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|From HORSEMAN Magazine, June 1968
by Bob Gray, Editor
PERSONAL STORY FROM A RELATIVE OF SID & MAYOLA
|The "Cinderella Horse," they called
this Thoroughbred stud, and there is no question but what he very nearly
remade the Quarter Horse business.
At 4:45 on the
morning of April 6, 1968, a living legend of the horse world breathed
his last at Sayre, Oklahoma. Three Bars was two days shy of being
twenty-eight years old when he died from a heart attack.
He was on his feet until fifteen minutes
before he died. He was used for breeding purposes until two days before his
life ended. In terms of a long, useful life—and in terms of his value—few
horses in the western horse field can be compared to Three Bars. In terms of
his impact on the Quarter Horse breed, there is little comparison. It is
Imperceptibly at first, then at dead run,
Three Bars breeding refashioned the yardsticks by which the Quarter Horse
world measured short racing and good conformation. Three Bars proved that a
race horse could be an outstanding conformation horse. Largely through the
influence of this one horse, the Quarter Horse world today is breeding a
taller, faster, more streamlined animal. As King P-234 set the standard for
the stock horse in the 1940s, so did Three Bars—in company with
Top Deck and
Depth Charge—change the concepts of the 1960s.
photograph of Three Bars, taken in 1954 at Dart Ranch Stables, Tucson,
Arizona, shows his conformation. And although he stood just over 15.1, he
was considered small by Thoroughbred standards -- that size, coupled with
his other conformation assets, was transmitted to a remarkable number of
Quarter Horse mares. The hindquarter muscling is particularly noteworthy in
that it approaches the idea sought by stock horse men. When this photo was
taken, Three Bars was fourteen years old. The irregular patterns on his
knees and ankles are probably from the 'firing' that was done earlier to
strengthen his legs.
|Statistics may be dry but in Three Bars'
case they are meaningful. In Quarter Horse racing, he was the all-time
Leading Sire of Register of Merit Qualifiers through 1967, as well as
Leading Sire of AAA Quarter Horses. He also was Leading Sire of Money
Earners. Official records at the American Quarter Horse Association at the
time of his death show that Three Bars sired 384 offspring earned more than
$2.8 million in 7,824 races through 1967. In the show ring, Three Bars
descendants earned 259 working points, 1.283 halter points, twenty-three
significant is the fact that, through April, 1968, all three of the newly
crowned Supreme Champions—Kid Meyers, Bar Money and Fairbars—were get of
Great as he was, the Three Bars story is
also a story of people and their love for a really good horse. It may be
said to have started where so many great horse stories began, in Kentucky.
It started well before the Quarter Horse existed as a breed.
Jack Goode of Paris, Kentucky, began his lifelong love affair
with racehorses as a boy. Growing up in racing country, he watched them
every chance he got. One speedy filly he never forgot was Myrtle Dee. A
daughter of Luke McLuke, she was a Thoroughbred sprinter of such excellence
that she held the 5 1/2-furlong record for many years at the Coney Island
track in Cincinnati.
So it was that in 1939, Jack—now
grown—heard that Myrtle Dee was going to be sold at public auction. Horses
belonging to Jack Parrish at Midway, Kentucky, were being dispersed. Jack
and two friends, Ned Brent and Bill Talbot, negotiated for and finally
bought old Myrtle and two other mares in an $800 package deal, prior to the
sale. She was then in foal to Parrish stud, Percentage. That horse had the
reputation of being both a sprinter and a distance racer.
is Myrtle Dee in her racing days of the 1920s. She was a sprinter and her
short distance excellence earned the admiration of all who saw her
--including the man (Jack Goode) who would later buy her in foal to
Percentage. She held the 5 1/2 furlong track record at the old Coney Island
track in Cincinnati.
|Myrtle Dee went out to pasture on Brent's
Farm in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Returning from the Keeneland track one
April day in 1940, the owners spotted a fine looking stud colt nursing
Myrtle. They each admired the youngster, foaled April 8. No question about
it. The old mare had produced a good one.
Recalled Goode: "...We all said that we had
hit the jackpot. So we named him Three Bars. You know when you hit the
jackpot [on a slot machine] how three bars come up? That's how he got his
It did indeed seem that the trio of owners
had a jackpot. This had to be a sprinter -- as Goode confirmed to his own
satisfaction when he broke and trained the colt the following year. Ned
Brent remembers that Three Bars ran the quarter mile in 21 and a fraction.
He had a tremendous surge of power over the short distance, broke like a
bullet and his owners began to dream of the future.
"Then," recalls, Goode, "in the spring of
his two-year-old year I was bringing him off the track one morning when it
happened. His hind leg turned ice cold, just like you had suddenly turned
off the blood. He never got over it while we owned him..."
"Until that happened he was the fastest
thing I had put a bridle on. He was too rapid. You had to ease him to slow
or he'd get out of hand and you couldn't handle him well. I took him to
Keeneland at Lexington and to Detroit but never raced him because his leg
would get cold when he exerted himself. We had some of the best vets in
Kentucky with Three Bars but they couldn't help that leg."
This is one of the few photos taken of Three
bars in action. It shows him setting a track record of 57-3/5 seconds
five furlongs, March 16, 1946, at the Arizona Jockey Club track, Phoenix.
The jockey was H. McGahan.
|"Later on," said Brent, "they found that
happened to horses when bloodworms clogged an artery and cut off
circulation...after a while that leg would be OK. Maybe the next day it
would be fine...then Three Bars could run."
It seemed clear, though, that Three Bars would
not be a racehorse with this leg problem. And the three agreed to sell him
"off the cuff," to Beckam Stivers for $300. This meant that the $300 was to
be paid if and when Three Bars raced and earned that much at the track.
"I believe Stivers paid us after he had
given the horse to Vernon Cloud," Brent remembered. "Cloud won a race with
the horse and ...when you sell 'off the cuff' you get paid out of the first
purse the horse wins..."
In reconstructing the evens of Three Bars
early life, Jack Good -- later to become one of the best known track
stewards—set the record straight on several points.
"No, there's no truth to the tale that we
sold Three Bars for $300 to cover a pasture bill. We did sell him for $300
because that's all we figured we could get for him...
"We never bred Three Bars to any
Thoroughbred mares—but somebody did. I remember seeing a Thoroughbred mare
run in Illinois and she was by Three Bars. yes, Three Bars had a full sister
but we don't know what happened to her. The story about Three Percent being
a full brother to Three Bars is not true. Three Percent was by Percentage
but out of some other mare, not Myrtle Dee.
"I don't really know they they cured that
hind leg. But it think it was cured during the time Vernon Cloud had Three
Bars. Stivers didn't do any good with the horse and gave it to Cloud, the
blacksmith. Maybe it just cured itself and I think it must have been during
the time Cloud owned the horse."
Cloud practiced his trade at racetracks and
Three Bars went with him. And it was during his travels that Three Bars went
to his next owner, Eudell "Pinchy" Wyatt. Three Bars' Jockey Club
registration papers don't reveal Wyatt as an owner but those who followed
the horse are certain it was Wyatt who obtained the stallion from Cloud and
took him to the track at Detroit.
Which brought other owners upon the scene.
Fog and mist
rolled in over the race track at Detroit's 1944 meeting as Stan
Snedigar watched the early morning workouts. His racing savvy would become
legendary in the business and Stan peered intently at every young prospect
the exercise boys ponied by. One colt in particular caught Snedigar's eye --
a chestnut colt, small by Thoroughbred measurement. Nearby, Stan spotted
Frankie Childs, one of the most noted trainers of the time.
"Frankie," he asked, "who is this little
chestnut horse going by?"
"That little horse is called Three Bars,"
"Know anything about him?"
"Know all about him."
"Tell me something about him."
"He's as fast a horse as I ever saw. We
broke yearlings at Keeneland...this horse was in the group of yearlings
being broke that year. We gauged all of the yearlings by what they might do
with this horse Three Bars, out of the gate..."
"What kind of races is he running in?"
"I think they're running him in $2,000 and
$2,500 claiming races," replied Childs.
Snedigar also learned that the owner of the
horse was a friend of his, Eudell Wyatt, considered one of the good harness
and show horse trainers of the country. When Stan learned later that Three
Bars had won his next race at Detroit, he sought out Wyatt.
"Now, Brother Wyatt," allowed Snedigar,
"I'm gonna claim that horse if you ever run him again for $2,000. What will
you take for him?"
"I don't want to sell him," Wyatt replied.
"What do you want with him?"
"I'd like to take him to Arizona with me
and cross him with some of those little Quarter mares we have back in that
country and use him as a sire."
"Well," said Wyatt, "he might cross alright
with them. He sure has speed."
"Yes, and I like his conformation."
However, this Three Bars Admiration Society
did not produce a horse trade. When Snedigar left for Phoenix he did not own
the horse—although he still wanted to. He told his trainer, Cal Kennedy, to
claim the horse for up to $6,000, if he turned up in another claiming race.
"I had been home probably a week when the
phone rang one night and it was Kennedy. He said, 'We've got a new horse in
our barn tonight.'"
Sure enough, Three Bars had won by about
six lengths in a six furlong race and Snedigar and his partner, Toad
Haggard, owned him. The claiming price: $2,000. They had their horse shipped
to Albuquerque for the meet there and it was on New Mexico turf that Three
Bars won again as a four-year-old. The distance was three-eighths of a mile.
Next, they moved on to Santa Anita where, in late 1944, came a major
disappointment. The war "blacked out" racing for the duration.
"Here we were," Snedigar recalled many
years later, "in Santa Anita with a string of horses ready to run. And we
had some that weren't the soundest in the world, so we fired two or three
horses, among them Three Bars. We fired his knees and ankles and brought him
back to Phoenix."
Snedigar and Haggard, in both the cattle
and horse business together, planned to winter there and turn out their
horses because of the racing shutdown. Haggard also had decided at this
point to plan on dispersing his interest in the horses—and that decision
roughly coincided with the appearance on the scene of the next key person
involved in the Three Bars story.
Sid Vail got his horse sense and savvy at an early age in what is
usually called the School of Experience. His birth certificate shows he was
born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, November 13, 1913.
"We were farmers in Mississippi," he
remembers. "I ran away from home when I was 14, headed west to Texas, New
Mexico, Arizona. When I was 16 I started riding rodeo bulls and bareback
horses. Then I broke horses in Montana. In 1923 I packed for the government
through Yellowstone Park. They were mapping the park and I packed horses and
gear up and down those mountains...it was beautiful.
"Well, when I was going up and down those
mountains with those old horses, I used to dream a lot about a real good
horse. Then in
I bought a Quarter Horse. I was in Nevada then.."
Since the Quarter Horse registry was not
formed until 1940, the term "Quarter" horse in the thirties did not mean
exactly what it means today. Then, you were talking strictly about a
race-type animal. Westerners loved their "short" races then as now. The
competition in Arizona was particularly keen over the short distances. When
Vail, within a few years, heard about Three Bars, he was interested. He was
then living in Douglas, Arizona.
"I heard there was a good Thoroughbred they
were breeding to Quarter mares," he recalled. "I had some Bear Hug mares so
I went down to see them about it. When I saw the horse, I knew I had to have
him. I had never seen anything like him. And I've never seen anything like
him since, either.
"Stan [Snedigar] said the horse wasn't for
sale after I'd offered $5,000..."
In the bargaining process that followed,
which took some time, Three Bars did finally change hands. But it was with
the utmost reluctance that Snedigar finally agreed with his partner to sell
Vail the horse for $10,000. And Snedigar said he insisted on the stipulation
that if Three Bars' legs proved sound a year later, he would have the
opportunity to race him some more.
This is what happened, as it turned out.
Three Bars did race with some success in 1946, winning eight of seventeen
starts for a total of $16,940.
Sid Vail, the cowboy who
made Three Bars
the Cinderella Horse of the
Two decades later, Snedigar could recall
clearly what made him like the horse so well:
"I liked his ability to run right out of the
starting gate. He had the conformation to do this and he had the ability to
run. Even though his legs weren't the soundest—they were crippled at the
time and he was very sore-kneed—this horse had the will to come out of the
starting gate almost always in front and run just as far as he could, as
fast as he could. He was a horse you couldn't rate. You could steady him but
you couldn't rate him. You couldn't take hold of him and take him back
because he'd get mad and wouldn't run.
"With this will to want to win every race,
his ability to go ahead and perform according to the way his conformation
looked, made me think he'd be a great Quarter Horse sire. And he turned out
to be just that."
Although it appears that mares were bred to
Three Bars earlier, his first real test in the stud came the year Sid Vail
"We stood him in 1945 and 1948 at Melville
Haskell's place at Tucson, Arizona...then in '49 and '50 I stood him at John
Chaney's place near Tucson. I'd go over and get the horse to breed to my own
mares. Then I stood him at Douglas in 1951. In 1952 Walter Merrick took him
to Crawford, Oklahoma, where he stood at $300 stud fees. The stud fees went
up something like this: $100 in 1945, about $250 in 1948. Then it went to
"After that, it jumped to $500, then to
$1,000, next it ws $1,500, then $2,500, then $3,500, then $5,000. From 1963
to 1966 it was $10,000, which is the amount I paid for Three Bars back in
1945. Then in 1966 in the fall, Walter took him to Quanah and stood him for
$5,000. That's what his fee was when he died at Sayre, Oklahoma."
those years, the mares that came to Three Bars not only represented good
business but the cream of the Quarter Horse crop. To mention a few of these
great mothers would be a slight to the hundreds that began, by the 1950s, to
make regular annual trek to Vail's Three Bars Ranch at Oakdale, California.
It might be called the House That Three Bars Built and it was a first class
operation. Sid and his wife, Mayola, watched for twenty years as a constant
stream of admiring breeders pulled up and unloaded their prize mares, season
after season. Not many lads who start punching cows for $40 a month wind up
in quite the same position Sid Vail found himself occupying by the
mid-1960s. You don't have to be an Einstein to figure out how much money
you're handling with a stallion whose stud fee is $10,000—and you're turning
business away. Not surprisingly, third and fourth generation Three Bars
descendants were soon found topping the auction sales in price, starting to
steal the thunder in the halter classes, carrying the calf ropers to the pay
window—and dominating the big money Quarter Horse race meets. One one
fantastic day at Sacramento, in the running of the 1965 Pacific Coast
Quarter Horse Futurity, the first five horses under the wire were all
grandsons of Three Bars.
Three times in his life, the horse very
nearly met a premature end—once by theft, twice by illness. It was along
about 1957, Vail recalls, when someone actually stole Three Bars.
"They came in sometime during the night and
took him off. Took him down the road a mile or so and bred a couple of
mares. But they had some trouble with him, I think. Anyway, they hit him in
the face with something. They'd jerked the halter right off of him...he came
home on his own. I found him trying to fight off another stud through a
fence. There was blood all over Three Bars and the fence, too. But it was by
being hit in the nostrils...it made his nose awful sensitive after that and
boogered him up a little.
"So," continued Vail, "I put a lock on his
door for a couple of years...and figured nobody would steal him anymore.
Nobody did...but it left his nose very sensitive where they'd hit him.
Everytime you put a halter on him he wanted to rub his nose on you or a post
or wall or something.
"Then in 1962 or 1963 both he got sheep
virus. The vet gave him a fifty percent chance of living on both occasions.
We almost lost him both times."
Three Bars was ridden and exercised under a
stock saddle like any other western horse—particularly during breeding
season—until about 1962, according to Vail.
"Yes, he was easy to handle but Three Bars
was full of fire. He was one of the nicest horses you'd want to have around.
But he didn't like to be brushed or have his feet trimmed. He'd show a lot
of white in his eye. If you didn't know him, you'd think he was thinking
about eating you up.
"Sometimes he would make a dive at you, but
he wouldn't hurt you. Like I say, Three Bars had a lot of fire to him. Guess
that's what made him live so long. I was with the horse for twenty-three
years. Owned him all the time until his death. Twenty-three years with the
same horse is a long time. I was over at Walter's [Walter Merrick] a few
months before he died and they were going to breed him...Anyway, I finally
walked off because his knees looked so bad I couldn't stand it. I remember
him as a young horse and I've watched him get old..."
Like many noted stallions, Three Bars had
his attachments too. One was a mare named Fairy Adams. If it can be possible
for a stallion to be in love, Three Bars had this feeling for this mare, by
Vail first brought the mare from Jay Frost
in 1962. She was blind, he recalled, and was kept in a paddock next to Three
Bars in California.
"They became very attached to one another.
Three Bars would get excited and upset when she wasn't in the paddock. They
just sort of fell for one another. So when Walter came to take Three Bars to
Texas I just gave him the mare...I had never seen Three Bars lie down in all
the time I had him. But after Walter put Fairy Adams in the stall next to
Three Bars, he'd lie down and rest...she was good for him."
Added Merrick: "Whenever we took Three Bars
out to exercise, we had to take Fairy Adams or he'd get excited and start
fussing. If she wasn't in the stall next to him, he'd start nickering and
walking the stall and get uneasy..."
At the time of his death, Fairy Adams was
thought to be in foal to Three Bars, was nursing one of his colts, and her
yearling filly by Three Bars was not far away. She was also one of the last
mares bred to him before he died.
Photos of what some called the "Cinderella
Horse" show that Three Bars, in terms of conformation, was himself very
close to the kind of animal many western horse breeders have been working
toward. He stood fifteen hands, one and three-quarters inches in height and,
by Sid Vail's estimate, weighed from 1,160 to 1,25, depending upon the time
of year. Stan Snedigar recalls that Three Bars as a young stallion, weighed
perhaps 1.050 pounds in racing condition.
However, the key to Three Bars' greatness
came not merely from his physical appearance nor his speed on the track. It
came rather from that special and elusive magic breeders call prepotency. It
was his magic—this ability to gather the best that was in him and plant
those qualities in his offspring—that made Three Bars the architect of the
modern Quarter Horse.
A personal story connected to
The Three Bars Story—
original oil painting of Three Bars (pictured on the cover of the
magazine above) hangs on Linda Black's dining room wall. Linda's
late-husband was a nephew of Sid and Mayola Vail.
This is email correspondence to Circle D
Horses from Linda Black:
I was web-browsing and came across your site
and the Three Bars story. I thought I would drop you a line. My name is
Linda Black, and my late-husband’s uncle and aunt were Sid and Mayola Vail.
As I am the only horse person in the Black family, when Mayola died a few
years ago, I was fortunate enough to inherit several items of Three Bars
Interestingly, about a year before she died,
Mayola gave me her copy of the June 1968 magazine
shown on your website, accompanied with the note “the original of this
painting is hanging in my living room.” Thanks to Mayola, that original Bill
Hampton painting now hangs in my dining room.
I feel very fortunate to also have received
the original photograph of Three Bars breaking the Arizona Jockey Club
record shown on your site.
Just thought I’d drop you a line and let you
know I appreciate your site. Three Bars was indeed a great horse.
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Teri and foal, Tyler Creek, circa 1961.