John Markesbury left Payson by way of Camp Verde. He headed for West Texas with a fellow named Nip Blackford and a small freckle-faced, red-headed boy. John drove a team of mules hitched to a wagon which hauled their camp outfit. Nip and the red-headed boy rode horses, and a sorrel horse was tied behind the wagon.
In this fashion, they crossed New Mexico and drove on for two days into Texas. The trio stopped a mile outside a little town and set up camp for the night. A fellow came along and told Markesbury, "They're havin' horse races out about three miles from here. There'll be a quarter-mile race tomorrow for $600 at two o'clock."
The next day, Markesbury hitched up the sorrel along with one of the mules and pulled the wagon over to the race track. He arrived a little after noon and found a sizeable crowd gathered. Soon, two race horses showed up and John Markesbury ambled over to have a look-see.
"Why, these are pretty fair ponies," observed Markesbury to the horses' owners, "but over in Arizona where I come from they use this kind to punch cattle on. I've got a work horse that can out-run the winner of this here race an hour after it's over for $1,200."
"Where's your horse?" they chorused.
"Hitched to that wagon over yonder," Markesbury quipped.
One man went over to the wagon and sized up the sorrel, but the other wouldn't even look at the work horse. He was disgusted with this Arizona up-start who'd called his race horse a "pretty fair pony."
The fellow who looked at the horse came back and assured the other horse owner, "That $1,200 belongs to one of us just as soon as this race is over. Now let's go up there and tell the stake holder that there is a windbag who wants to bet $1,200 that his horse can beat the winner of the next race."
These words he spoke quietly to the owner of the other race horse, then he spoke loudly to Markesbury, "Okay, feller, we'll accept your challenge."
Markesbury sized up the situation and commented, "You fellers have jockeys and I weigh 175 pounds. I could ride myself, of course, and I think I could win it."
He started looking around in the crowd for a rider. Markesbury talked to a couple of fellows who said they were jockeys and claimed to have won several races. Just then a freckle-faced boy came up -- sandy-complexioned with an old shirt and an old straw hat with the brim torn off except for a little in front.
Markesbury asked him," Sonny, did you ever ride a horse?"
"No sir, but I've rode a burro," said the boy.
"Could you spur him and make him run?"
"I shore could," grinned the boy.
"All right, I'll let you ride my horse," Markesbury said.
He borrowed a pair of Mexican spurs off a cowhand for the boy. They went over and unhitched the work horse from the wagon; the boy climbed on him and started to ride around.
The crowd howled and threw their hats in the air. A work horse with a hay-seed for a jockey was going to run against a race horse! This woke up the sleepy little Texas town. They started giving Markesbury odds and he bet more money at 4- and 5-1 odds, until he had no more money to bet.
An old man who'd come from Southern California had been around the race horse bunch for three days. He and his wife had sold out in California and they had $6,000. Markesbury noticed that some of the Texans were trying to get the old fellow to bet his money on the sorrel, but he was having none of it. Markesbury took him aside and told him confidentially, "There is not a horse in Texas that can beat this sorrel horse for a quarter-mile."
The old man got excited and started betting his roll. He bet it all and got big odds in his favor. The Texas boys knew they were betting on a cinch. A race horse against a work horse? Who ever heard of such luck?
Markesbury told his jockey, "Now ride him easy; you don't need to crowd him. You can beat him by 50 feet, but don't beat him by over 10 feet, ‘cause I want to get another race."
The race started and the redheaded kid hit the sorrel a couple of times. The sorrel put five feet of daylight between himself and the race horse at 200 yards. The kid remembered John's instructions, "Don't beat him by over 10 feet," so the kid just let the sorrel coast for the next 200 yards and the race horse caught up and stuck his nose in front. Then the redhead touched the sorrel with those Mexican spurs and the sorrel came from behind to win the race by three feet of daylight in the last 40 yards.
The crowd was stunned. How could this have happened? The owner of the other horse told Markesbury, "I don't mind loosing my money, but I would like to see that horse run."
Markesbury said, "Well, I'll tell you, if you want to see this horse run, I'll give your horse a 100-foot head start for the quarter. We will stand their tails on a line and they can go at the crack of a gun. I'll bet my horse will still beat him," but Markesbury couldn't get another bet out of them -- no way. So, he hitched up the mules, tied the sorrel to the back of the wagon and moved on.
Now, you might be thinking, that's a pretty good story Jinx, but what does it have to do with Payson history? Well, John Markesbury lived in Payson back in the late 1800s. About eight years before the events described in this yarn took place, the sorrel's sire, Crowder, ran in "The Lane" (the Payson race track) at the 1888 August Rodeo.
From the years 1885 through 1892, he was probably the fastest horse in the world for a quarter-mile. John Markesbury rigged stop watches and timed this horse at 20.4 seconds for a quarter-mile with a running start.
More impressive than the time is the fact that Crowder was not under the whip when he did this and he did it consistently. Incidentally, the official world record for a horse running the quarter-mile was for years was 22 seconds flat. This was from a standing start, but still, a horse can reach top speed in 1.6 seconds and remember, Crowder was not being pushed to run his fastest.
The story of the running horses that graced Payson's rodeos has never been told, and certainly has never appeared in a book before. Several people, upon hearing that Jayne and I are writing the history of the Payson Rodeo, have asked us to "Please write about the horse races," saying that "we only hear, ‘Oh yes, there were horse races.' Sometimes we even see a picture of unidentified horses running down Main Street or thundering alongside the rodeo grounds, but we never hear the real stories."
During the writing of our upcoming book, "Rodeo 101- The History of the Payson, Arizona Rodeo 1884-1984," Jayne and I have done extensive research and made hundreds of phone calls to learn all we could about the horses, the races, and the cowboys.
Jayne's family has been in the Rim country and Tonto Basin since 1889 and one of my ancestors was here in 1872, so we know who to call to get the information that we don't have. Additionally, Jayne has been gathering information for this book for more than 30 years.
Two other horses ran in Payson's early rodeo races and were "open to the world." Their owner would match them against any horse in the world, one for 200 to 250 yards and the other for 400 yards to a quarter-mile and he would bet the ranch that those horses would win.
Although calf roping, steer roping, and bronc riding were a part of the Payson Rodeo from its onset, for the first years of its existence, the rodeo was called the Payson Races. Horse racing was a vital event in Payson's rodeo celebrations.
These stories and many more have been told in the book "Rodeo 101." The book will be available from Git A Rope! Publishing Tuesday, Aug. 17, at a book signing sponsored by the Payson Chamber of Commerce. We are inviting rodeo cowboys -- both old and new -- whose pictures are in the book to be there so that they can sign them for folks.
Jinx Pyle's new book, "Mountain Cowboys" is now available for $25 at Sue Malinski's Art and Antique Corral, Jackalope Books, East Verde Trading Company, and the chamber of commerce. Look for Jinx's other books, "Looking Through the Smoke" and "Blue Fox," and Jayne Peace's book, "History of Gisela, Arizona" at the same stores.