It was the party year of 1976 in The United States of America, the Vietnam war had just finished and the country was turning 200 years old. Every month things were going on, the whole country was celebrating for pretty much the entire year. The birthday party appeared to be going on forever, the airplanes were painted in red, white and blue; and there was even a fleet of tall ships that sailed down the Hudson River. Of course, there was also horse racing, and the biggest event of the year was The Great American Horse Race.
It was an event that would span over 100 days and would be 3,500 miles going from New York to Missouri to California. The whole competition was covered by the press and the winner would receive $25,000 – which by today’s value would be $200,000. There were over 100 riders in the race, cowboys turned up and World War II veterans also – in fact, there was even an Austrian count.
And then there was Virl Norton, an old rider that had grown up working on farms. He didn’t have a big bank account or a major team behind him, he didn’t even have a horse because Norton was riding a mule. But you see that was his plan, growing up on a farm he knew how horses held up to endurance and stamina, and he knew that mules would outlast horses any day of the week. Sure they were not the quickest, but then in this race endurance was key.
At the time the saying was Arabian horses dominated the endurance world, if you were not riding an Arabian then you were following an Arabian. Norton only had his 16-year-old son Pierce with him on his team, and he had only just learned to drive, but that may have been a blessing in disguise. You see while the rest of the competitors were drinking heavily every night, Virl and Pierce remained focused on the task at hand – ensuring they always ate correctly and looked after their mules.
This was important because vets were checking horses during each daily race, and if they decided the horse was unfit to keep going that day the rider would get a penalty. This was how Norton eventually one the race on a mule, he never got a penalty and the other rider’s penalties just kept stacking up.