By Clark Fair
Fifty years ago this month, Soldotna resident Larry Lancashire prepared to ride his daughter’s barrel-racing horse around a stream-filled, broken section of Turnagain Arm, not because it was a great idea, but because few other options existed. Precious cargo lay 15 or so miles away, and Lancashire was determined to collect it, come hell or high water.
He would receive a dose of both.
About two weeks earlier, on the afternoon of March 27, 1964, just two hours after Lancashire’s two new thoroughbred horses had left the Port of Seattle, the Good Friday Earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska. The massive temblor and its ensuing tidal waves had little effect on the barge itself, but they necessitated a direction change and greatly complicated Lancashire’s plans.
The barge’s original destination had been Seward, but that port had been decimated by a tidal wave. So the barge had made a course correction and aimed for Anchorage, where farrier and family friend Henry Ferguson was waiting. Ferguson picked up the horses, crated-up half-sisters that Lancashire hoped to employ in horse racing during the upcoming Progress Days celebration in Soldotna, and held them in his own corral until Lancashire informed him of his plan.
On the Anchorage side, Ferguson would drive his horse trailer down the damaged Seward Highway, crossing streams however he could and attempting to get as close as possible to Girdwood, where the tidal flats had been devastated by the surging earth and water. The flats were a jumble of mud and sand and flooded trees, of fractured roadbeds, broken bridges and twisted rails.
On the peninsula side, Lancashire, along with a trio of buddies, would drive a pair of large trucks bearing a small group of horses over Turnagain Pass and down to Ingram Creek, which marked the beginning of the flats and the end of passable roadway.
Lancashire and the others would ride over and through — depending on the extent of the destruction — each of more than a dozen streams. They would cross either highway or railway, whichever offered the easiest passage, until they reached Ferguson. Obstacles included Portage Creek and Glacier Creek, the Placer River and Twenty-Mile River. Then they would collect the two largely untamed thoroughbreds and guide them back to Ingram Creek, load them onto the trucks and haul them home.
Simple enough, in theory, if not in execution.
Back near Soldotna on the family homestead sat Lancashire’s teenage daughter, Abby (now Abby Ala), stewing somewhat because she was missing out on what her father would later term “a grand adventure.” Although one of the horses was meant for her — and although Larry’s focus on horses had everything to do with his youngest daughter’s love of everything equine — he had not allowed her to accompany him.
“They had to spend the night,” Ala said, “and there was no place for a girl to go to the bathroom and that situation, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Out of a desire to protect Abby, Larry forbade her from going.
“These thoroughbreds were wild, wild horses,” Ala said. “They had had very little — anything.”
Directing them or leading them through unfamiliar terrain would not be easy.
Ferguson had injected tranquilizer into the two thoroughbreds, and, according to the story Ala was told when her father returned home, “They were still dopey when he got them to the first river. And there was a railroad trestle, and they walked those stupid thoroughbreds across. After that, the horses had woken up, and they literally had to beat the horses to get them to cross the next river.”
Fortunately, she said, her father had her horse, Wrangle, who had been named after a steed in a Zane Grey novel and was steadfast in leading the less-experienced horses through each difficulty.
“He was the only horse that would just take off and go into the water, just take off and do this, take off and do that,” she said.
When they finally reached the trucks on the other side of Ingram Creek, the thoroughbreds were in bad shape.
“Those horses were just hamburger. They were just so cut up,” Ala said.
A few hours drive later, the thoroughbreds were ensconced in their new home. According to Ala, they’d been handled so infrequently since a family friend had bought them that they still bore proof of purchase. “They still had their auction stickers on their butts from three months before,” she said. “I pulled those stickers off myself. They were glued on tight.”
One of the ironies of Larry Lancashire going to so much trouble for a pair of horses was his lack of background with such animals.
“He didn’t know anything (at first),” Ala said. “He came from a real rich family where (only) girls got riding lessons. But then he had a daughter who was just crazy about horses since birth. He said this was an equine virus, you’re either born with it or you’re not. Dad and I went hunting all the time together. And we practiced horses every night.”
Abby’s older sisters were impartial to horses, she said, and her mother, Rusty Lancashire, “hated them.”
In order to please Abby, and perhaps himself, Lancashire had purchased a couple of horses (“Prince” and “Belle”) early on, and then two more (“Wrangle” and “Hope”). Hope was Abby’s first horse, but she soon traded up for the faster Wrangle, whom she trained for barrel racing.
Then Lancashire decided that, in addition to the Progress Days rodeo — then held at the rodeo grounds in Ridgeway — that horse racing would be an exciting event for local fans. At his urging, ground was cleared at what is now the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds adjacent to Kalifornsky Beach Road, and he directed the construction of a race track there, complete with rails and infield, graduated turns and bleachers.
But there was a problem.
“The race track was made wrong,” Ala said. “Since nobody doing this — my father — had ever set up a race track. And he made the corners too sharp.”
Ala said that the first races at the track might have been held in 1963, and the subpar results for the Lancashire entrants may have prompted Larry to put in a call to Chuck Stiles, a former area homesteader, close family friend and “old cowboy” who had moved out to Oregon after his wife died. At Lancashire’s urging, Stiles traveled to an Idaho horse auction and purchased the two thoroughbreds.
Three months after the horses joined the Lancashire farm, their registration papers arrived in the mail. Abby, who had already selected the smaller of the two horses, learned that the official name of the taller horse was “Citation Sis,” while her new mount was “Polite Abby.” Amused announcers, she said, had fun with the naming irony:
“The announcers would say, ‘Here comes Polite Abby and Mad Abby! Here comes Polite Abby and Fat Abby! Here comes the two Abbys!’ I didn’t care, though, because I was winning.”
Ala, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed about 135 pounds at the time, described herself as having a long body, short legs and a shock of red hair that a friend once described as, “more of a warning than a decoration.”
Although she may have been winning by that time, her initial forays with Polite Abby — months before she knew her name — were anything but stellar, and may even have portended the end of her racing days. The first time she climbed into the saddle and touched her spurs to Polite Abby’s flanks, the horse reared over backward, toppling both of them into the manure. And the first time she rode the horse on Sports Lake Road, they hit an icy corner at such a high speed that they nearly flew over an embankment.
Progress Days horse racing was divided into three categories determined by the pre-established speeds of the horses. Although parimutuel betting was prohibited in Alaska, race organizers, wanting to generate a competitive atmosphere for the crowd as well as the riders, created some sort of bingo system to provide winners and losers in the audience, Ala said. And although she believes that the game was legal, it drew a protest from the Rev. John Shaffer, a pastor at the Kenai Methodist Church.
According to Shaffer, his protest angered many community members but stopped the gambling. He said he could recall no specific details but believed that he was ultimately responsible for stopping horse racing, as well.
Ala, however, sees it differently. During a race probably in 1965, she was riding on the inside of a turn, with Larry riding just off to her right, and Mike McLane just outside of him. According to Ala, McLane fouled her father, who turned his horse inward and bumped Polite Abby, who spilled to the inside and dumped her rider. Abby landed hard on her side, fracturing several ribs and narrowly missing a post supporting the rail.
Larry took the blame for the accident and decided to protect his daughter from future harm by banning her from the track.
“My dad said, ‘You are not racing again. You could just as easily have landed where your face hit the post.’ And then he said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but society doesn’t go for scarred-up women.’ He didn’t say it exactly that way, but he meant it that way. So I never raced again. I couldn’t. He would not allow me,” she said.
With Abby off the track, Larry’s heart apparently went out of the sport. And as he drifted away from the event, horse racing in Soldotna lost its impetus and disappeared.
So horse racing died naturally, she said.
“It was a new thing. And it went for a little while because there was somebody who was really interested in doing that. And that somebody was my dad,” she said.
Larry Lancashire went partway around Turnagain Arm for the thrill of the race and to please his daughter, but he dropped out of racing to safeguard his little girl.