If I could paint a picture of a small-town bar on a Sunday afternoon where the whiskey pours, the axes fly, and the band plays on, it would be Ruidoso’s Win Place & Show.
The Sacramento Mountains rise up from the mostly flat terrain in the southern part of the state, and nestled there among the Ponderosa pines at 6,920 feet is the village of Ruidoso. At first, the place comes off like so many other little mountain towns. Traffic is slow and leisurely, shops filled with cowboy-chic clothing and New Mexican bric-à-brac line Sudderth Street, and people cross the road with little regard for traffic. The license plates suggest the village is largely set up for tourists, a fact confirmed once you park and start walking around.
The sidewalks brim with Texas twang and fast-moving Spanish, but not many passing cars bear California or Arizona plates. Those states have their own snowy peaks. If you live in West Texas or Chihuahua and want to ski, Ruidoso is the closest place you can drive. But I’m not recommending the slopes, I am recommending the bar.
Stepping into Win Place & Show, you are greeted by cool darkness and welcoming barstools. The bar is to the right, and to the left are cozy booths that look to have been upholstered during a bygone era. Tiered shelves full of lights reflect in the mirror behind the bar, or rather, the mirror behind the bottles behind the bar. Here you will be addressed by Dana, the Sunday bartender, as “sweetie” or “dear.” It is the kind of place that Toby Keith might settle into comfortably.
Win Place & Show started as a package store in the 1940s, the name a reference to the top three finishers in a horse race and a tip of the hat to Ruidoso Downs just a few miles down the road. They open at 11 am on Sundays and the band starts around 3. You can bring your own food, and people do. There are plenty of tasty spots within steps of the bar, making it an easy choice to pair with your to-go order.
This bar is a locals’ place, though not a locals-only one. Come as you are and feel welcome. Cowboy hats and ski bibs fit in just the same here. I have no doubt I could easily slip into stopping by every Sunday afternoon if I were a local.
The bar is hopping on a Saturday night, but Sunday morning is a far more subdued occasion. On Sundays, the Bloody Marys pour. “Make our own mix, sure do,” says Dana as she helps a customer with theirs. A rocks glass full of tiny plastic swords stands ready to be deployed by the armorer in the next cocktail.
The whiskey selection is a greatest hits list. While clearly not the place for a snobby connoisseur, the discerning drinker will find something to their liking. Bulleit. Old Forester. Buffalo Trace. It looks like there might not be much left in the Cutty Sark bottle, but they probably have another one in the back. My recommendation stands to make it a double.
As the middle of the afternoon arrives, Lincoln County Line takes to the stage. A recurring theme emerges from what is effectively the house band at Win Place & Show. As George Strait songs warm the room, from a seat at the bar, silhouettes of Stetsons against red and green Christmas lights can be seen two-stepping around the dark dance floor. Sisters are dancing. Families are dancing. The bartender kind of does a jig. She says she is a “part-time dancer, when the right song is on.”
Contained within the railing around the stage, the boys in the band are taking it slow. “Here’s a song about the Mother Road,” says the singer. From the dance floor, people join in on the chorus. That old road is over a hundred miles to the north, and decades in the past, but there is no doubt it is somehow part of a Sunday afternoon at Win Place & Show. If country is a type of pop music and western is a poem set to strings, confirmation can be found watching from a barstool while week-worn bones move around the dance floor on a Sunday afternoon.
Just outside the door is a different world. The one you came through leads back out to the street, but the one in the back leads to the patio. Both lead to afternoon sunshine, but only one has axe throwing.
Axe throwing is pretty much what you imagine it would be. Dart games with axes. A bit of peril safely contained, the axe-throwing patio is party time in a plywood pen.
“It’s all about the rotation,” says Brandon Chaney, the owner’s son and the acting axe master on this particular Sunday. I’m not exactly sure what it takes to be an axe master, but with a short safety brief and a primer on technique from him, you and your crew can find yourselves in your own axe-throwing stall drinking a cold one and, well, throwing axes. Shrieks, giggles, and shots abound.
The choice to climb up into the Sacramento Mountains and commune among the pines of Ruidoso will not disappoint the adventurer in search of snowy peaks in winter or respite from the desert heat in summer. Should you choose instead to while away your Sunday afternoon on a shadowy barstool or cleave to the sporting life of a midday axe event, the odds are in your favor at Win Place & Show.
Clarke Condé is a veteran food photographer and writer based in Roswell with a strong preference for red chile, keto-friendly beverages, and natural lighting. Find him on Instagram @clarkehere.