Part 1. How Duke and Danko met.
It’s been years since I’ve talked about Snicker Bar Dan or the events surrounding it. It seems so long ago, as all the characters are long gone, and the myths and stories about John Wayne abound, but I haven’t seen this story in print since a January1992 article about Duke in Arizona Highways Magazine, and a few articles published by Tom Fitzpatrick in the Arizona Republic and New Times Magazine back in the day. I think it’s time to tell the whole story. Not just what happened but approaching the age Dad (Danko Gurovich) would have been when it actually happened, to understand the depth of friendship, the context and possibly the psyche of the characters.
Snicker Bar Dan is a fictional racehorse. It’s the climax of a series of epic pranks played between friends, that almost got out of hand, but forever defined their friendship and made it infinitely stronger. But first, we need to know how this whole thing starts.
Dad met Duke in 1960. He had, for the times a very upscale Motor Inn/Dining Room/Cocktail Lounge called the Copper Hills between Globe and Miami Arizona on Highways 60/70. It had the good fortune of been almost equidistant between John Wayne’s two properties; Red River farms in Stanfield, and the 26 Bar Ranch in Springerville, Arizona. Duke had purchased the large cotton farm operation just before and was not doing well with it. After asking around, he was told that the best cotton man in Arizona was right next door. Louis Johnson and Duke became partners soon after and remained so throughout their lives. Louis himself is worthy of his own novel, but his sense of humor and smarts definitely make this entire story richer by more than half.
So, Duke and Louis have this cattle and registered Hereford breeding operation in upstate Arizona called the 26 Bar ranch. Some of the best Hereford breeding cattle in the world came through there at the time. On one of the first trips up, Louis gets Duke to stop so he can meet up with a friend of his that runs this hotel in Globe-Miami to have a steak and some drinks.
Duke and Louis check in to the Motel and Louis tells my dad that he’s here with Duke. Dad’s pretty pumped at this point to have someone of that stature at the Copper Hills Motel, but he’s been around a lot of famous people in his life, so he doesn’t pick up the phone and spread it around, or worse, take a few steps over to the radio station that was located in the hotel and get it broadcast. Louis tells him to wait in the bar, and they would come down once they showered and cleaned up.
Dad went into the bar, and Duke showed up first. Dad introduced himself, and they grabbed a booth and Duke said, “let me buy you a drink.” Dad said, “Not in my hotel. Let me buy YOU a drink.” Duke smiled and they sat down and chatted, waiting for Louis to show up. This time period was during the 1960 Presidential election. When Louis joined the group, Duke and Danko were into the next round, and politics came up. Duke was a rock-ribbed, “Goldwater-style” Republican; nothing like you would recognize now, but conservative, pro-business and law-and-order.
Danko is not a Republican. Danko was only a few years younger than Duke, but he lived a very different life. He was born in a very rough mining town in the Territory of Arizona, when Taft was President. He started riding the rails at 15 — his first trip was with two friends to Mexico City to see a Heavyweight Championship Fight in 1926 — and did this for the next 8 years during the beginning and height of the depression. It made him a very progressive and vocal Democrat and civil rights activist, and he remained so throughout his life. He had just returned from the Democratic Convention as a delegate to nominate Kennedy/Johnson.
As you might imagine, the conversation turns to politics. It’s friendly banter though, not like what you might witness today, and hours are spent going through a LOT of drinks and they parted the next day quite comfortable over breakfast, with only a few locals knowing what had happened. He really didn’t mention it much to his wife, Maxine, until the next day.
About a week later, the phone rang at an ungodly early hour. Our house had two phones, and one was next to the bed in the master bedroom, on Mom’s side of the bed. She turned over to her husband, knowing full well that he owned a bar, and said, “Danko, there’s some drunk on the phone that says he’s John Wayne. It’s for you.”
Dad took the phone, and it was Duke. He was sending a plane over to Globe to pick him up and spend a few days with him in Newport Beach on his Yacht, the Wild Goose. A life-long friendship was born, and the adventures, pranks and stories that grew from that meeting became epic.