The Story of THREE BARS
From HORSEMAN Magazine, June 1968, by Bob Gray, Editor
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 WORLDbreathed 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 simply monumental.
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.
This 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 AQHA Championships.
Equally 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 Three Bars.
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.
This 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 name..."
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 or 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," said Childs.
"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 1939, 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 20th Century.
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 purchased him.
"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 $300...
"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."
"During 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 all accounts.
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—
The original oil painting of Three Bars (pictured on the cover of the HORSEMAN 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 memorabilia.
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.