Campbell feature: The ballad of horseman Donny Denton

As the Farm Manger at Valor Farm near Pilot Point, Texas, Donny Denton is approaching his silver anniversary at the place. But his career as a horseman goes back to when he was a kid in Roswell, New Mexico ... here is his ballad.
As the Farm Manger at Valor Farm near Pilot Point, Texas, Donny Denton is approaching his silver anniversary at the place. But his career as a horseman goes back to when he was a kid in Roswell, New Mexico ... here is his ballad.

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The lights of Lone Star Park project a burnished glow, as their Meet opens to much fanfare on a Thursday Night in late April. It’s been 25 years, and the silver moment is a sparkling reminder to everyone that Thoroughbred racing in Texas is alive and … dare we say it … well. A full card of runners will assemble as trainers like Asmussen, Broberg, Calhoun, Davidson, Gustafson, Keen, and Willis, to name a few, all jostle for the honor to appear in the winner’s circle. That familiar tune from the film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, will whistle … signaling that it’s time for the post parade. Who doesn’t like a cowboy theme from a western … after all this is Texas, isn’t it?

A good piece from the oval, beyond the equine throng housed inside the stable gate, and the tale-telling of wagers won at the Bar and Book, if you head north about 50 miles near Pilot Point, you will find an oasis of a place in Valor Farm. Built during the early 1990s by Clarence and Dorothy Scharbauer, the owners of the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Champion, Alysheba, the farm became a fixture on the Lone Star State’s breeding scene. As its stallion program grew in strength, its own broodmare band has produced some important offspring. Former sires like Congaree, Wimbledon, Crossbow, Grasshopper, and Stonesider have given way to the current roster which includes, My Golden Song, Too Much Bling, Bradester, Competitive Edge, Shoplifted, and Eagle. As General Manager Ken Carson says with a broad smile, “The lieutenant governor, and the state’s cash infusion to the purse structure, have stirred breeding, and helped to get people excited.” Valor, now owned by the Scharbauer’s son, Douglas, continues to set the pace.

A couple of months ago, I went to Valor Farm to chase that “pace” for a story. I wanted to immerse myself behind the miles of black fences, and the picturesque Kentucky-like scene of almost 400 acres that the Scharbauers built. The roll call of stallions exerts such an influence on places like Sam Houston Race Park, which was in the heart of its own Thoroughbred Meet. Carson was generous with his time, gave me more than just the “nickel” tour, and answered my questions about everything from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) to his marking his life by every Derby since the 70s. But it was when we entered the Mare Complex that I looked down the shed row, and first caught a glimpse of a silhouette coming towards us. It was a purpose-laden walk. You could tell it was owned by an individual who combined a healthy mix of practicality and earnestness. Carson turned to me and said, “Here’s a horseman for you … I want you to meet our Farm Manager, Donny Denton.”

I am sure you’ve had this happen when you come across someone for the first time; you instantly realize that they carry a special story arc. They have a unique set of perspectives, and as you listen to them, you begin to understand their narrative … their ballad. Denton was born to be a horseman … at an early age he was called to the vocation. But, like a Red Steagall song (one of Denton’s favorite musicians), there are a series of events … some ups and just as many, if not more, downs … that serve as inspiration over the course of a lifetime. Success never happens overnight, as Denton is quick to remind anyone. As I found out, he’s crafted a set of experiences that the next generation of horsemen would do well to digest and understand. It isn’t always Party Dolls and Wine, to quote the name of a Stegall standard from 1971. No, sometimes the crumpled-up pieces of paper around the waste basket are where you find the best material ... the most valuable lessons. This is Donny Denton’s ballad, and it all started in Roswell, New Mexico.

Valor Farm is a showplace, sitting on almost 400 acres north of Dallas-Ft. Worth ... The pastures are home to Thoroughbreds, but it's also Donny Denton's territory as he watches over a massive breeding operation.
Valor Farm is a showplace, sitting on almost 400 acres north of Dallas-Ft. Worth ... The pastures are home to Thoroughbreds, but it's also Donny Denton's territory as he watches over a massive breeding operation.

How to cowboy in New Mexico …

Down a dusty, windswept road close to the old Walker Air Force Base, his father told him on a Saturday morning that he had someone he wanted him to meet. “Ok, what’s this about?" the 17-yr-old said quizzically. His Dad replied with a surreptitious glance, “You’ll see.” Pulling up to a large barn, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a man came out, and greeted them. “I’m Bob Hirst,” the man said sticking out a hand, “I hear you like to ride horses.” The teenager smiled, “Yes sir, I do.” Hirst asked, “Well, I train my own Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, and I need someone to exercise them, so if you want a job after school and on the weekends, it’s yours.” At that moment, Donny Denton’s life changed, altering his trajectory in such a way that he could not imagine.

Born in Mineral Wells, Texas in 1955, the Dentons moved to New Mexico when Donny was just a baby. Roswell, located in the southeast quadrant of the state, was booming, as the oilfields and cattle business thrived. The Land of Enchantment was in its heyday, as the bounce from the Second World War not only produced a new generation, but the opportunities on the farm and other trades seemed to rocketing like the Space Age. The young family wanted to be close to Donny’s grandparents, which also was a major draw for coming west. Denton’s father had a tinkering spirit, learned the trade in the U.S. Army, and he was a whiz when it came to horsepower … both the automobile variety and the equine. He worked in a shop close to Roswell’s downtown center, which boasted a thriving community of businesses. The energy and opportunity made it one of the places to-be in the southeastern part of the state.

Besides working on engines and changing tires, Denton’s father owned a handful of runners, and his son remembers getting a “leg up” on them at an early age. These were Quarter Horses, and there was a makeshift straight track just out 380, west of Roswell, where weekend racing took place. “I was small, and lightweight in those days as a teenager,” grinned Denton, “I thought if Dad would give me the chance to ride in those match races, that I could be successful.” He was … It was common to ride bareback (without a saddle), just with a bridle, plus your wits, it forced you to work on balance. Denton told me, “What we used was what was called a suicide strap … you were tied-on and that was it.” As he rode, Denton graduated to a stock saddle, then one more in-line with what jockeys used. Other owners took notice of him, and when he wasn’t taking his father’s mounts, he was picking up others. He worked horses, learned about exiting a starting gate, and even had a near-death experience aboard a Thoroughbred he was breezing that veered erratically for an arroyo. While kids were hanging around the drive-ins drinking milkshakes on weekends, Denton was getting a full-on equine education, and having the time of his life going fast.

The opportunity to join an outfit like Hirst’s was a stepping stone to a formal racetrack and backside experience. The match was a good one because he could attend class at nearby Roswell Senior High School, and then work with horses when he was free. Hirst, whose family owned a crop-dusting business, did everything from breaking yearlings to breeding some 20-30 mares. At nearby Ruidoso Downs, over in the mountains west of Roswell, the center of the Quarter Horse universe spun. After graduation, Denton became Hirst’s full-time assistant, and even though he was growing too big to be a jockey, he was an asset to the establishment. Hirst saw something in his young charge, and gave him more responsibility. You name a job or an injury, he did it and had it. From sunup to sundown, he was doing everything from jumping on the back of a new acquisition, to mucking out stalls … He suffered a broken leg, a collarbone, and numerous other cuts and scrapes. The lesson? Whatever needs to be done, gets done … “As a teenager, I learned that the horse comes first,” Denton said, “I then took that kernel and with a heap of patience, it became all about the art of horsemanship.”

Hirst took the young man along the New Mexico Circuit during the 1970s. Albuquerque in the north, all the way to Sunland in the south, with stops in-between, made for year-round racing. Still an exercise rider, Denton filled his time by piloting other trainers’ horses too, and he got a true sense of how the best conditioners operated. “New Mexico has the climate, with regard to weather and horsemen … some of the best in the world,” he argued, “I was around them 24/7, and I gained such an appreciation for what they did.” He had no idea where this passion would take him, but the opportunities just kept coming. During the winter months, Hirst would break off and send a string to Chicago to run at Sportsman’s Park (aka Hawthorne). Denton had never experienced the lake effect like he did in the “Windy City,” but he got a “dose real quick” when it came time to orchestrate the workouts during some very brisk mornings. “I would run into this room and lock the door, get warm, then race out and hop on the next mount,” he said with a smile and shake of the head.

After a month away, returning to New Mexico brought a nice relief, and the chance to come back to Roswell. The calendar was flipping, and it was time for the 20-something Denton to make a life decision … stay with Hirst, or try to make it on his own? “He had given me a chance to really make something of myself, and I was grateful, but I also wanted to try my hand at getting my license,” Denton said. Parting on good terms, it was time to go. Nothing was going to be easy, and the young man knew it. But that’s the cowboy-part to being a conditioner. You have to embrace the lifestyle, take chances, and HODL—hold on for dear life. It’s like investing in cryptocurrency, while strapping yourself to the back of a bucking bronco. You never know where you are going to end up, and when everything is going to pieces, you dust yourself off and push on. Denton’s plan? Head to Ruidoso … start over … this time, as a freelancing horseman.

Days of future past ... Denton, pictured on the far right, with one his 'winners,' the aptly-named Renewed Ambition, during his training days in the early 1980s at Sunland Park. (Photo: courtesy of Donny Denton)
Days of future past ... Denton, pictured on the far right, with one his "winners," the aptly-named Renewed Ambition, during his training days in the early 1980s at Sunland Park. (Photo: courtesy of Donny Denton)

How the horsemen trials went …

In 1977, the season at Ruidoso Downs was heating up just as it always did. Donny Denton had the skills; now he just needed some luck. “There were young and talented trainers, and it was the opportunity to shine,” he told me with passion in his voice, “I think you had to be ready to groom, ride, or whatever you could do to get ahead of the other guy.” Denton tried hard … When he wasn’t recruiting new clients or attempting to claim new runners, he exercised other trainer’s horses, and schooled their charges in the gates. Racetracks are social places, and when times are tough, you have to come together and support one another. One minute your horse is getting bested by a rival barn, and the next minute, you are over in their stalls helping them take care of their horses. It’s the life …

The time in Ruidoso came to an end, and the troop moved on to Sunland Park. Down by the Texas border with New Mexico, the track offered the chance for new digs, and Denton tried to make the most of the opportunity. He was everywhere. Galloping horses for $2.00/a head in the mornings … in the afternoons, it was time to head to nearby farms, where for $5.00/a head, he would break horses. “You were always robbing Peter to pay Paul,” lamented Denton, “I think you tried to excel in every aspect of the business because you never knew when an opportunity was going to come around the bend.” According to him, the best horsemen knew the saddle, and if you didn’t have a hole in one, then you weren't working hard enough. These were the moments when you had to lash yourself to the trade, employ that “cowboy-up” mentality, and learn the most important lesson … to think like a horse.

For Denton, and his compatriots, being a horseman meant that you knew how to "understand" the language of every equine athlete. Once you took out your license, you didn’t automatically put on patent leather shoes, and discard what you learned previously. “Throwing your leg in the saddle” was something that you honed, and shaped, that’s where the melding of horsemanship with being a cowboy really came together. Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred training can be fundamentally different because they are distinctively different breeds, but the concepts, the compassion, and how you learn to “outsmart” a horse are very much the same. Denton told me that this is where he began to really see when an animal needed a firm hand or a soft touch. “The best horsemen have good hands, and the mind to go with it,” he explained, “plus they really understand that the horses are the teachers, not the other way around.”

It took Denton some time to develop his own style of horsemanship during the late 70s and early 80s, and riding was the best daily exercise for his profession. He started to formulate a set of “standards” that have stayed with him to this day. “Based on my experience you cannot be the kind that says that “the right horse” is going to make my career,” he said, “I don’t think it works like that because it’s the trainer that makes it happen … who finds a way to get the very best out of them.” Becoming an elite horseman doesn’t specialize in any specific area, they either “are” or they “aren’t” of the ilk … Breaks come down the lane, and, as Denton reminded me, “You are either ready for them or you’re not.” When I asked him a variation of the question posed to one of Tom Wolfe’s astronaut characters in the novel, The Right Stuff … Who was the best he ever saw? … He paused, then said, “Well, I’ve known a lot of them … Bob Baffert … got to know him when he first started in Quarter Horses ... the Asmussen Family, Keith, Sis, Cash, and Steve, they’re the most prolific family in this business, great horsemen, but there was no better man than Roy Reed.” I hadn’t heard of Roy Reed …

After a few years at Sunland, Denton got to know Reed on the backside. The pair were both spellbound with the business of training, and wanted to seek their fortunes against the tidal wave of competition that lay beyond. They were inseparable, and went everywhere together. "He was my best friend," said Denton. Just like in the barn area, helping each other out extended to living conditions, and they decided that renting an apartment near the track was the way to go. “I never met someone that was so good and pure as Roy,” Denton told me in earnest, “and he was a heck of a budding horseman, when he told you something, you knew he meant it.” One afternoon, Reed began telling him about a dream he had to become a jockey’s agent. There were some up-and-coming riders in New Mexico, and Reed had one in mind that had a chance to make it in New York. “I am going to take his book, and then you are going to see his name in lights Donny,” to hear Denton tell it.

It was a Friday, and the pair were looking to take a couple of female friends out for barbeque, and then dancing. Reed told Denton that he needed to drive up to Sunland to watch his employer-to-be, ride in a stakes race. He would be back as soon as he could, while Denton went to get the food. With his eyes welling up with tears he told me plainly, “He never made it back.” Involved in a car accident after he had watched the race, Denton was suspicious that something was wrong because his friend was never late. He heard the sirens, fearing the worst. At the hospital, others from the track had congregated, telling the young trainer that sadly, Reed had passed. He demanded to see him one last time, but the nursing staff refused. “I was just overcome with emotion,” he said, “I thought I was going to lose it, people had to restrain me.” Finally gaining admittance, his friend wept, but noticed that a necklace Reed always wore and a ring were missing. He left immediately for the crash site. Sifting through the broken glass that was swept to the curb, Denton found the piece of jewelry, later returning it to Reed’s family. It was the end of a promising career for Roy Reed … “The jockey that he was going to take to New York?” said Denton, “Dexter, New Mexico’s own … Mike Smith.”

Denton with Valor's Texas 'Super Sire,' My Golden Song. As the stallion approaches 20-yrs-old, he has served as one of the cornerstones to their Stallion Program.
Denton with Valor's Texas "Super Sire," My Golden Song. As the stallion approaches 20-yrs-old, he has served as one of the cornerstones to their Stallion Program.

How not to chase a mare …

After the death of his friend Roy Reed, Donny Denton spent the next 10 years of his life trying desperately to make it as a trainer in New Mexico, and in nearby Oklahoma. He had kept in-touch with Bob Hirst, who always wanted to help. The pair would see each other, with his old mentor stopping through on his way to another meet. By his early 40s, Denton was “barely surviving.” There were some minor stakes victories with a Texas bred named Trivia Bug, but times were incredibly lean. “I was my own worst enemy,” he said frankly, “I think that really put me in a spot, time and time again.” The breaks just didn’t go his way, and he knew he needed to make a change, the question was what to do next?

On the move, always looking for new stock, he got to know Bruce Hill at the famed Phillips Ranch in Frisco, Texas, a town outside of Dallas that nowadays is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. It was almost the mid-1990s, and Denton phoned Hill one afternoon. In Oklahoma City at the time, he was told to come down for an impromptu interview. The operation was expanding its Thoroughbred Division, and Hill needed someone to help oversee it. Driving back over the Red River, Denton realized it was just too good an opportunity to pass on. He sold what he had, Racy’s Flame was his last entry, and moved back to Texas. He had a new direction … the farm life beckoned … a new verse to be written.

After a year under Hill’s watchful eye, Denton had amassed a ton of knowledge in a short amount of time. Hill was an ace when it came to equine operations. One day he caught up with Denton and said, seemingly out of the blue, “Let’s go, I’m leaving, and you are coming with me … we are heading over to Valor Farm.” His protégé was shocked, but he knew the Scharbauer’s reputation, having met Clarence as a young man. The opportunity knocked, and it was time to pack up again. When the patriarch of Valor saw the backside of him in a stall at the new digs, Scharbauer whooped, “I’d know that young fella anywhere!” Valor became home. The shift to a breeding farm was a pivot for Denton, but the culmination of his experiences dovetailed nicely. As the Farm Manager, Hill oversaw the administration aspects, but it was Denton who liked to get his hands dirty every day. “I just took to it, and realized that a steady job provided such security,” he said with gratitude in his voice. The next 3 years flew by, and Hill made the announcement that he was moving on to Florida, as another opportunity came his way. Denton decided to stay, and was offered the position that Hill vacated. He was the Farm Manager of Valor now.

“Running a Breeding Farm like this one is all about the little things,” says Denton, “I think when it comes to the season you can’t wait till it gets here, and then you can’t wait till it ends.” Figuring out the pace, and continuity is a tough challenge, but it was one the horseman was ready to tackle. Over the years, going on 24, he has learned a number of truisms, and facts that reoccur. But just when you think you have seen everything … you haven’t. To him, what comes first is the horse, and just like before, they are the guide. For Denton, it is a balancing act, and when you drive the property with him, he really gives you a chance to see what he sees. “My head is constantly on a swivel,” he told me, “I’m thinking like a horse, but also at the same time like a human because I want my crew to be on the lookout for potential problems.

Whether it is pulling physically into the hay barn to see what needs tidying, or looking for a protruding nail that is jutting out from a fence that could create a snag, Denton knows that you have to be ready for anything. Horses are curious, and can get into trouble in the least likely places, so a downed tree limb might not look dangerous, but foals can get caught in them, creating the potential for injury. Again … it’s the little things … The key is getting the folks under him to manage themselves, and that starts with Denton setting the example. As a horseman, you learn that a great foreman, just like a great groom, can make or break you. Bob Hirst knew that, telling Donny once that “All the good ones are gone.” In an effort to constantly improve the operation, Denton is always looking for ways to implement change because it keeps things fresh and new. Like a guru, he believes that you manage without managing, and that can go a long way towards a smooth day, week, or month. “Every day here is different, and I have to be mindful to put myself in other people’s shoes,” admitted the Farm Manager, “I think that is not easy for me to do because I expect so much.”

Denton tries to impart knowledge whenever and wherever he can. If a mare doesn’t want to move to another pasture, instead of chasing her around, thus increasing the chance for an accident, they will empty the space. Horses like humans, they enjoy an audience, and most of the time when that dissipates, they give up. Again, like before, you have to develop an equine brain. Denton relies heavily on Foreman Matt Klingsporn to carry out missions like this, but you will not find the Farm Manager hanging around his office. The relationships with his other hands who are charged with everything “you can see” are vastly more important, and you cannot lead from behind. The work includes cutting and mowing nearly 400 acres, mind you, plus the cycle during the first 6 months of the year, which is breeding season. That’s just the tip of the sword …

Valor has its own stallions and mares, but it goes beyond that. As a diversified breeding org, outside individuals bring their brood mares to the picturesque spot, and can leave them in Denton’s care, or take them back to their own farms once the work in the shed is complete. It’s a flexible situation that probably sees some 150 mares covered each season, running from January until June. The Stallion Program has attracted major clients during Denton’s tenure, and he says that he treats everyone of them the same … with respect and admiration. “I had an older gentleman drive up in this old pick-up truck unannounced on a Sunday, and he is wearing overalls and a torn shirt,” said Denton, “I gave him the tour, and we chatted, and he ended up sending us 6 mares that week.” His point … “You never know who is going to come through those gates.”

Denton and GM Ken Carson make a formidable duo, but they also work in concert with a crack staff that includes Shanna Sjogren and Deborah Goin. With offsite veterinarian David Unnerstall available, Valor works round the clock to produce the very best that Texas has to offer. Denton has a schedule this time of year that runs on a 24/7 basis. The pastures in-and-around the breeding barn are part of a massive rotational system that is constantly cycling through based on the mares that occupy them. “We have a night watchman that is regularly doing a timed headcount because you never want a mare to lay down in some low spot where you cannot see her,” Denton told me. It’s all geared towards safety and security for the occupants. That goes for the stallions too that are onsite. We ended up at the breeding shed, with the well-known My Golden Song housed nearby. Nearly 2 decades old, the sire is nearing the end of his tenure as a professor at Valor. Denton went up to him for a greeting, and a nuzzle, and you could see that the pair had a connection. It was one of those moments … a horseman astride a horse.

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And the ballad plays on …

Donny Denton’s path to becoming a horseman at Valor Farm wasn’t specific, but it was circuitous. The aggregate of life has totaled an impressive tally. He didn’t always know what direction he was headed in, but he continues to try … it’s what a horseman does. Ken Carson told me, when I asked how important Denton was to their operations, “He is essential … he’s the most complete horseman I know because he has that soft touch, which is central to this business.” What makes Denton so interesting is that his “hands-on” experience, also known as life, was fueled by his love of all things equine. If he got bucked off, frozen because of the windchill, or just lost someone close to him, he found ways to rally when it seemed that everything was lost. Denton survived by building a catalog of knowledge that couldn’t be learned in some classroom … but he sure could teach a class on living as a horseman.

Personifying the horseman’s life, Denton writes a ballad that speaks to what an old saying he once heard … “When the going gets tough, tie a knot in the end of the rope, and hold on.” The spirit of a New Mexico cowboy, instincts built over time, and willingness to stand against long odds, has made Denton who he is today. I was struck by something he told me towards the end of our interview. “We aren’t better than the next farm,” he explained with a reassuring emphasis, “I think that’s the wrong way to look at where you are now … we are doing things the Valor Farm way, and that’s our guide.” We could tweak that assertion, replacing Valor Farm with the name Donny Denton. As he approaches his own silver anniversary as Farm Manager, this is his ballad. Far from the lights and glow of the racetrack, it’s a record that all of us would do well to know. You never know when or where you are going to find a story.

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