This Labor Day, ten horses will compete for a purse of $3,000,000 at a track in the United States to close out a Triple Crown series of horse races. It is not at Saratoga or Del Mar, nor it is in Kentucky or Florida, home to other multi-million-dollar horse races.
It is not even for Thoroughbreds. This $3,000,000 race is the 440-yard All American Futurity for Quarter Horses, and it happens every Labor Day in the tiny town of Ruidoso, New Mexico.
Learn why the Kentucky Derby is always playing catch-up to the All American, how Quarter Horse racing is kept drug-free, and even what surprise celebrity shares his hometown with Quarter Horse racing’s richest event.
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The Quarter Horse is America’s horse. The breed is popular across the country for a variety of disciplines, including racing. Quarter Horse racing originated in colonial times, when people would challenge each other to match races with their farm horses down the streets for one town block, which was the distance of a quarter-mile and inspired the name of the breed as we know it today.
Quarter Horses share many bloodlines with Thoroughbreds, and in some races, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds may run together. Many tracks, especially in the western half of the country, host Quarter Horse races as part of a mixed card with Thoroughbreds or as a standalone meet.
Quarter Horses are sprinters; most of their races take place down the straightaway of a racetrack and last 24 seconds or less. But the breed is durable and powerful, and their strong bursts of speed mean they easily reach speeds of 40 mph or more. Handicapping Quarters is simpler than Thoroughbreds and relies on times, speed figures, bloodlines and identifying troubled trips.
Some of the most famous Thoroughbred trainers in the sport today, including multiple Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert, started their careers training Quarter Horses.
Quarter Horses have a Triple Crown, just like Thoroughbreds. All three races take place at the same track, Ruidoso Downs. It starts with the Ruidoso Futurity in June, followed by the Rainbow Futurity in July, and ends on Labor Day with the All American Futurity. Unlike Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses compete in their Triple Crown races as 2-year-olds.
All American Weekend at Ruidoso isn’t just about the 2-year-olds. The track also hosts the prestigious All American Derby for 3-year-olds and the All American Gold Cup for older horses. As Ruidoso is a mixed meet track, it also includes several stakes for Thoroughbreds as well.
Ruidoso Downs Race Track was first opened in 1957. It is one of five operating tracks in the state, along with Sunland Park, The Downs at Albuquerque, SunRay Park, and Zia Park. La Mesa and The Downs at Santa Fe are permanently closed tracks in the state.
The track hosts both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing. As with other tracks in the state, races for both breeds are typically offered on each race day, as opposed to separate meets as in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Ruidoso Downs was first opened the 1940s. In 1959, it played host to the first running of the All American Futurity. Improvements and expansions have been made over the years, including the addition of a small casino on site, as well as a sales pavilion for annual Ruidoso Select Yearling Sale.
Technically, Ruidoso Downs is in the town of the same name, which neighbors the small resort town of Ruidoso in central New Mexico.
Ruidoso sits high in the Sierra Blanca mountains; the elevation of the town is just under 7,700 feet.
The town has fewer than 8,000 residents but feels more populated thanks to tourists and the New Mexicans that flock there in the summer to escape the heat and in the winter for ski resorts and snow sports. To get there, you must go to El Paso and drive two hours northeast, or fly to Albuquerque and drive over two hours southeast.
The area has produced several celebrities. Before we knew him as Doogie Howser or Barney Stinson, actor Neil Patrick Harris grew up in Ruidoso. Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith grew up in Roswell, an hour away from Ruidoso.
What was the first race in the United States to offer a purse of $1,000,000? Surprise – it was not the Kentucky Derby. The All American Futurity offered a purse of $1 million in 1978, making it the richest race for any breed at the time in the United States.
The first All American Futurity was held in 1957 with a purse of just under $130,000.
The winner of a race only receives a percentage of the purse, so in 1982, the purse of the All American Futurity was increased to ensure that the winner’s share would equal $1 million. In 2015, the purse was increased to $3 million, making it the richest race for Quarter Horses and one of the richest races for any breed in North America. The winner’s share of the current purse is $1.5 million.
Not to be outdone by its Quarter Horse counterpart, the Kentucky Derby purse has also been raised to $3,000,000, but the All American paved the way.
Unlike Thoroughbred racing, most of the money given away in Quarter Horse stakes purses is from the owners of the horses themselves. An owner will pay a fee to nominate their horse to a race such as the All American, and then continues to make payments to the race to keep the horse eligible, including a fee to enter and start the horse in the trial. This is common in nearly all Quarter Horse Futurities and Derbies and creates a more self-sufficient business model in the racing world.
To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Thoroughbreds compete in a series of prep races to earn points, and the entry into the race is restricted to the top 20 horses by points earned.
To qualify for the All American, Quarter Horses compete in time trials, a set of races at the same track and same distance as the final, several weeks before the event. Time trials are real races that can be wagered upon, but the emphasis is not on winning, but having the fastest times. The horses with the ten fastest times are eligible to run in the final. The next ten fastest are offered a spot in a consolation race with a smaller purse.
Time trials for the All American often exceed 20 races and are held over the course of two days.
One advantage of time trials is that it allows the sport to implement an extra level of precaution for safe and drug-free racing. Testing in horse racing is more rigorous that of Olympic athletes, and when $3,000,000 is on the line, the industry pulls out all the stops. Horses are tested after the trials have been run and if a prohibited substance is found, that horse may not run in the final, and another qualifier may take its place. Quarter horse racing often implements hair testing, which can detect minute presences of substances dating back as far as six months.
You can watch and wager on the All American Futurity or any of the stakes at Ruidoso with a free online account at Xpressbet, TwinSpires, or TVG; TVG may even cover the race live on their television channel.
There are several ways to handicap the big race. Look for trainers and jockeys with high win percentages. Consider the horse that is the fastest qualifier, as these horses often return to win. But to find a price, look for a horse that encountered traffic, bad weather or a bumped start – anything that may have prevented him or her from running their fastest race in the trial. And yes, fillies can and do compete with the boys at this level. Several of the winners of the last 15 years, including the aptly named AB What a Runner and Runnning Brook Gal [sic] were fillies who defeated colts and geldings to take home the top prize in Quarter Horse racing.
Who will it be this year? Find out on Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs!