Natural Born Horseman
Raised on a large ranch in the San Bernardino Valley, an area encompassing the “boot heel” of New Mexico and the very southeastern portion of Arizona, Casey Darnell was born a cowboy in 1917. This area is well known for its good “cowboy” ranching families. It was the haunt of Geronimo and Cochise before that. Tough characters have been molded from the clay of this area for a very long time.
The talented Casey was a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) gold card member, inducted into the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) hall of fame, an honorary Vice President of AQHA, past president of the New Mexico Horse breeders association and New Mexico Quarter Horse Racing Association, an AQHA director and judge for 21 years, trained and showed a World Champion performance horse, flew 27 bombing missions over Germany during WWII and the list goes on. What most folk will tell you about Casey Darnell first off, however, is, “He had a way with horses.”
Daughter, Emily Darnell Nunez, had this to say about her father, “When my dad would walk into the barn, every horse in the place would stick their head out over the stall gate as if they were greeting him. He’d then proceed to visit each one, talking to them like they were his kids. Some he praised - others got a pep talk, but each one couldn’t wait to get a visit from him. It’s as if he had a special connection to them.”
Casey went through several transitions throughout his fabled career as a horseman. He started off in the ranching world where, as a kid, he was horseback more often than not. Then came rodeo where he became known as a top contender. Next he moved into reining and show horses where he gained even more notoriety, and in the latter stage of his life, horse racing became king. All these genres involve horses, but they are distinctly different. Few excel at more than any one of these during a lifetime. Casey was gifted in the horse department.
Brother, Fred Darnell, of Animas, New Mexico once wrote, “Ounce for ounce - pound for pound, Clarence Ellsworth Darnell was the best hand I ever seen. He didn’t give a darn if a horse bucked, ran off or fell over backwards, he kept on grinning and making a hand.”
As a rodeo competitor Casey was a top hand. He excelled in the roping and bull dogging events. For many years he traveled the west, making countless friends along the way. He even placed at the “Grand Daddy” of ‘em all, Cheyenne, Wyoming! Although not a big man physically, he overcame physical limitations with horsemanship skills - and cowboy grit. He was a long time member of the PRCA, eventually becoming a lifetime Gold Card member.
Casey spent many years in the horse show world as well. He trained and showed about all classes and types of horses, including reining. In 1957, he had a World Champion performance horse named Skippity Scoot. Along the way, he transitioned from being a competitor, to that of a highly sought after judge. While spending 21 years as an official AQHA judge, Casey was known for being impartial to possible outside influences around the shows. He didn’t care if you were a world champion or a beginner; he called it, how he saw it, on that day.
Once, when asked by a champion, who was used to winning, “Why didn’t we (the contestant and horse) win?” Casey replied, “Well now, you did not have the best horse out there today.” He did not sugar coat things, but he had a way of putting it that made you like it…never malicious, and still grinning.
In the early 1960s, Casey was introduced to horse racing and it became a passion of his thereafter. During a family visit with wife Blair’s kinfolk in the east, they stopped at a thoroughbred farm in Kentucky. Casey was hooked. He bought his first thoroughbred on the spot. He was a regular in Southwestern racing circles from then on. A horse Casey trained and raced at Santa Fe Downs even wound up running in the Kentucky Derby. Son Cliff Darnell, who is also a trainer, qualified the horse for the Derby where it wound up running 9th out of a field of 19. Casey was pleased with his involvement.
Casey once said, “I love what I do. I love training horses.” He went on to give some advice, “You have to do the little things well.”
Casey was well known - a legend you might say - in the New Mexico horseracing world, but his connections reached far beyond the racetrack. Casey knew everybody. Well, maybe not everybody, but he had a lot of influence and was well renown.
Daughter Mary Darnell said, “He never felt out of place, weather he was in New York City or Apache, Arizona...it was all the same to him. My mom would take him to various functions around the world and he would dress in his Tux, if required, but always had his boots and hat added to the ensemble...and people loved him where ever he went.”
Daughter Emily recalls being at an event in Tingly Coliseum in Albuquerque, sitting with her dad. “The then, Governor of the State of New Mexico, Bruce King, stopped to shake hands and visit with my dad as if he was somebody important.” She recalls thinking, “Wow, my dad must know everybody!” Casey made friends easily and had them all across the country.
Casey and wife Blair were also active in youth activities. Not only did they teach their own children to become involved in equine activities, but they introduced many other youths to the horse world as well. This often made the difference in a youth’s life, helping them choose between a good path or bad. They loved the 4H program and were involved as leaders. But more than that, they did simple things, such as taking kids on trail rides and pack trips into the mountains. They became such authorities on the subject of training youths with horses; they were featured in a Western Horseman article, giving detailed advice on the matter. In part, Casey had this to say, “Riding, to most parents, is a way to get a kid past a certain stage…there are some kids that will go on with it…these mature boys and girls will get great satisfaction out of being able to make a horse do what they want him to do.”
Casey got his nickname while still a youth on the family ranch. Although his first name was Clarence, he was dubbed Casey because he could drive a bulldozer, cleaning dirt tanks and whatnot, so well that he was named in honor of the legendary railroad engineer, Casey Jones.
Daughter Mary also tells us of another amazing feat accomplished by Casey, which had nothing to do with horses. It involved his time in the army during WWII. Before being drafted, Casey was simply a working cowboy. He listed “cowpuncher” as his occupation on military papers. But ironically, within about 60 days of joining the military he was flying a B-26 bomber over Germany. Talk about being thrown into something in a hurry! Casey wound up flying 27 missions during the war - quite different from the “cow punching” job he had right before. After the war however, Casey did not talk much about his time there and he never showed an interest in flying again, keeping to his beloved horses instead.
A former Arizona State Legislator, Ralph Cowan, wrote a letter of recommendation for Casey. In part it reads, “He is loyal, honest and above board at all times and can be relied upon to do his best in whatever he may be called upon to do.”
Daughter Mary said, “He always told me do what you love, work at it everyday and the rest will fall into place.”
Clarence “Casey” Darnell died in 2001, but his legend status in the horse world lives on. Words from his tombstone pretty much sum it up – “Well Done.”
Casey once said, “Get in the hunt. Believe in yourself. Work hard. Watch and listen. Don’t forget to laugh. Plan for the future. Go after your dream.”
Jim Olson (c) 2012