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Fort Fontleroy Horserace

The true story of a horserace between a Kentucky thoroughbred and a Navajo pony in 1861 at Fort Fontelroy.

Fort Fontleroy, now Ft. Wingate, was taking its ease one warm October afternoon in the fall of 1861. A group of men were idly chatting in Dr. Cavanaugh's store. Among the group were Jose B. Sena, Captain of Co. A, Aniceto Abeyta, Adjutant of the Regiment, Manuel Pino and. Rafael Ortiz all well known in New Mexico and particularly in Santa Fe.

Tall, calm grey‑eyed Dr. Cavanaugh was well known in those days. He was Fort Sutler at the time and his store was sort of city hall and club room combined. It was there that all the great questions of the day were discussed, where many disputes arose and all were settled. A never failing topic of interest and discussion was the doctor's thoroughbred Kentucky horse. On this day as the group was talking aimlessly, a commotion was heard outside. The door of the store was thrown open and Manuelito the great Navajo chief and five or six followers walked in. The Navajos were on very friendly terms with the soldiers and were warmly received.

Manuelito said that he wished to speak to Col. Chaves who was the commander of the Regiment, but was told that the Col. was ill. He said nothing for a few minutes and then singled out Captain Sena and asked if he could speak to him in private. Capt. Sena went outside with Manuelito and after a few minutes returned with the news that the Indians wished to challenge the soldiers to a horserace between Dr. Cavnaugh's horse and a prize horse of the Indians. The terms of the race were quickly agreed upon and the Indians went off.

The race was to take place in two weeks. In the interim, the Kentucky horse was the object of more attention than ever. It was agreed that Rafael Ortiz was the best horseman in the fort and should therefore ride the horse. From that time on, the main topic for discussion in Dr. Cavanaugh's store was the great race and the bets which would be won.

While great preparations were going on at the fort, the Indians were by no means idle. They assembled great quantities of horses and mules, blankets and buckskins to bet against the soldiers. Every night the “Pujacantes” or medicine men held ceremonies to see how the race was going to turn out. At these ceremonies two crude little wooden horses were the objects of interest, Prayers and incantations being said over them. At the end of all the ceremonies some sign was given the Pujacantes that the race would be won by the Indian pony.

The day of the big race arrived. By six o'clock in the morning the Indians began to appear driving before them horses and mules which they were going to bet. By noon there were two thousand Indians on the spot. The fort was a busy place indeed and wagers were made on all sides. Manuel Pino, Officer of the Day, was busy trying to keep some semblance of order. At one end of the fort was a large corral which was to hold the stakes. Pino stood by he gate ready to receive the wagers. When one horse was bet against another, the two were tied together and put into the corral. If money was bet against a piece of buckskin, the money was tied in a corner of the buckskin with a paper bearing the names of the betters, and thrown  on a pile in the centre of the fort. The camp was a veritable chaos of stamping horses and noisy men.

Rafael Pino and the Kentucky horse were the centre of an admiring group. As yet no one had seen the horse that the Indians had matched with a professional race horse.

At last the very hour for the race arrived, and the Indian horse was brought forth. It turned out to be a nervous little sorrel pony with a wiry little Indian for a rider. Everything was ready for the start. Indians and all soldiers crowded together on the sides of the parade ground where the race was to take place. In those days there were no starters. The contestants decided when the race should begin. The Kentucky thoroughbred and the Indian pony made ready for the start. Three times they started and three times the Indian turned back saying that they had not started together. The fourth time the two horses were given their heads and started neck and neck at an easy trot. Soon the Kentucky horse was in the lead. The Indian struck his pony with a piece or rope and rushed right across the path of the big horse.

Ortiz tried to stop but it was no use the Indian and his pony were thrown and rolled over and over in the dust. In a second, the whole camp was in an uproar. The Indians made a break for the corral yelling that they had won the race. They gathered blankets and buckskins as they ran and turned all the horses and mules loose. Some one started to shoot and in a second a regular battle was in process. Nearly two hundred Indians were killed and as were many soldiers.

The Indians finally fled dropping blankets and buckskins as they ran.

The next morning Col. Chaves was up and around and superintended the burial of the Indians and the soldiers, side by side.

Thus ended the last race between the soldiers of Fort Fontelroy and the Navajo Indians.