On May 31st, 1976, about 200 well-muscled animals lined up in Frankfort, New York, ready for the race of a lifetime. Bred to perfection, there were Arabian stallions, arch-necked and strong-boned and favored to win by almost all observers and Icelandic horses, famous for their smooth gait and Viking pedigree. There were the tall Irish thoroughbreds, and there were striking Appaloosas.
And then there was Lord Fauntleroy the mule.
Lord Fauntleroy—“Leroy” for short—was the choice steed of Virl Norton, a steeplejack from San Jose, California. Along with their many rivals, Norton, Leroy, and his backup mule, Lady Eloise, were set to travel 3,500 miles through 13 states for the “Great American Horse Race.” They would challenge history, expectations, and a whole lot of fancy horses.
The United States spent 1976 gripped by a sort of bicentennial fever. Stir-crazy after 200 years of freedom, citizens nationwide took the opportunity to throw themselves into patriotic passion projects. America has always been sweet on its own land, and many of these tributes took the form of long, winding journeys across it. Millions turned out to watch the Freedom Train, a traveling museum that chugged through 48 states, and nautical parades, in which tall ships sailed up the coast, flags flying. Railroads companies even gave regular trains new paint jobs, sending them criss-crossing the country in red, white and blue.
Into this atmosphere high-stepped the Great American Horse Race. Dreamed up by Chuck Waggoner and Randy Scheiding, two horse-loving salesmen from the Midwest, the race offered a more historically authentic nationalist experience, molded on that of early European settlers, who lacked trains and automobiles. “This race will give people a chance to see the country in a way it has not been seen in 100 years,” Waggoner told the Los Angeles Times before it began.
The route was fittingly nostalgic, incorporating bits of the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, and, somewhat alarmingly, the Donner Party’s doomed journey. The pace, though, was new—3,500 miles over 14 weeks, farther and longer than any organized race within memory. People bit hard. As soon as Scheding took out an ad in Western Horseman—“The adventure of a lifetime for the common American who regards his horse as something special,” it read—registrations came pouring in, along with $500 entry fees.
By the start of the race, 91 teams were lined up and raring to go. Each rider was allowed two horses, and humans and mounts alike represented a diversity of demographics. The youngest was an 18-year-old country-western singer from Oregon; the oldest, a 69-year-old horse trader from Tennessee. There were chiropractors, pediatricians, grad students, nurses, farmers, cowboys and at least one university president.
Some were just in it for kicks, but others took the race, and its $25,000 prize money, quite seriously. Of those, most leaned hard on their horses’ pedigrees. One Californian rode a horse called “Nature’s Ballet”—the only Russian Orlov stallion in America, descended from a horse that once belonged to Nikita Kruschev. Iceland shipped over ten high-born Viking horses, which did high-altitude training in San Francisco before heading to New York to start the race. (“It [will] be sort of like driving a Cadillac at the Indianapolis Speedway,” the horses’ handler told the New York Times.) France sent over dozens of horsemen to ride out of competition, dressed like the Marquis de Lafayette’s soldiers. Other countries, including Australia, Denmark, and Japan, also drummed up impressive contingents. Everyone was sure their breed would take home the win.
Then there were Norton and his mules. Norton, then 54 years old, knew horses—he had spent his Wyoming youth breaking wild ones and selling them to ranchers—and despite the non-inclusivity of the contest language, he, too, regarded his mounts as something special. Sure, ponies were probably the right choice for high-speed mail delivery, and an Arabian could beat a mule over one mile, or ten, or a hundred. A race this long and grueling, though, full of rough terrain and elevation changes, was a different game. Even the race’s organizers predicted only a 25 percent finish rate. In these conditions, Norton gave his mules—and himself—a clear upper hand. When his neighbor at the starting campsite lost her horse to an injury a few days before the race started, he even talked her into borrowing Deacon, his backup mule.
And so they were off. Day by day, the race was less a neck-in-neck sprint than a kind of friendly, prolonged shuffle. The hundred or so riders were accompanied by their second mounts, along with a support staff of about 750, mostly friends and relatives who had volunteered to caravan along in pickup trucks and trailers and carry supplies. The whole posse moved along the same prefabricated route, from camp to camp. There were mandatory vet checks every ten miles. “What’s the slowest race ever? The Great American Horse Race,” joked the Dover, Ohio Daily Reporter when the group hit their town in June.
Pace notwithstanding, it was as grueling as anyone had guessed. Like their pioneer predecessors, horses and riders got tired, injured, or just fed up. The group burned through around 18,000 horseshoes. Despite their enthusiasm, Waggoner and Scheiding hadn’t been able to drum up a budget to match their dreams, and money was constantly running low. In Missouri, veterinarians and crew members quit en masse when they realized they were about to stop getting paid. At one point, the riders staged a mutiny of sorts, attempting to remove the organizers from responsibility. Some main mounts went lame, and were swapped out for the riders’ seconds. Some of those went lame, too.
Eventually, Lady Eloise suffered an injury, and Norton took her out of the race. But he and Leroy stuck to their plan, taking it slow and steady. Most of the other riders grew to know Norton as an honorable man, who, despite his own goals, wouldn’t think twice of stopping to help them. He’d let youngsters pose with Leroy in small towns, making up the time by skipping water stops. Leroy was described as “a seventeen-hand mule slash puppy dog.” Together, they walked through prairies and deserts, mountains and small towns, across the whole top of the country and home to California.
Norton and Leroy were the 31st team to saunter across the finish line, before a crowd of cheering spectators at the State Fair in Sacramento. They settled in for hay and water, and waited for the other finishers. It would take a while before the organizers could total up everyone’s ride time, tack on any penalties, and declare a winner.
But Leroy seemed to already know. As he crossed the stadium, the Associated Press reported, Leroy flopped his ears and gave “a victorious hee-haw.” When the final count came through, it was Team Mule by a landslide, with 315.47 total hours in the saddle. (The second-place horse, an Arabian, clocked in at 324.6 hours with penalties—he had gone lame just before the final leg.) The top ten, when released, was practically a show stable, with two long-eared exceptions: Lord Fauntleroy, five Arabians, one Appaloosa, one Irish Connemara—and Deacon, Norton’s other mule.
Everyone was shocked, particularly the other teams’ sponsors. “[The associations] think it’s hell,” Norton told the Associated Press. “I’m not too popular with them, especially the Arabian associations.” Some riders even accused Norton of cheating. (He told them he’d wire his winnings to a bank in New York, and that they could race back to it.) Newspapers, on the other hand, had a field day. “Mule Runs Away With Great American Horse Race,” yelled the Toledo Blade. “Lord Fauntleroy Is No. 1.”
About the only one not surprised was Norton, who, grinning at the finish line, told United Press International that the other mounts were no match for his mules. “They’re just too much competition for horses,” he said.
Norton picked up his $25,000 prize money and headed back to his ranch in San Jose. For the rest of his life, he referred to himself as the Great American Horseman. And Lord Fauntleroy, the Great American Horse, lived out his days in a green pasture in California, a fitting end for an animal who pulled off a very American dream.
Update, 9/11: The original version of this article said that Iceland sent over a team of ponies; although small, they were actually horses. Thanks to Julia Malik for the correction and we regret the error.