Willis Horton Puts Marshall on the Map


By Sara Dacus

Sara Dacus

Sara Dacus

My horse racing bucket list includes tracks most aficionados want to visit:  Santa Anita, Del Mar, Keeneland (I visited Saratoga before I could fully appreciate it). The events on my list are also predictable: the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup, and—if we can dream big—why not Royal Ascot and Dubai World Cup. Recently, my love of horse racing took me to a quite unexpected place:  E. Daniel Hardware Store on the court square of Marshall, Ark., the seat of Searcy County. 

Searcy County’s population peaked at 15,000 during the 1910’s, but the numbers have hovered around 8,000 since the 1960’s. The 2010 census reported Marshall’s population to be 1,355. The court square mirrors many across the south:  it has experienced a decline in viability, but business continues. Second-generation proprietors now operate two of the longest-standing businesses, Roten’s Furniture and E. Daniel Hardware Store.

Elmer Daniel opened the hardware store in 1942. He was married to Pearl Ferguson, and the couple had five children. In 1955, the kids were attending a rodeo, and the loudspeaker asked the Daniel children to come together. They were told their father had suffered a heart attack and passed away. Pearl took on the management of the store. Tragedy again struck the Daniel family in 1963: a fire razed the south side of the Marshall town square, causing significant damage to the hardware store. Pearl’s son George, who was at the University of Arkansas, left his studies to come help her put the store back together. He never left.

George Daniel is a yellow-dog Democrat. One Christmas, his daughters gave him the large painting of the Democratic presidents playing cards which hangs over his living room fireplace. George was Bill Clinton’s campaign coordinator for Searcy County from 1980-1990. The hardware store has the atmosphere of a small-town coffee shop (his wife Alice drops off thermoses). It is a hangout for both Democrats and Republicans, but it is a suggested stop for Democrats on the campaign trail. Clinton visited several times, and George received three mentions in Clinton’s book My Life. The most notable is when Clinton writes that his friend George had the gumption to tell him “the people thought you were an asshole” after he lost the election for governor in 1980.

Sarah Pearl Daniel Oxner, George’s daughter, and I met in 2002 when we were invited to join Searcy Junior Auxiliary (the city of Searcy—where we live—is actually 100 miles away from Sarah’s roots in Searcy County). In December 2005, she introduced me to my now-husband at a Christmas party. Earlier this year, I asked her to introduce me to someone else:  Marshall great Willis Horton, a man who has achieved in many arenas. He is a former parts store and feed mill owner. He was a turkey farmer (one year he had over 4 million turkeys). He served five terms as Searcy County Judge, from 1964-1974. He experienced tremendous financial success in the home construction business. Now, at age 74, Willis Horton works daily on his 7,000-acre cattle farm. I wanted to meet him because of his accomplishments as a race horse owner. Last year, 3-year-old colt Will Take Charge took him to the highest levels of the game.

Sarah, Willis and I were never at Oaklawn Park on the same day during the 2014 season, so Sarah called him and asked if he would meet us at the hardware store. I was ecstatic when he accepted our invitation, and we planned to meet him on a July day. I was ready to talk horse racing and to experience a unique slice of Arkansas culture.

E. Daniel Hardware Store is now more of a hobby than a means of making a livelihood for George Daniel. Some of the merchandise is dusty and has probably been there a decade. The store’s air conditioning system is an open front and back door (George has resisted central air for his house, too). Men sit in a semicircle of chairs immediately inside the front door. George, perpetually in overalls, uses a flyswatter attached to the end of a yardstick. Men drink from Styrofoam cups that—when not in use—are kept in assigned spots near the refrigerator. Willis once said that he came from the hillbillies of Arkansas, but this group packs more intellectual punch than the uninitiated might first assume.

On the day Sarah took me to meet Willis, George was hosting five men, including Jim Smithson, former pharmacist and member of the state legislature and current mayor of Marshall, and Eddie Tudor, the former publisher of the Marshall Mountain Wave, the weekly area newspaper.

George and Willis—who are two years apart—were both raised in Marshall and are graduates of the local high school. They once tried to outrun each other. George told us Willis Dale (in Marshall, people use his first AND middle name) was a roper—not only in rodeos, but also for people whose cows got out. He once returned a sizeable Brahma bull to the Daniel family. Willis met his wife, Glenda, when he was 17 years old. They have been together for 57 years.

Willis told us he has frequented Oaklawn since he was 18 years old and has owned horses for over 50 years. He named his first race horse Zack Ridge Road—who, Willis said, did “zero”—after his address in the small community of Zack in Searcy County.

Before 2013, his greatest success in racing was winning the 2006 Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever.Oaklawn Park Will Take Charge However, 2013 and Will Take Charge took him to new heights. To name this champion, Willis blended his first name with that of dam Take Charge Lady. Will Take Charge broke his maiden at Oaklawn in the 2013 Smarty Jones Stakes. Later in the season, he gained his second win in Oaklawn’s Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and earned enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby. He sat out of the Arkansas Derby. “He hadn’t grown into his size yet,” Horton said. “He’s a big horse. It took him a while to grow in to his body.” 

Will Take Charge ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown; his best performance was his 7th place finish in the Preakness. Here, Willis experienced the same Pimlico hospitality that California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn bragged about after his victory.

“Pimlico has the best of any track,” Willis said. “They furnished us with a car and a driver.”

Since Willis chose to run in all three races, I asked him his opinion concerning a change in the format of the Triple Crown. Coburn recently reignited this controversy after his horse finished fourth in the Belmont and extended the Triple Crown drought to 37 years. “I don’t think the rules need to be changed,” Willis said. “Everyone knows the rules. They have been established a long time.”

For these big races, Willis travels with a large entourage of family that includes two sons and five grandchildren. Willis, who named a racehorse after each grandchild, reserves a block of plane tickets and hotel rooms. The horses, on the other hand, usually travel by van unless they are heading to the west coast, and then they fly. “The horse van is nicer than my house,” Willis said.

Will Take Charge did not fully come alive until the second half of the horse racing year, the races after the Triple Crown leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. His first Grade 1 win came in August at the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, which is sometimes called the Summer Derby, a race that Willis described as one of his most exciting moments as an owner. As Saratoga tradition dictates, immediately after the race, a canoe and a jockey statuette were painted in the colors of Willis’s silks. Before the Hortons left town, the canoe was placed in the lake in the infield, and the statuette joined a group of the other Saratoga stakes winners at the entrance of the track. They both will stay until the next Travers winner crosses the finish line.  

Will Take Charge was victorious in his following start in the Pennsylvania Derby, and his next race was the richest in the country:  The $5,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Super Bowl of horse racing, held on November 2, at Santa Anita. Under a late-evening pink sky, against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the track’s famous downhill stretch, three of country’s best horses finished in a tight cluster. A photo finish revealed that Mucho Macho Man—who finished second in the same race the prior year—beat Will Take Charge by a nose. Will Take Charge finished the year with a final Grade 1 victory at Churchill Downs.

These performances helped Will Take Charge emerge as the 3-year-old with the most earnings in 2013. Many sportswriters were also impressed with his record of running eleven times at seven different racetracks. In January 2014, he received the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old male champion. Willis began his acceptance speech by saying, “God bless Zack and Marshall, Arkansas.”  Horton went on to crack jokes and outlived his 45-second time limit. He did not yield the stage when the house band started up. He had the crowd laughing, and they gave Willis a standing ovation. The next day several publications said Willis’s speech was the most entertaining of the evening.  

D. Wayne Lukas

“Everyone was about to go to sleep. It was real dull. I wanted to wake everyone up,” Horton said. “I had another joke I was going to tell, but I was cut short.”  When I asked him the joke, he said, “I can’t remember now. I was probably just going to tell the truth on someone like I did Wayne Lukas.”

Fellow septuagenarian D. Wayne Lukas trains all of Willis’s horses. Will Take Charge, along with horses Oxbow and Strong Mandate, helped Lukas enjoy resurgence in 2013. The same evening Will Take Charge was named champion, Lukas was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in the thoroughbred industry.

So far in 2014, Will Take Charge has raced five times and has logged one win and three second places. The victory came in the Oaklawn Handicap. Willis said it was important to him to run the horse for the fans in Arkansas who have been so supportive.

Will Take Charge will probably run two more times this year, and then Willis’s goal is to return to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “I would love to go up against Mucho Macho Man, California Chrome and Game On Dude,” he said.

“I’ve tried to put Marshall on the map with this horse,” Willis said.

George testified that Willis has been successful. When people came from all over the state for Roten’s Furniture warehouse sale, George said several people who wanted to see the champion horse (and mistakenly believed he was kept in Zack) stopped in the hardware store for directions.

“Every day someone mentions Willis and his horses,” said Jim Smithson, Mayor of Marshall. “Everyone here is very proud. This has been an asset to our area.”

While Will Take Chargewill retire at the end of 2014, Willis has other horses that are just getting started. Take

Willis Horton with Sara Dacus

Willis Horton with Sara Dacus

Charge Brandi, a half sister to Will Take Charge, named after one of Willis’s granddaughters, won her debut on June 22 at Churchill Downs and placed second in a stakes race on opening day at Saratoga. She is now a possibility for the Juvenile Fillies at the Breeders’ Cup.  

He also hopes to race a new acquisition, Hillbilly Style, at Saratoga. Will Did It and KD’s Girl, who are both still in training, probably will run for the first time at Churchill’s fall meet. “But horses tell you when they are ready to race,” he said.

These four horses will become 3-year-olds on January 1 when all racehorses have their birthdays. All four will prep at Oaklawn.

“Oaklawn is still home,” Willis said. He is also appreciative of the increased purses at Oaklawn that have attracted a higher quality of thoroughbreds. He hopes that his class of 3-year-olds secures Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby wins, which are two of his unrealized goals. Willis would also like to have his colors back on the Saratoga canoe.

After we had finished talking horses and looking around the hardware store, Sarah showed me other Marshall landmarks. Some are faring better than others. We passed the demolition of the sale barn. We saw the Daisy Queen, which thrives and attracts travelers heading to Harrison and Branson. We cruised past the Kenda Drive-In, the oldest of the three that survive in Arkansas. We drove by the local high school, which, in 2012, was not able to field a football team for the first time in 44 years. But, in what could be a metaphor for the town itself, the Bobcats revived the following year and struggled with a record of 1-9. But they were alive. And fighting.

So yes, God bless Zack and Marshall, Arkansas. These communities—although small—have influenced politics, sport and Arkansas culture in mammoth ways. And God bless the George Daniels and the Willis Dale Horton who stay faithful to their interests and roots. These men—and hardworking people like them—help put both Searcy County and Arkansas on the map.


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