeders. And his grandson Doc Bar — well, everybody knows Doc Bar. He now was ranching on his own near Douglas, Ariz., on the Mexican border. Vail was totally smitten by Three Bars. He offered $5,000 for him right away, then upped it to $10,000 (reading between the lines, a major fi nancial sacrifi ce). The bid was accepted with the stipulation that if Three Bars was sound enough the sellers would get to race him in the future. The next year, 1946, the six-yearold stallion raced a full season with 17 starts. He won eight, was second in three. A photo in an old Horseman magazine shows him way, way out in front in a fi ve-furlong race in Phoenix, and the cutline says he set a track record. He won one stakes race, in Mexico. But by seven, he was no longer winning and retired permanently. Vail was not yet established as a horseman, and had no facilities, so Three Bars stood at other people’s places with very little fanfare. Three Bars offi cially turned 10 on Jan. 1, 1950, having sired one Register of Merit Quarter racehorse. Soon, though, at a cafe in Tucson, a change in fortune was slowly set in motion. Vail was probably two hours away tending his ranch. An Oklahoma horseman was eating breakfast and talking horses with a border patrolman he knew. He mentioned he was looking for a Thoroughbred stallion. The horseman, Walter Merrick, was sort of a cowboy-cross between John Wayne — tall, deliberate and handsome — and stockbroker E. F. Hutton. Merrick didn’t talk much, but when he did, people listened. He was only a couple of years older than Vail, but he’d proven the stallions Midnight Jr. and Grey Badger II, and raised and raced a slew of fast horses. The patrolman drove Merrick eight miles south of Tucson where Vail was boarding Three Bars. Merrick said when he saw the sorrel gelding standing in the corral, he thought he was one of the best looking studs he had ever seen. He had a beautiful head, much better than Merrick expected from a Thoroughbred, and a big, intelligent eye. He was beautifully balanced and had a lot of muscle for his breed, but not short, bunchy muscle like a bulldog-type Quarter Horse. Merrick called Vail at the ranch, ready to make a deal, but Vail wasn’t interested. He offered to stand the horse in Oklahoma, but Vail said no. Merrick admitted later he was heartsick to leave Arizona without Three Bars, and he asked Vail to call if he changed his mind. By the next season, the Three Bars-sired horses already running were getting more attention. His son Barred was featured as the horse of the month in the April 1951 QH Journal. Still, it’s said the old horse only attracted 12-15 mares. Wisely, Vail called Merrick about his offer to stand Three Bars back in Oklahoma. Vail wanted to send his own mares to breed, too, of course. Merrick said he’d breed the same number of mares that Vail did and then charge a stud fee of $300 for outside mares, which they would split. So in the spring of 1952, Merrick and Vail each bred 10 mares to Three Bars, plus an additional 50 outside mares. Many of the mares had more impressive records than the stud. Merrick’s endorsement went a long way. Things were going so well, in fact, Vail decided he wanted to stand Three Bars again, although Merrick understood they had a two-year deal. Caught off-guard but not wanting to lose Three Bars, Merrick offered Vail $50,000. As Merrick silently did mental gymnastics for a way to get $50,000, Vail hesitated, but then loaded Three Bars up anyway. That season, and those great mares, catapulted Three Bars’ reputation and the rest, as they say, is history. The horse Vail bought for $10,000 in 1945 fetched that same amount for a single breeding from 1963-1966. Three Bars found true love late in life when Vail bought a blind bay mare named Fairy Adams in 1962. The stud was happiest when she was around, distraught when she wasn’t, and they were together until his passing in 1968. THE PILGRIMAGE I looked up “Three Bars Grave” on my phone’s map app and found two results — both in Athens, Greece. Fortunately, my friend’s memory led us to the general area. Bulldog tenacity and a minor stroke of luck fi nally led us to the grave. The location will have to remain confi dential, “to protect the innocent,” by which I mean the property’s current owners. Also, to hopefully protect the guilty – my trespassing partner and me. I can assure you it is not where Quarter Horse historians would expect. A rose granite base holds a bronze plaque with THREE BARS in big letters. It lists his sire, dam, 1940- 1968, and Mr. & Mrs. Sidney H. Vail beneath the quote, “He ran the course until his race was won.” And in small letters it says: “The Grand Progenitor of Quarter Horse Racing.” It’s a lofty title, but actually an understatement. Racing was just the beginning. bloodlines 94 I WORKING RANCH I JUNE / JULY 2017


Working Ranck - June/July 2017
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