Ranch Horses

Sid Vail and Three Bars

The narrative of Sid Vail and his famous horse, Three Bars, reads like a story book. The Thoroughbred stallion has left his mark.

The narrative of Sid Vail and his famous horse, Three Bars, reads like a story book.

It’s a “rags to riches” saga whose last chapter has yet to be written. Records reveal that Three Bars sired his first foal in 1945. They named him First Bar and he was the first of a long line of winners that are going strong. 

That was almost 20 years ago and Three Bars at the mature age of 23 is still a prepotent sire. Sid reports that his handsome stud settled 33 mares in the 1963 season. The fee is $10,000 per service and that adds up to a lot of hay in any man’s language.

Three Bars, a straight Thoroughbred, has crossed well on both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse mares. But his greatest claim to fame is the manner in which his get have dominated the field of Quarter running horses. A recent tabulation reveals he has sired 258 starters who have won over $1,800,000, which is more than double his nearest competitor.

In the 1957 running of the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Futurity, the first five horses to cross the finish line were own sons of Three Bars. In the 1962 Los Alamitos Futurity, ten horses were loaded into the starting gate to race for the largest single purse ever contested for in California – $207,750. Of the ten starters eight carried Three Bars bloodlines. Jet Deck, the winner, was by Moon Deck out of a Barred mare by Three Bars. The record is endless and the number of top horses sired by Three Bars gets longer each year. A partial list of Three Bars sons and daughters would include Alamitos Bar, Bardella, Tonto Bars Gill, Galobar, Triple Chick, Gold Bar, Miss Bar Leo, Miss Myrna Bar, Pokey Bar, Sugar Bars, Josie’s Bar, Barjo and Barred.

Now comes the flashback. The scene shifts to a small track in the middle west. The date is 1944 and a man named Mr. Stivers is examining a Thoroughbred named Three Bars. Stivers had recently acquired the young colt for $300, but at that moment he was wishing he hadn’t. The colt pulled up stiff in the hindquarters. Stivers decided to get rid of him on the spot and gave him away “free gratis.” Three Bars had bloodworms that could have been cured with one treatment, but that was 20 years ago and they didn’t know much about the many parasites that made life miserable for horses.

The horse changed hands several times after that and then became the property of Cal Kennedy,’ Toad Haggard, and Stan Snedigar who picked him up in a claiming race. The colt was running pretty good, but showed a tendency towards lameness so they decided to doctor his knees and ankles and give him a good rest.

The narrative of Sid Vail and his famous horse, Three Bars, reads like a story book. The Thoroughbred stallion has left his mark.
Sid Vail and Three Bars (TB) 1961 – Photo by Orren Mixer

While all this was going on a Texas cowboy named Sid Vail was buying a small cow outfit in Douglas, Arizona. Sid was about 30 at the time and had just recently acquired a beautiful darkhaired bride with the fascinating name of Mayola. Sid had knocked around some and had picked up that sure touch around horses and cattle. Things hadn’t been easy for Sid, but he was beginning to make out all right. He had started at the bottom as a $40 per month cowpoke, then broke out cow ponies in Hawaii before he started to ride steers and broncs on the rodeo circuit. He hunted lions and ran the pack trains for the government when they were making a survey of Yellowstone Park.

By the time the Vails had bought their outfit in Arizona; they had a few dollars saved, but whenever they got money ahead it was usually spent on a fast horse or two. In fact they had a few that could run a bit, but Sid was constantly on the lookout for the horse that could really do him some good.

Sid had been hearing about a young stud named Three Bars that had been burning up the track at the old Phoenix Fairgrounds. So he decided to go up and take a look as he had a couple of mares he wanted to breed:

That look marked a decisive turning point in the lives of the Sid Vails, because he sure liked what he saw.

Three Bars was in his stall when Sid first set eyes on him. His reaction was immediate and he recalls it with great clarity. “I never pictured a horse that could ever look that good. If there ever was a perfect horse he was it. In fact I couldn’t fault him anywhere.”

Sid offered Kennedy, Haggard, and Snedigar $5,000 on the spot for the horse, but they turned it down. He went back to the ranch and stayed for a week, but he couldn’t stand it. He reasoned, “I just knew Three Bars was the horse I was looking for. There couldn’t be any question about that.”

Sid mustered his resources and went into hock pretty deep to dig up $10,000. That was a price he didn’t think the boys would turn down.

When Sid reached Phoenix he found the trio who owned the horse and offered them the $10,000. One said “no” and the other two were sort of on the fence. It took some careful persuasion, but they finally agreed to sell the horse. What a relief!

Sid was a happy man the day he pocketed the bill of sale which stated in legal language that he was the owner of Three Bars. But he still had that one big problem so common to most of us – money. It cost a pretty penny to keep a horse at the track and the Vails simply didn’t have it. Furthermore the horse needed a rest after having been doctored. So Sid decided to let Melville Haskell keep Three Bars at stud for a year at his ranch close to Tucson. Sid agreed to pay Haskell $30 per month to take care of the horse. Haskell was to get the board payments on mares brought to the ranch to be bred to Three Bars. Sid was to receive the $100 stud fee.

The narrative of Sid Vail and his famous horse, Three Bars, reads like a story book. The Thoroughbred stallion has left his mark.
Sid Vail with Three Bars (TB) – Photo by Western Horseman Archive

That was for the breeding season of 1945. By early 1946 the horse had completely recovered and Sid leased him back to Kennedy, Haggard, and Snedigar. They agreed to run the horse and build his reputation-that’s exactly what happened. Three Bars really burned up the tracks. He doubtless was the fastest horse in the United States for five furlongs. He broke the track record at Phoenix for that distance in 57.3, and then at Aqua Caliente was clocked at a blistering 56.4 for the first five furlongs in a six-furlong race.

It should come as no surprise that Three Bars ran as well as he did. His breeding was excellent. He is by Percentage, a stakes winning horse, and out of Myrtle Dee by Luke Mcluke, both hard-knocking horses at the shorter distances. In fact when Jack Goode bought the mare Myrtle Dee, she was in foal to Percentage. Jack liked the breeding and named the young colt Three Bars because he believed the horse was destined to hit the jackpot. Jack was sure right, but it didn’t help him as he was the man who sold the colt to Stivers for $300. You will remember that Stivers was the man that gave the colt away “free gratis.” In fact there is more than one man who has kicked himself for not buying the horse when he was available, and many others who wish they’d bred a pasture full of mares to him when the stud fee was $100. But back to our story.

With Three Bar’s reputation firmly established as a fast short-running Thoroughbred, Sid was anxious to build the horse’s prestige as a stud to cross with Quarter mares. This program worked out well and by 1952 the stud fee had edged to $300 and Sid leased the horse to Walter Merrick in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, things were going pretty well for Mayola and Sid back at the ranch near Douglas. They decided to sell the ranch and rent a small place up near the track at Tucson. Sid was finally in a position to stand the horse himself and wanted to be near the track in order to promote him properly.

In addition he wanted to breed his own mares to Three Bars. The Vails remained at the Tucson place through the years 1953, 1954, and 1955. Then they picked up stakes again and moved to Apple Valley, California. At that time Quarter Horse racing was growing at a faster rate in California than in Arizona. Frank Vessels was developing Quarter Horse racing at Los Alamitos and the public was showing a genuine interest.

By this time Three Bars had already distinguished himself at stud. His get were constant AAA runners – the highest speed rating. Horses including Bardella, Lighting Bar, and Barred were quickly proving their sire’s potency. More breeders were bringing their mares to the court of Three Bars who was gradually growing into a legend in a racing world where speed was the only criterion of success. It became an established fact that Three Bars was the horse to breed to if you wanted a colt or filly that “could burn a hole in the wind.” His stud bookings were limited to a definite number of approved mares and as the demand increased so did the stud fee. Even at its present level of $10,000 per service, it may be cheap. His get are bringing better prices at every sale. At the moment I know of one Three Bars colt for sale for $50,000. The colt is only a yearling and naturally his ability is unproven. However, he is a son of Three Bars and a full brother to Triple Chick whose reputation is also growing. Obviously he isn’t the only Three Bars offspring available, but they all fetch a good price.

The success story continues on and more recently, in 1962, we find the Vails in what they hope is their final move. They bought a beautiful 900- acre spread in central California five miles east of Oakdale. There are lush irrigated pastures of mixed grasses – no clover because that is too fattening, and Sid believes in lean horses. The ranch, as you may have guessed, is called the Three Bars Ranch. The Vails live in a modest home, but as might be expected, the horses have the best of everything. The barns are of fireproof concrete block and the pastures and stud runs are of two by four inch wire mesh to avoid potential accidents. Three Bars is perhaps the center of attraction, but he shares the limelight with two of his Thoroughbred sons who are proving out well – McBarr and Bar Admiral. There is another stud named Judge Hand by Court Martial whom Sid feels has a great potential. . .

In addition to the studs you will find several pastures containing as fine a selection of Quarter and Thoroughbred broodmares as there is in the country.

The narrative of Sid Vail and his famous horse, Three Bars, reads like a story book. The Thoroughbred stallion has left his mark.
Sid and Mayola Vail with Three Bars (TB) – Photo by Orren Mixer

The Vails have kept real close to their horses and the problems of running their ranch. Mayola keeps the books and Sid personally handles all breeding and foaling problems. He has been unusually successful in settling mares difficult to get in foal. He has that uncanny inbred sense of knowing exactly when a mare should be bred. Several men do the daily chores, but all of the stud handling and decisions are made by Sid himself, a man who is readily referred to as Mr. Quarter Horse although his reputation has come from Three Bars, a Thoroughbred.

As written in Western Horsemans’ Legends Volume 1, “Without a shadow of a doubt, Three Bars has had the greatest impact on the Quarter Horse breed of any horse in history.”

Legends Volume 1 cover

If you are interested in reading more about Three Bars (TB), we invite you to read through Western Horsemans Legends Volume 1. It provides exclusive detailed profiles, photographs, pedigrees and performance summaries of the great legend horses that played significant key roles in the Quarter Horse industry. The profiles include over 175 photos of the amazing horses and the people who helped make them famous.

Click here to purchase Legends: Volume 1 

This article was originally published in the December 1963 issue of Western Horseman.

7 thoughts on “Sid Vail and Three Bars”

  1. I had the privilege of owning a grandson of Three Bars during the mid seventies. Flit Bar Heels , by Bar Heels out of Miss King Flit. Magnificent horse that I wish was here today!

  2. i had the privelege of gdtting to know Sid and Mayola a few years before he died, he was a 5th coison and looked so much like my Dad, Have been to His ranch i Ca where Sid died, and too Nakona Tx where Three bars is buried standing on his feet, in front of Sids home, the ori, house burned but the new owner built back in thd same place . The stable still stands , But Sid built a stable on too his house and his bed rome because peaple where steeling Three Bars and breeding there mares and would take weeks to find him. I would love to contack Sids nephews wife, Also the lady that now owns the ranch war very intrested in making a movie, would love it also, I think it should be .

    • Ray,
      Hello and hope this finds you well.
      Are we possibly related? Sid was my uncle and brother to my dad John. I last saw uncle Sid back in the early 60’s when we lived in Oakdale CA. My last word of him came from his brother David right after Sid died. At that time I thought I was the last of the Vail’s. It would be so cool to find out otherwise.

  3. My mare BAR BEE CHIPS is out of BAR MONEY’S CHIP x BAY BEE MOORE. Such a phenomenal line !!! Full of WORLD RESERVE WORLD CHAMPIONS on both sides. Lines back to WIMPY P 1., who’s statue stands outside of AQHA to this very day!!
    I’ve never been more proud to have owned a mare from the great history of the BAR MONEY LINE!!

  4. I also had the privilege of owning Three Bars Doll, a grand daughter for 20 years until she passed with her head in my lap.. She was a rocket. I knew the 3 bars line was something special but had no idea the history! I really enjoyed this article. I miss my girl, she was something special.

  5. I purchased “Babette Starlet” a 1975 granddaughter of Three Bars. 5 month old liver chestnut filly by Par Three out of Babe Starlet. She placed 1st & 2nd in every event shown. My kids grew up on her. She gave me 15 foals. Babette had to be put down at 27 years of age & she’s buried on my place. She was still beautiful. I have a 5 year old granddaughter and a 7 year old gelding from her daughter. They are spectacular horses. I love and treasure them always


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