HOUSTON -- From Wall Street to Main Street, high-riding businessmen are exchanging their three-piece suits for cowboy hats and boots and climbing on non-thoroughbred 'cutting' horses which may make them millionaires.
The business and sport of training and riding cutting horses originated in the Old West of the mid-1800's, when cowboys from various ranches gathered to see whose horse could best 'cut' a cow out of a herd, a ranch chore.
The winner usually took home a few dollars tossed into a hat by participating cowhands.
Modern cowboys still pit their horses and their pride against each other -- but their winnings have skyrocketed to the point of attracting big-time investors.
Total prize money paid in the more then 1,000 events sanctioned by the National Cutting Horse Association approached $7 million in 1982; purses in 1984 are expected to top $9 million.
One cutting horse alone has been syndicated for $6 million.
'Last year, the Kentucky Derby purse was about $500,000. The purse in the NCHA Futurity was over $1 million,' said Dan Lufkin, one of many newcomers to the sport.
Lufkin, 49, a multimillionaire financier, is co-founder of investment bankers Donaldson Lufkin and Jenrette and a board member of Columbia Pictures and other companies.
'People are coming into cutting as they have in thoroughbred racing. They're looking for excitement and money,' he said.
Lufkin said he entered the business in 1975 for the purpose of improving the horse stock on his 75,000-acre Oxbow Ranch in Prairie City, Ore., but quickly discovered the financial rewards of breeding, training and selling cutting horses.
On the ranch, cutting horses -- most often highly bred quarter horses -- are used to 'cut' a cow from a herd for branding, medical attention or preparation for market, without disturbing the rest of the herd.
In cutting horse competitions, the same principals apply, but within a 2 -minute time limit.
The rider must move into a herd of calves and separate one calf so that the calf is in front of the horse and the herd behind.
With no assistance from the rider, the horse competes directly with the calf -- starting, stopping, pivoting, spinning, galloping -- to prevent it from rejoining the herd.
Until recently, most of those involved in the cutting horse business were people who loved to ride and train cutting horses, Lufkin said.
'What you've had is people who love and appreciate horses and ride them. To watch a cutting horse, you appreciate the drama, the athletic skill and the judgment of the horse. It's a wonder to behold,' he said.
'The non-rider is just beginning to get involved. There's a great deal of western lore involved and tradition of the Old West, that's part of it. But the purses are attracting them.'
Lufkin predicted total purse money would quadruple within five years.
But the big money comes from breeding.
A young, untrained cutting horse with a good bloodline can sell for $30,000 to $50,000, while a trained mare with proven skills can be worth more than $100,000.
Studs can be worth millions in stud fees.
A male descendant of Doc Bar, the granddaddy of cutting horses, was syndicated in 1979 for $6 million -- about $2 million less than the highest selling thoroughbred yearling.
Lufkin said cutting horses also provide a substantial tax shelter.
'The horse is a tax writeoff from the point of view that the animal is productive as a farm animal. That horse works for its living,' Lufkin said.
Zach Wood, secretary-treasurer of the National Cutting Horse Association, said you don't have to be rich to be involved with cutting horses, 'but it helps to play the game. Nobody here is on the cheap.'
'I'm not going to say it's just a rich man's sport, but we've got some of the richest people in the southwest involved (in the NCHA),' he said.
Moneyed participants include Tommy Moore, chairman of International Music Corp., the world's largest maker of guitars; Jim Milner, cofounder of Taco Bell; Bill Heiligbrodt, former chairman of the board of Texas Commerce Bank of Houston; and Stephen (Tio) Kleberg, proprietor of the King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas.
Lufkin was in Houston recently for the 1982 NCHA World Championship Finals at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
Although ranked within the top 30 non-professionals in 1982, Lufkin sat on the sidelines for the event -- watching the growth of the cutting horse industry.