By Peter J. Sacopulos
Like many baby boomers who entered their teens in the mid-1960s, Raymond Adair Jr. had an issue with his father. But it wasn’t a disagreement over long hair, rock music, or his choice of friends. The problem, in young Ray Adair’s eyes, was his father’s appalling ability to stretch the truth.
Ray Sr. claimed he began life as a foundling, left under a pinion tree by a band of Crow Indians before being adopted by a couple who ran a ranch in New Mexico. That was bad enough, but it was Ray Adair’s endless exaggerations about his horseracing career that really embarrassed his son.
In the elder Adair’s accounts, he won his first Thoroughbred race at age six. He lost a match race against the legendary Seabiscuit by a nose. He won the Bluegrass Stakes, finished second in the Preakness, and rode in the Kentucky Derby twice. He stood down gangsters and befriended greats like Eddie Arcaro. It was all too much.
“Growing up, I thought Dad was just a bullshitter. Or a horseshitter, anyway,” Ray Jr. says with a soft chuckle. “Imagine how I felt when I figured out all those horseracing stories were true.”
Throughout his childhood, Ray Jr. had been aware that his father was a jockey and horse trainer. His family, including his mother Evelyn and his older sister Rayette, had tagged along on the racing circuit for years. But Ray Sr.’s racing days and the Adair family’s nomadic ways came to an end in 1961. Evelyn had been diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel. The family settled in Phoenix, and Ray Sr. hung up his silks and worked for a fruit distributor. Evelyn died in 1963, and Ray moved the family to Window Rock to work for his brother-in-law, who taught him how to operate construction equipment.
In Colorado for an unrelated job interview in 1964, Ray decided to call Thoroughbred breeder Conyer (“Connie”) Stewart. Connie Stewart had first seen Ray ride at the Jamaica Race Course in New York around 1950 (Ray Sr. sometimes said he first met Conyer Stewart in 1943. However, the Centennial Track did not open until 1950, making the late 1940s more likely). Deeply impressed, Stewart offered Adair a job as his jockey at the newly built Centennial Track near Littleton, Colorado. Adair and Stewart hit it off, but Ray, a top rider on the prestigious east coast circuit, passed on the offer. After he left the east coast in the mid-1950s, Ray did do some riding for Stewart at Centennial.
The day Ray called him, Connie Stewart answered the phone at his new Stewart Thoroughbred Farm. He immediately offered Ray the job of manager. Adair and his children came to live at the ranch, and Rayette and Ray Jr. attended school in Rye and helped out with the chores. Ray Jr. worked alongside his dad for four years, seeing firsthand how good his father was with horses. Ray Sr. seemed to have found the ideal life after racing—until he and Connie Stewart abruptly fell out.
“I never really knew why,” Ray Jr. says, but he believes it was likely due to a quirk of his dad’s personality. Raymond Adair Sr. could be as sweet as soda pop or as stubborn as a mule. “The same thing had happened with my uncle in Window Rock. Dad was a little guy, only five feet three,” his oldest son recalls. “He was sensitive about it, and I think it made him quick to jump to the conclusion that someone was trying to push him around.”
Ray Sr. left and took a job maintaining roads for the county. Not wanting to change high schools, Ray Jr. stayed on. It was while working for Connie Stewart that Ray Jr. began to realize his father’s fantastic racing tales were true. Ray Jr. would bring one of them up as an example of his dad’s penchant for telling whoppers, only to have Stewart say, “Actually, your dad did do that.” It would take many years and some research to get the full picture, but eventually, Ray Jr. and his relatives would marvel at the true adventures of the jockey known as Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair.
Those adventures began in the summer of 1928, when a Texan named Louie Kirk arrived in the town of Blanco, New Mexico, and entered a Thoroughbred stallion named Static in a match race at the San Juan County Fair. Kirk stabled the horse at the track, and found an eager, if unlikely, caretaker in six-year-old Raymond Adair. Small for his age but full of energy, Ray was growing up on a nearby ranch and had a remarkable knack with horses. The boy not only loved them, he seemed to understand and communicate with them in that special way that only a few people can. Little Ray Adair earned a half-dollar a day feeding Static, cleaning his stall and riding the horse to the river for water.
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