Manor Downs is a small racetrack outside of Austin, Texas. It's used by trainers to get and keep their horses in racing condition—quarter horses mostly, the ears-back, flat-out sprinters of the horse-racing world. One day last week, shortly after dawn, eight or 10 people were in one of Manor Downs' small paddocks to pay a call on a 2-year-old quarter horse named Special Effort. The colt's owners, Dan and Jolene Urschel, had flown in a photographer from Oklahoma City to take some portraits of the animal. Special Effort, you see, is a very special horse; he's the first 2-year-old quarter horse to win more than $1 million in purses (Land Grant, a standardbred, was the first of any breed to win that much at 2) and the first ever to win the American Quarter Horse Association's triple crown for 2-year-olds. All talk stops as his handler leads him in. No one can keep his eyes off him; no one can keep back a look of delight. Not even the colt's trainer, Johnie Goodman, who sees Special Effort most every day. The colt looks that good.
Special Effort has not run since Labor Day, when he won the third leg of the triple crown, the $1.2 million All-American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. His payday for winning that 440-yard dash was $528,000—$210,800 more than Pleasant Colony earned for winning the Kentucky Derby. Special Effort hasn't trained since then; after winning nine races in nine starts, he's off until next May, when his 3-year-old racing season will begin. Yet he looks, well, perfect, as if he would like to go right now. The energy shows beneath his sorrel coat as it shines in the morning light. "He's an athlete type; he don't get real outta shape not doin' much," Goodman says.
The photographer tries to get Special Effort to stand just so, with four legs showing and head in profile, but the colt is having none of it. He stretches, then scratches his left front leg with the side of his head. He is not the squat, heavily muscled animal some might associate with a quarter horse. He was sired by a thoroughbred, Raise Your Glass, and his dam, Go Effortlessly, was three-quarters thoroughbred.
The only thing really spectacular about his conformation is what matters most: He's well balanced. His hocks are low, nearly brushing the grass as he walks, which gives the animal what quarter-horse people call "gathering" ability—the ability to grip the track as he runs. As he moves about the paddock, he does so lightly, like a cat through wet grass. But what Jolene Urschel sees in Special Effort today is the same thing she and her husband saw the first time they watched him race. "He's got a big heart," she says. "He sure does," agrees Goodman. Then, unable to resist, he adds, "But like women, sometimes you got to build 'em one."
This gets a big laugh, even from Jolene. Goodman obviously knows a lot about women, perhaps even more than he knows about horses. He's a good-looking man with a big, meaty handshake that proves beyond question that he used to be a construction worker. When Jolene innocently asks him if he likes to hunt, Goodman kind of shuffles his feet and gives her that easy grin, then tells her that the other day he had killed a 10-point buck with a boat oar. What he actually says, is, "Killed one with the bo'der th'other day. Tehn po'nter." Everybody kind of smiles and thinks maybe they've misunderstood that gentle drawl. Dan Urschel says, "With a what?"
"That's what I thought you said."
It was no easy water shot, either. The deer was on a dead run and Goodman just whaled it upside the head with the oar. "Got it in mah freezer right now," Goodman says.
"Was the season open yet?" Urschel asks, amused.