Sunday, October 07, 2007

Seattle man rides a trail that leads back to 1848

photo:Developer Scott Griffin won the inaugural Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race last month.

By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter

It wasn't about the money back in 1848, when Francis X. Aubry entered cowboy lore by winning $1,000 on a horse race.

Then, the 26-year-old rode 800 miles on the Santa Fe Trail across streams, prairies and high country — even encountering a scalped dead man — in a record-setting five days, 15 hours.

And it wasn't about the money for Seattle developer Scott Griffin, 47, who recently won the 2007 version of the Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race.

If you haven't heard of the 2007 event, that's because this was the inaugural race, dreamed up by Rob Phillips, of Lawrence, Kan.

Phillips, 62, is a onetime hotel owner who describes himself as, "I guess, a little bit of a promoter ... I like horses and I like history." And if it brought in some tourism, that was great, too.

Griffin won an engraved cowboy belt buckle. There were no cash prizes.

For that belt buckle, Griffin rode 515 miles in a race that went from Sept. 3 to Sept. 15. Griffin is now back home, after trailering his two horses to where they're kept at a ranch in California.

But besides the belt buckle, this is also part of the winnings: If you Google the history of the Santa Fe Trail, Griffin will be associated with setting a record on this route, along with Aubry.

For six decades ending in 1880, when the railroad arrived, the trail was the primary commercial highway — with horses hauling the freight — connecting Missouri and Santa Fe. The trail was also used by the military to reach its forts, and by stagecoach lines, gold seekers, fur trappers, emigrants and adventurers.

"I like opportunities where you have to dig deep and see what you're made of," Griffin said.

His marriage of 20 years, which had produced three boys, had ended.

"I needed something to take me away. I needed another personal challenge," he said. In April 2006, Griffin read a newspaper story about Phillips' idea for the race.

"This is either madcap dreaming or the genesis of an American sports tradition," said the story.

Griffin was the first to sign up. The number of entrants grew to 60, all obviously seeking something other than money.

The entrance fee alone was $3,000, not counting the several thousand in expenses for horses and riders and their teams (usually friends) who sometimes traveled along in motor homes.

It's true that this race was considerably less grueling than the one in 1848.

Back then, Francis Aubry strapped himself onto the saddle so as not to fall off while dozing. At the end of the race, his saddle was soaked in blood from his raw thighs.

Along the way, six of the horses that Aubry used either collapsed and died, or the exhausted animals were let go to fend for themselves.

In "True Tales of Old-Time Kansas," author David Dary quotes Aubry as reportedly saying, "I'll kill every horse on the Santa Fe Trail before I'd lose that $1,000 bet [about $24,000 in 2007 dollars], but it's not the money I care about. I'm riding to prove that I can get more out of a horse and last longer than any man in the West."

These days, endurance horse racing is an organized sport. There are mandatory veterinary checks along the route that include measuring how fast the horse's heart rate returns to normal.

Two horses did die in the 2007 race, but it had nothing to do with their health: Their riders somehow ventured onto a road, and they collided with a car.

Since developments, towns and highways have sprung up along many portions of the trail, the 2007 version divided the ride into 10 days riding of about 50 miles each, with three days of rest. The rider with the shortest overall time won.

The riders used Forest Service roads, county roads and private ranchland when they got permission.

Still, as much as the ride was easier in the 2007 version, only eight of the 60 entrants managed to complete each day of it. Some horses couldn't handle it, and neither could some riders.

"No amount of training can get you completely in shape," said Griffin. "I was as sore as hell the first three or four days."

The rides would last seven to 12 hours each day, and to keep weight off the horse, Griffin never sat on the saddle. Much of the time, he said, he rode standing in the stirrups.

Each night, he slept in the horse trailer, right by the portable corrals for his main horse, Cruiser, a 13-year-old Arabian who did most of the most heavy work, and Silver, a younger Arabian and quarter-horse mix. Griffin looked at the stars and kept an eye on them.

A second Santa Fe Trail race is planned for 2008, and Griffin said he'll be there.

He remembered riding in the beautiful countryside; he remembered getting to know the other riders, being able to talk about everything and anything as they rode together.

And, said Griffin, Cruiser and Silver got to him.

Originally, he was going to sell the horses. Not anymore.

"I got touched. I love the horses," he said. "That horse now is your buddy. You've been through something."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or

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