History: Pat Garrett, John Garner, and Horse Racing in Uvalde, Texas

By: Zac Kerbow, Texas Ranch Sales Associate Broker

Over the years, there have been many famous people to visit Rocksprings, Texas, that sleepy ranching town turned hunting mecca that hangs on the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau. There was Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert who parked their forty foot motorhome on the courthouse square while they looked to buy a ranch in the area. Ranch real estate guru Ed White took them out; he didn’t know they were famous until one of his secretaries told him later that day.  Earl Campbell sat in a local diner a few years ago after hunting in the area, while similarly, Ted Nugent’s photo is proudly displayed in the local feed store, showing the rocker with a local rancher.  With all those visits being in the last 10-20 years or so, it is hard to imagine that Rocksprings had its largest celebrities over 120 years ago.  One was famous for killing the most notorious outlaw of the time, and the other would become vice president of the United States.  Perhaps you have heard of Pat Garrett and John Nance Garner. Well in 1895 they decsended on the humble ranching community and fleeced the locals in a historic horse race.

The legendary lawman and the eager attorney supposedly met over a poker table in a Uvalde saloon.  Both men were known to enjoy a friendly wager and seemed to have immediately hit it off. While Garrett had already been made a national celebrity for his killing of Billy the Kid in New Mexico, the young Mr. Garner was a young, up and coming lawyer just beginning to make his mark.  Garner had come to Uvalde to benefit from the arid climate, being better for his lungs and the tuberculosis that threatened him. At the time of their meeting Garner was a junior circuit rider, working legal cases across a 200 mile territory with little grandeur and many miles horseback. The older Garrett was chasing another rabbitt in the brush of fortune as he sought to build a horseracing empire on the Nueces.  There was a mile long race track at the Uvalde fairgrounds and Garrett set up his own stables not far away.  The two men became friends and would often bet the horses together, with Garrett even naming two horses after the future congressman.    

Meanwhile, 60 miles north, the community of Rocksprings had recently mounted a successful coup for the county seat over nearby Leakey.  So contentious was the vote that an armed escort was required to transport county records (Real County would later be formed so Leakey wouldn’t feel so bad.)   These local hardened residents had their own beliefs on the quality of their horses. Local ranchers and homesteaders would divert themeseslves with barbeque, barn dances and match races, with families all loading up and bringing their best quarter horse to the town track or just setting the races down a flat patch of dirt.  After a time it was known who would bring the fastest horses. One of the more successful breeders was the Thurman family living down on the West Prong of the Nueces River.  They were known to be willing to bet against any and all challengers.

As horseraces were seen as a diversion to some, the speculation of horses was also seen has a means of making your livelihood.  And so it was on a summer day in 1895 a horse was stabled at a local livery and its owner began to make the rounds. He was looking to match his mare, Betty Connors, against the best the blossomming community had to offer.  He found his match in a horse named Gulliver, owned by the Thurmans. The dates and terms were fixed and in a few months time, Rocksprings would host the social highlight of the season.  Word soon spread that the visiting animal was under the ownership of famous New Mexico lawman, Pat Garrett. While races were a common, weekly fixture, when someone with the recognition of Garrett comes to town, it becomes an event.

The challenge of handicapping these match races was always a difficult one. While you knew how fast your horse was there wasn’t much information that could be obtained on a horse you’d never seen run.  As opposed to the present day parimutual races where odds are established by the bets actually placed and payouts based on the amount of money in the pot, these bettors would have tried to find an oddsmaker that gave them the best odds for their bet.  

Pat Garrett

John N . Garner
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

So, while the Thurmans and many of the surrounding ranchmen new the speed of Gulliver, they knew very little of the Garrett horse, Betty Connors.  

Thousands of people would have gathered around the old fairgrounds, pitching tents around the race track days in advance of the race.  From what has been recorded the two horses were equally matched with bets being evenly placed on either horse.  It wasn’t until the day of the race that the newly elected Uvalde County Judge, John Garner, rode into town in a buckboard buggy.  Sometime in the afternoon of the big race, Judge Garner stood up on his buggy and offered all bettors 2 to 1 odds in favor of Garrett’s Betty Connors.  Perhaps the local Rocksprings folks could hardly believe the fortune of betting on Gulliver with such favorable odds, or more likely, they realized this fiery little lawyer had some inside information.  While the pride of the Rocksprings folk would have encouraged a bet for Gulliver, it would have been hard to discount the certainty of the future vice president.  But as pride and stubborness go, well these men wouldn’t be where they were without it.  

With much anticipation, the two horses lined up to race the typical 400 yards of a quarter horse race. The spectators would most likely have stood along the rail, on wagons or on top of the highest spot they could find.  As the horses raced for the finish line there must have been audible groans and perhaps some cursing as Garrett’s horse finished ahead by three lengths.

Now the jovial judge was back atop his buggy without having to payout much, taking the locals money and descending down the hill, through the canyon and home to Uvalde.  He had probably made as much that day as he would in a year on his judge’s salary. Garrett would have been a considerable winner as well, and one can imagine the back slapping that must have gone on back in a Uvalde saloon. Unfortunately his luck must not have lasted as he is quoted as writing, “There is no chance in the world to make a dollar in Uvalde.”  Garner didn’t share the sentiment and went on to become one of the largest landowners in Uvalde County, also operating a newspaper, title company, with various interests in many other enterprises. His election as a US Congressman, Speaker of the House, and eventually Vice President of the United States might just solidify him as the most famous visitor to Rocksprings, Tx

Sources:  Nueces Headwater Country, Allan A Stovall; Naylor Co; First Edition 1959 Oldtimers of Southwest Texas, Florence Fenley, 1957 1st First Edition 

Zac Kerbow

Zac Kerbow

Texas Ranch Sales, LLC Associate Broker

Zac has over a decade of experience in farm and ranch sales and has extensive knowledge of West Texas & Hill Country ranches. He also spent almost 10 years selling farm and ranch insurance, giving his clients a unique perspective when they are buying or selling a ranch.  He has also spent significant time kayaking and fishing Texas’ rivers from the Guadalupe and Llano to the Devils and Pecos, among others over the years.