Horseplay: Racing requires a lifetime commitment
On a brisk morning last month, Mark Schultz mounted a fidgety colt belonging to a friend to take him for a breezing gallop around the half-mile track at Schultz Racing Stable, just off 21 Road between Grand Junction and Fruita.
Twice, as the young racehorse was ponied to the track by its owner on another horse, the colt decided it was more bucking horse than racehorse, and twice Schultz bailed off the chestnut colt, once landing in a heap on the soft earth leading up to the track. But the third time proved a charm. The colt settled down as they reached the track, and Schultz took him for a trip around the track at a moderate gallop.
Few racehorse trainers get on horses themselves to gallop them. Schultz, at more than 6 feet tall — and with a wife, April, and young daughter, Taylor — seems an unlikely candidate for such an endeavor. But riding his racers is important to Schultz.
“I save money over having others breeze my horses,” he said. “Plus, I get a better idea of how a horse is doing than just watching them. I can feel if anything is wrong with them.”
A few minutes later, Schultz was on his own horse, a four-year-old quarter horse stallion named HESA A Royal Fury, that Schultz hopes to take to his first races this spring.
Illness prevented any racing for Fury as a three-year-old. This day, there were no issues on Fury. He and Schultz made two quick laps around the track. They galloped rapidly, but far from full speed. With a professional jockey in the irons, Fury has been clocked at 43 mph. But Schultz doesn’t try to push him to top speed when he is riding, since he weighs far more than a normal jockey’s 100 to 120 pounds.
Even so, riding racehorses has been a part of Schultz’s makeup for a long time.
“When I was eight years old, I decided I wanted to be a jockey,” he said. “But by the time I was a teenager, I was too big. But I still like to gallop my own horses.”
That youthful interest in racehorses developed as Schultz was growing up next to the Graff Dairy on 29 Road. Nearby, the late Bill Graff raised and trained racehorses.
“Bill threw me up on pony horses when I was little,” Schultz said. Later, he began breezing horses for Graff and continued to do so through high school.
Then it was off to college at Mesa State College, where Schultz obtained a degree in biology, then began a conventional work career.
“But I wanted to get back into racing. The opportunity arose and we were able to buy Graff’s old horse place.”
His old mentor, Bill Graff, “passed away two weeks before I ran my first horse in a race,” Schultz recalled.
The Schultzes stayed at the 29 Road location until 2007, when encroaching development convinced them it was time to move. They bought the place off 21 Road, which already had a large indoor arena where Mark could do some training in bad weather. He and his father, Tom, built the half-mile training track.
They’ve had reasonable success. “From 2002 to 2009, we ran in the top three in 50 percent of our races,” Schultz said. But, in 2010, a new and illegal drug hit the quarter-horse racing world, “and we just couldn’t win.”
However, that drug had serious adverse effects to horses. Its use in racing was the subject of a big exposé by The New York Times, and it raised a clamor among animal-rights groups. The American Quarter Horse Association began to clamp down and the drug is far less prevalent. Schultz is hoping he will regain racing success this year.
Through a friend, he got the track approved as an official workout track — meaning times posted on the track can be used for qualifying in quarter horse races and to establish a running history.
That helps for a trainer far removed from commercial racetracks.
“We’re 4 1/2 hours from racetracks in Denver, Salt Lake City and Farmington (N.M.),” he noted. That makes racing more difficult, in some respects, than those who live and train near major tracks. But there are advantages, as well.
“It’s cheaper for me to stay here and train horses than it would be if I was boarding them at a track,” he said. “And hay is cheaper.”
Additionally, Schultz has unlimited access to his track and other training facilities whenever he wants to use them. He doesn’t have to share with other trainers.
He’s using that freedom to get ready for the racing season that begins later this month in Salt Lake City, followed by the summer racing season at Arapahoe Park near Denver.
“Racing can be cruddy,” Schultz said, noting there have been problems with the sport and that it’s an expensive and frustrating endeavor when your horses lose.
Still, he said, “There’s nothing like winning — watching your horse cross the finish line first.”