Tragic Trailer Accident Ended Legendary Poker Chip’s Career Early

Poker Chip Peake was one of five timed-event horses inducted with the ProRodeo Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 1979. To put his rarified roping air into proper perspective, only five timed-event horses have been inducted in the 40 years since. Two-time World Champion Team Roper Dale Smith, who won back-to-back gold buckles in 1956-57, used his pride and joy Poker—who was an own son of the legendary Driftwood—primarily as a calf horse. Those old enough to have witnessed Poker Chip in his prime will never stop with the stories of awe and amazement. They’ll also not forget the fact that a tragic trailer wreck cut the gray great’s career short.

“Poker Chip was a hell of a horse,” said Smith’s traveling partner, forever friend and fellow Driftwood fan Mel Potter (Dale died in 2017). “Calf roping was his claim to fame, and he was without a doubt one of the best timed-event horses that ever lived. He wouldn’t be worth a nickel now, because the calves are so small. They’d never get up. But when we were roping 400-pound calves at the big rodeos, he was like riding a magic wand.

“Poker scored excellent and could really run. He did it all. He had a killer stop, and he worked the rope like a man without a jerkline. He was an amazing horse. He ran up on calves so fast, and when he rated it was like that calf was welded out there on a rod and was never out of shape to rope.

“One year we took Poker to Red Bluff (California), where we roped black calves that ran like hell over a 30-foot score. Dale was 11.8 and 11.9 to win the average, and I was 12.2 and 12.3 to win second. The guy who won third was 10 seconds behind me. We didn’t rope that much better than everybody else, but that gray horse was just phenomenal. Poker Chip was the best horse I ever rode.”

Poker Chip Peake was born in 1950, when cowboy artist and his wife, Channing and Katy Peake, owned Driftwood. The Peakes were based in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, and actually bought Driftwood—who’s now known as a notorious foundation horse in some of the most successful team roping horse breeding programs—from 1937, ’39 and ’52 World Champion Team Roper Asbury Schell in 1943. Poker Chip was out of a mare they called Sage Hen, and according to Potter was first ridden by Oscar Walls.

The Legend of Cowboy Pioneer Dale Smith

“A guy by the name of J.K. Harris got Poker from Oscar, and J.K. was a good hand,” Potter said. “He really made the horse, and he took his time. When he decided to sell out and quit rodeoing, J.K. sold Poker, his saddle and trailer to Dale. I think Dale gave $3,500 for the whole damn deal. There’s never been another one like Poker for those big, rank calves we used to rope.

“Poker Chip was only 3 or 4 when Dale bought him. Those Driftwoods develop young and are smart sons of bucks. They’re amazing rope horses. Poker was the kind of horse you could have done any event on. Hell, you could have won a halter class with him, because he was the perfect specimen of a Quarter Horse. What made him a great calf horse was that he was really watchy and spooky.”

Sadly, some of those traits that made him great also ended his career. In January, 1963, Smith and Potter went to the winter rodeo in Odessa, Texas, together. Smith got done before Potter, and needed to head to Denver for winter meetings. Dale served as the longtime Rodeo Cowboys Association president and team roping director.

“Harley (May, who won world steer wrestling championships in 1952, ’56 and ’65) had his steer wrestling team at Odessa, and was done with one of them, so he sent one of his horses to Denver with Dale and Eddie Costell,” Potter said. “I remember clear as day, we loaded Harley’s horse in the front of my two-horse inline trailer and old Poker Chip in the back. They said Eddie was driving late that night, and a cow came out on the road. There was ice, Eddie hadn’t ever pulled an inline trailer before and he jackknifed it.

Dale Smith and Poker Chip. Dale Smith and Poker Chip.

“Dale said Harley’s horse laid in there quiet like he was resting. Not Poker. The outlaw in him came out, and he thrashed and pawed. He broke a bunch of bones in his withers, and he tore the muscles in his hind legs in two.”

Poker Chip was only 13 in 1963. Dale put Poker on pasture rest, with high hopes that he would somehow recover. While in California for the big Chowchilla Stampede eight-steer roping that March, Dale hit up a young ranch-raised cowboy veterinarian friend of his who was also roping. Dr. Frank Santos had graduated from UC Davis in 1962, so still had strong ties to some of his professors.

Frank’s first gig out of vet school was actually in then-Cowboy Capital of the World Oakdale, California, where he lived on Sid Vail’s ranch as the resident vet in charge the legendary stud Three Bars. Understandably devastated, Smith asked Santos to pull in all possible favors on Poker Chip’s behalf.

“Dale asked me to call Dr. Wheat to get his opinion about Poker Chip’s injuries,” Santos said. “Dr. Wheat was a renowned equine surgeon, and I’d just spent a lot of time with him in school. Dr. Wheat reviewed the case, and confirmed that Poker Chip had suffered irreversible trauma and damage to the muscles in his hind legs.

“He hemorrhaged into the muscles of his upper hind legs between his hock and his tail head. Over time, when that hemorrhage healed it started to calcify and form plaques of bone in the muscle. It ended Poker Chip’s career, because all that scar tissue prevented him from being able to fully extend his hind legs.”

Dale did eventually try to rope on Poker Chip again before retiring him to his ranch in Arizona.

“Poker was never the same,” Potter said. “He just couldn’t reach out and run anymore. Dale reached down and whipped him on one calf at a roping in Chandler. Dale never whipped Poker. He rode back up the arena and said, ‘That’s enough.’”

Poker Chip sired just three babies before he was cut. Dale team roped on Poker’s lone son, Poker Chicker. Poker Chip lived out his days at Dale’s place. When he died, Dale loaded him up in Potter’s trailer for one last ride to his final resting place at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. 

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