She's a chocolate chestnut filly,
3 years old, neither big nor small but impeccably assembled and of
Eyes of Dawn is Oklahoman by birth, a blue-blood quarter horse down there.
But her owners are Ray and Wendy Norgaard of Arlee, and they were in on the
fateful decision to trailer Eyes of Dawn to Billings this summer.
There, on Sept. 17,
she ran the fastest 300 yards ever recorded.
With Bobby Webb
in the saddle, Eyes of Dawn clipped the length of three football fields in
14.909 seconds in the quarter horse derby trials at Yellowstone Downs. Her
world record bettered by one-thousandth of a second the previous mark set in
1998 by Taking Risks at Sunland Park in New Mexico.
It wasn't out of the blue.
Two weeks before, in an allowance race, Eyes of Dawn broke the Billings
track record with a decisive win in 14.922 seconds.
“We had a pretty good idea this filly was darn fast,” said Ray Norgaard, a
retired Missoula anesthesiologist who's been in the racing business for most
of the past two decades. “She outran two of the best in the Midwest (in
Oklahoma). When she put 3 1/2 lengths on them that quick, it wasn't like she
was putting it on your run-of-the-mill horses.”
The Norgaards are surrounded by yearlings these days on their horse ranch
south of Arlee. Their breeding operation is centered at Belle Mere Farm in
Norman, Okla. Their horses race at tracks ranging from the top quarter horse
tracks in the Southwest to Santa Anita and Los Alamitos in California to
just down the road.
Webb rode a Norgaard horse, Dokey Dawn, to victory in a quarter horse maiden
race at the Western Montana Fair meet in August.
It's safe to say world records aren't common in Montana horse racing. Eyes
of Dawn's might be the first. The fastest quarter horses usually run at such
tracks as Ruidoso Downs and Sunland Park in New Mexico and Remington Park in
Oklahoma City - Eyes of Dawn's home turf.
The Norgaards decided to send the filly north this summer after she
experienced leg problems as a 2-year-old in Oklahoma.
“We weren't sure we wanted to pay her up in any stakes races this year down
there, so we ended up not having any place to go with a good horse,” he
Mark Sellers starts and trains the young horses for the Norgaards in
Oklahoma. They knew they could put Eyes of Dawn into the capable hands of
Mike Taylor, who was waiting in Rigby, Idaho. Taylor's horses own records at
nearly every track in Montana.
Taylor was at the Missoula race meet, en route to earning the top trainer
award for the fifth time in seven years, when Norgaard's horse arrived in
When he got home, Eyes of Dawn knocked his socks off.
“She's just a beautiful animal,” Taylor said. “I called Ray and told him,
basically, that's what I look for in a race horse. If it was like judging a
human, she'd be a nine, you know?”
But the question remained: Could she run? Taylor's initial impressions
weren't so glowing.
“The first time my son worked her, he told me she didn't feel very fast,”
Taylor chuckled. “I guess she proved us wrong. She's just not one of those
horses that works well without company.”
In her first race in Billings on Labor Day weekend, Eyes of Dawn showed
exactly that. In almost effortless fashion, she broke the track record of
15.07, set two years ago by Okey Dokey Partner.
“That was a morning gallop for her,” Webb told the Billings Gazette after
“She was like a boat pulling water skiers. You almost felt bad for everybody
else,” Taylor said. “I probably wouldn't have put her in that race if I'd
known she was going to do that.”
The finish photo from her world record race two weeks later tells the story.
Three horses are neck-and-neck, including a striking gray named Secrets and
Lies, also trained by Taylor. They're three or four strides from the finish
line. Eyes of Dawn is already past it. Webb is standing in the irons,
slowing her down.
“It was a tuneup race for the Derby is all it was,” Norgaard said. “You just
want to qualify. You don't let a horse run full out. The jockey knows better
than to do that. You don't want to use up a horse.”
Derby Day eight days later at Yellowstone Downs was better suited for duck
hunting. Billed as Championship Day, it featured many of the biggest races
at the Billings meet. But officials called off the entire card because of
Both Taylor and Ray Norgaard say they wouldn't have let Eyes of Dawn run a
third race in three weeks in less than ideal conditions.
The worst part came next. It took more than a month for the American Quarter
Horse Association to verify that the record was indeed broken.
“They have certain criteria,” Ray Norgaard said. “You have to have three
timers, and they check the tape and make sure the distance was right and the
gate wasn't set wrong.
“That was a long month. A really long month.”
Finally, word came on Oct. 19 - the record was
Eyes of Dawn's. It was tremendous news, and a
great relief, for all concerned.
doubting Eyes of Dawn's pedigree.
Her mother, Ronas
Dawn, owns a track record at Remington Park. Her sire, Mr. Eye Opener,
stands at Belle Mere Farm. Mongoose Jet Eye, another of Mr. Eye Opener's
daughters and half sister to Eyes of Dawn, set the world record at 400 yards
last year at Sunland Park as a 4-year-old.
Ray Norgaard spent the first few years of his life on a farm in Westby,
where his uncle, Johnny Nelson, raised horses. That, he said, is “what got
me excited about horses.”
The world record comes at a poignant time for the Norgaards. Two longtime
friends and partners in the racing business, Leo Winters and Robert Grove of
Oklahoma, helped establish the bloodline that produced Eyes of Dawn, and
Grove was the breeder of the filly along with Norgaard.
Winters and Grove, both in their 80s, died this summer within two days of
“I lost two of the best partners you could have,” said Norgaard. “This (the
world record) is a real tribute to them.”
On Oct. 1, Taylor loaded Eyes of Dawn into a trailer and hauled her to Los
Alamitos in Southern California.
“I took her to California myself and put her right in the hands of the next
trainer (Blane Schvaneveldt),” said Taylor.
“We were hoping to win
a stakes race or something with her,”
Ray Norgaard said.
be fantastic, and the money would be nice.
But to get a world record
that's going to be on the books forever.”
Eyes of Dawn has
run once at Los Alamitos. On Oct. 23, she stumbled coming out of the gate
and went to her knees.
“It was terrible,” said Norgaard, who watched the race on television and has
a tape of it. “She started to go and tried to catch herself, but her knee
went into the ground.”
The filly recovered, but finished out of the money.
“Fortunately she's OK,” Norgaard said. “It's amazing when you have a horse
like that how many people are on the phone wondering how she is.”
Plans are to run the horse at Los Alamitos again, although the next date
“We just want to try to get her in against some nice competition down there
and see how she develops,” said Norgaard. “Otherwise, we'll turn her into a
good brood mare.”
Not surprisingly, the Norgaards have received
a number of offers for Eyes of Dawn.
“A lot of them have been pretty good,” Ray admitted. “They're most
interested in the genes. It's awful hard to think about (selling) right now.
I know you race horses for the money, but you race for the love of it, too.”
Norgaard described Eyes of Dawn as “very kind” with a “quiet, regal
“We were hoping to win a stakes race or something with her,” Ray Norgaard
said. “That would be fantastic, and the money would be nice. But to get a
world record ... that's going to be on the books forever.”
Even if the record is eventually broken, Eyes of Dawn has made her mark as
the world's fastest quarter horse at 300 yards.
In a sport that's very much a team effort, she's given them all - owners,
breeders, trainers, jockeys and Montana - a ride to remember.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at