WING COMMANDER

A painting  by George Ford Morris of Wing Commander said to be best likeness of this great Saddlebred stallion.

Six Time Five Gaited World Grand Champion 1948 - 1953

Six Time Number One American Saddlebred Sire 1963 - 1968

"The greatest performing five-gaited horse in the history of the breed and the most successful five-gaited champion of all time is the consensus of the saddle horse world" - Saddle and Bridle October 1951 

These very true words were written even before he achieved his record six times World Champion achievement equaled by only one other great saddle horse, My My.

Wing Commander was bred and owned by Francis Dodge (ex Johnson) van Lennep, who owned his sire Anacacho Shamrock and his dam Flirtation Walk.

The effect that Wing Commander had on the Saddlebred industry both in South Africa and the USA is enormous.

His tremendous show record is overshadowed by his huge success as a sire.  His blood flows in most of  today's  Champions - both in South Africa and in America. Wing Commander is the most well known of all Saddle Horses, both in South Africa and abroad. There is no other Saddlebred that has reached the same heights as him in the show ring and breeding barn. 

This is his story ...                                 

Part I

It begins with the American Royal Horse Show, Kansas City, Mo., in 1940.  But first a bit of background. R.W. Morrrison, the owner of Anacacho Ranch, Spotford, Texas had previously bought the great Edna's May King for $40 000. He never showed him but bred with him.  Anacacho Shamrock was one of his foals out of the mare, Sally Cameron. B.B. Tucker was the trainer of this young stallion that  showed a lot of promise but fail to live up to it. In 1940  Lee Butler rode Anacacho Shamrock to several vicotories on the West Coast and it seems to be that eventually he would fulfill the promise that he showed. One of these Championships was the Golden Gate International. Here the Reserve Champion was Southern Twilight shown by Wallace Bailey for Mrs. James B. Johnson's (Frances Dodge) Dodge Stables, Rochester, Mich.

Edna May's King  

 

Anacacho Shamrock (Edna May's King x Sally Cameron) 

(photo by Horst)

The Dodge Stables was very impressed with Anacacho Shamrock and wanted to buy him, but Morrison did not want to sell.

Morrison was very pleased and excited about the progress of the stallion under Lee Butler and he was headed for the American Royal.  This was a disaster! Ted Macklin, who was his caretaker at the time wrote the following in Saddle and Bridle, August 1973, "he was overtrained and went  stale." In the stallion stake he was second to Golden Genius.  In the Championship he was dull and came fifth. R.W. Morrison was so disappointed that he immediately sold the stallion to Dodge Stables. He also announced a private dispersal of all his horses but the looming war in Europe and impending USA involvement caused this process to take longer than anticipated.

Frances Dodge, an avid Saddle Horse enthusiast, was the heiress to the Dodge automobile fortune. She was married to another horse lover, James B. Johnson in 1938. They bought the best broodmares available. One of them was Wing Commander's dam - Flirtation Walk. They bought her from Dixiana  Farm in 1940. She was a daughter of King's Genius and her show career parallel that of Anacacho Shamrock. She showed great potential but never achieved it. She too defeated the Dodge Stables mare, Southern Twilight. 

Flirtation Walk was bred to Anacacho Denmark in the spring of 1941. The stallion was only lightly showed and at Louisville he was reserve in the stallion stake to Golden Genius, the stallion that also won him at the Royal Show in 1940.

A chestnut filly was born out of this mating in 1942, called Lover's Lane. 

    Lover's Lane, the older full sister of Wing Commander.

(photo by Horst)

World Champion Five Gaited Mare 

1948 - 1949

On Friday, 23 April 1943, Flirtation Walk produce her second foal, another chestnut with an elongated star and four white feet.  At this time America was totally engaged in World War II, and the colt was aptly named Wing Commander.

 

 

 

 

Bourbon Chief

 

 

 

Bourbon King

 

 

 

 

 

Annie

 

 

Edna May's King

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rex Peavine

 

 

 

Edna May

 

 

Anacacho Shamrock

 

 

Lee Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forest King

 

 

 

Highland Squirrel King

 

 

 

 

 

Nellie Pidgeon

 

 

Sally Cameron

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prince Arthur

 

 

 

Altadena

 

 

 

 

 

Mania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bourbon Chief

 

 

 

Bourbon King

 

 

 

 

 

Annie

 

 

King's Genius

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Peavine

 

 

 

Princess Eugenia

 

 

Flirtation Walk

 

 

Queen of Lincoln

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rex Peavine

 

 

 

King Vine

 

 

 

 

 

Bourbon Belle

 

 

Spelling Bee

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Light 2nd

 

 

 

Not registered

 

 

 

 

 

Not registered

Wallace Bailey was the trainer at the time at Dodge Stables.  He persuaded Californian, Bill Rowan to work at Dodge Stables. (The same Bill Rowan that later came to South Africa. He also was the father of Bob Rowan that also emigrated to South Africa to have a successful career as resident trainer at Thebes Stables in Pretoria.  Bill later build the beautiful Rainbows End Farm at Steynsburg, now the home of Studcor Stables and Koekie de Villiers.) Gregory Penna who had worked at Anacacho Farm was also hired. Wallace Bailey became ill in 1944 and died unexpectedly in hospital on Christmas Eve 1944.

Bill Rowan became the interim manager but another disaster struck. He contracted polio, the dreaded disease of that time. He luckily only had it light and recuperated almost fully.

Greg Penna in the meantime started the  the young Wing Commander and very soon Bill could break him in to harness. Marvin Lane was an assistant and he had the privilege to broke Wing Commander under the saddle.

Despite all this troubles Francis Dodge Johnson retain her enthusiasm and stayed positive. Dodge Stables needed catchriders to show their horses and soon Earl Teater began to ride more and more of Dodge Stables horses. In September 1945, he accepted the position of manager-trainer of Dodge Stables. At the same time the Johnson's also bought the famous Castleton Farm, Lexington, KY. The show horses however only later came to Castleton.

Teater immediately started the young Wing Commander, but as with all great horses he was not easy. His trot was so strong that neither Marvin or Earl could get him to rack. After many weeks of head shaking, something clicked and the young stallion hit a pure and true rack.

In 1946, Wing Commander was three and attended his first show at Des Moines, Ia. He did not show there but was worked on the showgrounds. Marlon Browns remembers: "He was not a big three year old, and his speed was not remarkable, but he could really use his legs."

In 1893 Colonel John T Hughes described another three year old as "wasp waisted and weedy, a shoestring." This horse was Rex Mc Donald and apparently Wing Commander was the same.

 

Wing Commander in 1946 as a Three Year Old with Earl Teater.

(photo by Horst)

Wing made his debut at Lexington and was the sensation of the show, winning the three year old class. However he did not compete at Louisville. The reason we will never know - maybe judging politics played a part eeven back then.

He was shown seven times without defeat in his three year old year and ended as Stallion Five Gaited Champion at the Chicago International.

In 1947 Wing Commander was shown as a four year old in the Stallion Stake at Louisville and he won it! Beau Gallant and  Genius of Stonyridge were some of the studs that he showed against.

The Five Gaited Championship that year was the first defeat that Wing Commander faced. He was beaten by Easter Parade (who was to become the dam of another legend, My My) with Frank Bradshaw in the stirrups. Easter Parade won him again at the New York National - but that was the last time.

1948 was a great season for Dodge Stables. Earl Teater set a record at the Kentucky State Fair, winning the junior five gaited stake with Show Boat, the gelding stake with Blue Hawaii, the mare stake with Lover's Lane and the stallion and Grand Championship with Wing Commander!

Frances and Jimmy Johnson got divorced  and on 22 January 1948 she re-married Frederick Van Lennep. This was also the time when all the show horses were relocated to Castleton Farm.

Dodge Stables dominance of the show ring continued throughout 1949 until the show at at Springfield, Ill. The judges were the top horseman Joe Jones and eccentric Professor D.J. Kays. It was the Stallion/Gelding stake and Kays wanted to tie a gelding King James over Wing but Joe Jones said no, and they had a workout. It was extremely hot and a second work-out was called for. Still they could not come to an agreement and a third judge, Howard Dickey was called in to make the final call. Professor Kays insisted on a third workout and he prevailed. Joe Jones marked his card and threw it in the judging stand, absolutely disgusted at yet another workout.  Three horses were send to the rail again - Wing Commander, King James and King of the Plains. None quit, but finally Earl Teater had enough and rode Wing to the middle of the ring with the others following. Dickey voted for Wing Commander and thus settled the issue. It was one hour and 45 minutes in a 100 degree plus heat. The horses had to be walked all night. Earl Teater found out that Professor Kays marked him seventh when he turned in his card! Only Wing Commander showed back in the Championship and he won it.

Wing Commander and Earl Teater in 1949 

(photo by Horst)

Next it was Louisville again and winning a second World Championship would not be easy. Jean McLean Davis's Oak Hill Chief was formally retired and The Replica, named after Oak Hill Chief , was a sentimental favorite with the crowd.

When the class came in the judges asked an unusual request. They asked the contenders to park trot. The judges thought the The Replica would be able to outdo Wing Commander at the parktrot. After the first workout, the class was divided and Wing Commander and The Replica (Lee Roby showing) were send back to the rail. The crowd soon realised that The Replica could not keep up  with Wing and changed their allegiance. The Replica pulled a shoe and Wing Commander prevailed again.

The Replica and Lee Roby, no real threat for Wing Commander if one evaluate the photos.

(photo by Horst)

Like all great champions, Wing Commander had his faults. He sometimes was criticized for lack of brilliance, seldom using his ears, his slow gait was not up to par and he did not like to canter. He also was not one of the most prettiest of horses.

Many other factors however contribute to his greatness. His motion was almost beyond description. No picture ever did him justice. He had sensational speed at both the rack and trot. His manager-trainer Earl Teater was a horseman of great experience and ability. Then one must also consider that during the heyday of Wing Commander, the mere presence of Dodge Stables on the show grounds, must have had an intimidating effect on some judges and like the tradition in boxing, if the champ performs credibly, there is reluctance to de-throne him.

Wing Commander and Earl Teater in 1953, probably the best photograph of him.

(photo by Horst)

Wing Commander flew through competition and won the WGC title again in 1953.  Earl Teater knew in 1954 that it would be his last year and took it easy with the 11 year old stallion. In February he was used for the first time as stud. The mare was Sweet Rhythm. Wing only showed three times prior to KSF in this year. He won at Devon, Lexington and Ohio. 

At Louisville 1954 Wing Commander got sick.  The story over the years was that Earl Teater was afraid to show against Garland Bradshaw's sensational mare, Lady Carrigan. Lou and Ed Teater absolutely denied this. He was running a temperature in the afternoon before the stallion stake and Earl Teater wisely decided not to show him. There was no need for further proof of his greatness.

His last show appearance was at the Chicago International. According to Lou Teater this was his greatest show. "Dad knew it was the last time and he rode all out. It was just fantastic. I never saw Wing like that."  His fame spread around the world. Wing was the feature of a Life Magazine story in October 1954. Visitors came all across America and from many foreign countries, just to see a glimpse of him. He was the first Saddlebred-celebrity.

Wing loved all the attention. He had no bad habits. He was extremely friendly and seemed to  like people. He liked to be petted and he had an outstanding attitude and disposition for a stallion.

Wing Commander and the young Gene Healy, Ft. Worth, Texas in 1950 at the Chicago International.

 

Next month: Part II

 Wing Commander was already a show legend, but what about his ability to reproduce?

copyright Ross Millin 2004