Houston — ''You're dealing with a class of people here who aren't affected by any recession,'' boasted Texan E. C. Bryant Jr., who breeds horses on his Texas and North Carolina ranches.
New Mexico rancher Mike Ryan agreed as he scanned the 1,200 dinner guests at Houston's annual Western Heritage auction of horses, cattle, and fine art May 15 . The black-tie, invitation-only crowd sparkled. ''These people just don't run out of money,'' said Mr. Ryan. ''The well is real deep.''
Ranchers Ryan and Bryant, along the other top breeders who'd trucked 26 registered quarter horses and 27 Santa Gertrudis beef cattle to Houston, hoped their animals would top last year's record prices.
But once the sale began, discouragement spread like a prairie grass fire. Recession, it seems, has hit even Texas.
Talking quicker and slicker than a quarter horse can cut cattle, auctioneer Gerald Bowie spent five nonstop hours cajoling the dinner guests into raising their bids. In his smooth Georgia tones, Mr. Bowie kicked off the evening by claiming that in Texas, ''One thing I haven't heard in the past two days is any talk about the bad economy or high interest rates.''
But Bowie soon was appealing for higher bids, reaching out to well-known buyers by first name. ''Don't look down, Miss Helen,'' he called out to Helen Groves of Kentucky, the largest shareholder in the giant King Ranch, which developed the native Santa Gertrudis cattle breed half a century ago. ''After all, ma'am, it's just money.''
Former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, here both as a show sponsor and a top horse and cattle breeder, joined the appeal. When bidding on one horse stalled at $50,000, the former Kennedy and Nixon Cabinet member told reluctant buyers, ''This horse can win enough in the next 12 months to buy four more like him.''
Texas Gov. William P. Clements also felt the heat. After seeing his own ranch's quarter horse go for a song, Governor Clements said he was surprised because ''where else can you go for the kind of experience that is present in Texas for breeding quarter horses and Santa Gertrudis.''
Like many buyers at the auction, rancher Charlie Moncrief was ready to spend money he earns as an independent oil and gas producer. Yet he dropped out of the bidding on the Clements ranch's horse at $31,000 because ''the recession is taking hold of everybody.''
Donald Crawford, one of the evening's most colorful characters in his lace evening shirt and alligator-hide boots, set a new sales record by paying $150, 000 for a quarter horse. But, Mr. Crawford explained, ''we had record animals here tonight, not record prices.'' He said afterwards, ''This filly should have brought well over 200 (thousand), but times are tough even with these good people here in Texas.''
Crawford said his bargain purchase made up for his own disappointment in seeing his prize quarter horse sell for $57,000 ''when I expected to get at least 120 (thousand).''
Oilman Steve Langham paid the evening's highest price for a work of art - $ 140,000 for a Tom Lovell painting of Indians ''Walking Coyote and the Buffalo Orphans'' through a wintery mountain creek. That price was less than half the top paid last year. Mr. Langham hadn't planned to buy anything this year because of low returns in the oil business. But he couldn't pass up the bargain price for what he considers an important piece of Western art. Still, because crude oil prices recently ''hit a bottom,'' he says that ''to pay for this, I'll liquidate something out of my present art collection.''