Some columns are worth repeating. Here’s one I wrote (with a few updates) 32 years ago.
I wish the late Gene Hensley could see Ruidoso, New Mexico, now. He took a little village and turned it into one of the prettiest, busiest resorts in the country.
I hadn’t been to Ruidoso for a few years so when I visited there last weekend with wife Helen, daughter Anita, and son Daniel, I was totally amazed.
New shops, new restaurants, new hotels keep popping up everywhere.
And the natives. They make you feel so welcome you want to stake out a home site right then and there.
Following World War II, match races between horses were the rage in the Southwest.
You could bet a bag of oats or thousands of dollars on the outcome. The fun was in the winning.
The Hensley brothers, who started out in the area by buying a bar, later formed a group to build a racetrack in Ruidoso.
There was no way they could compete with the bigger tracks for thoroughbreds so they decided to concentrate on quarter horses.
Out of that decision the multimillion All-American Futurity was born, making Ruidoso the quarter horse capital of the world.
GENE HENSLEY bought out the group in 1953 and became its general manager.
He is one of the most intriguing persons I’ve ever known. He was a throwback to the Gay 1890s. He liked his liquor, threw lavish parties and welcomed the media with open arms.
Part of my job was to cover horse racing. Hensley was so happy when he learned that El Paso was going to start covering Ruidoso races that he sent his private airplane to pick me and El Paso Times sports editor Chuck Whitlock up to take us to Ruidoso from El Paso.
We partied late into the morning.
THE NEXT DAY, hangover and all, he treated us like royalty at the track. And when his pilot took us back to El Paso, he told us we would both be welcome in Ruidoso anytime with hotel accommodations and perks.
Those were the days when newspapers weren’t so pure.
When we returned to El Paso I told our editor what had happened. His attitude was, “Good. It won’t cost us anything to cover the track.”
The All-American Futurity was created by Hensley, Carl Mercer and cowboy musician Ray Reed. Held at the racetrack on Labor Day starting in 1959, they added The Rainbow Futurity in 1964.
BUT IT WASN’T all a happy journey for the Hensley brothers, much, no doubt, caused by Gene’s extravagance.
According to a story by Steve Terrell of the Santa Fe New Mexican, the racetrack under the Hensleys was involved in scandals involving allegations of arson, death threats, political corruption and organized crime.
And there had been some trouble in Arizona. In March of 1948, a federal court jury convicted both brothers for “making false entries to the government on distilled liquor sales.”
Jim got a suspended sentence but Gene served a year and nine months in a federal prison camp.
But the convictions didn’t stop the New Mexico Racing Commission from granting them a license. No state law at the time barred convicted felons from operating a racetrack.
The state took over Ruidoso Downs in 1955 but that didn’t last long.
Gene Hensley hung on until 1969 despite the fact that three years earlier he had served three years for tax evasion at La Tuna near El Paso.
R. D. HUBBARD took over the track in 1988. There has been relative peace and quiet ever since at the racetrack, although there will always be the inevitable charges of doping and such.
Gene Hensley may have been a somewhat of a rogue, but a lovable one.
And certainly, Ruidoso owes its present glory to him and his brother.
Veteran sports journalist, historian and author Ray Sanchez welcomes suggestions for his column. His column periodically runs in El Paso Inc.’s B-Section. Contact him at (915) 584-0626, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at raysanchezbooks.com.