Saddle Horse History Rode With This Champion Saddlebred Stallion
The often-told story of the all-time saddlehorse show champion reflects the history of the saddlebred horse industry as well. You cannot talk about the saddlebred horse without mentioning Missouri, and you can't avoid talking about Audrain County and Mexico, Mo. But his life story touches many states across this country - and he resides today where he got his greatest fame. He was a champion show horse for more than a decade and produced sons and daughters who were champions and they in turn produced champions. He made money for everyone who owned him; he broke records for money won and for money spent to own him. Over 200 of his sons were registered and a virtual family of ongoing good bloodstock infused the Saddlebred breed. Rex McDonald also brought popularity to his breed winning hearts where ever he went, with his brilliance of presence and perfection of all five gaits.
Rex McDonald was technically born in Callaway County, however, the pasture he foaled from extended into Audrain County. So both counties claim his birthright.
The sire of Rex McDonald was Rex Denmark who was an incredible show horse of his day and one of the most remarkable of Saddlebred stallions at stud. As Rex Denmark was making his mark in the show ring, the owner of an equally great stallion Black Squirrel, was planning the future. The notable Black Squirrel 58 owned by Lan B. Morris and Joe McDonald’s mare Star Davis produced a chestnut filly known as Lucy Mack. This filly was later bred to the then famous Rex Denmark 840. This breeding would result in the birth of a “knobby-kneed, scrawny colt” on May 30, 1890. When the colt was first born Joe McDonald concluded that it had little promise for the future. After a short time, he realized that that colt was going to be a magnificent saddle stallion. Mr. McDonald, who had became very ill, sold him at a dispersal sale to R. T. Freeman & Son of Mexico, MO for $105. At the sale he said, “Gentlemen, you have now an opportunity to obtain at your own price the benefit of my lifetime of study and experience. I have predicted that this colt will make the best horse we have ever known, and if he is properly cared for and managed, I think you will all remember my prediction.” This colt was named Rex McDonald.
Throughout Rex’s early development his owners started to realize his potential. They first showed him at local Missouri fairs. In his first year of competition, the three year old Rex beat the famous Lou Chief in St. Louis. The following year, Mr. John T. Hughes (Lou Chief’s owner) of Lexington, KY, bought Rex McDonald for $3,050. He continued to consistently beat all the competition that he faced. The first loss suffered by Rex was at the Kansas City Horse Show of 1896. “It was said that while a high stepper, Rex had been mistakenly shod with heavy shoes for this show.” The long and intense competition was won by one of Tom Bass’s finest horses, Miss Rex. This was impressive because “mares seldom beat stallions, especially stallions like Rex McDonald.”
Rex McDonald, a magnificent, 16 hand black Saddlebred stallion had that unnamable something as he flashed into the show ring that brought people to their feet in recognition of his animation, beauty and "presence". He was that blue black that is so reflective both in sunlight or the lights of center ring. Further, no one could fault any of his five gaits and he won innumerable times in harness, model rings, and as a gaited horse. He did everything so naturally, including his high tail, yet he filled the eye of all onlookers as though he were constantly on dress parade. Many words were written of his excellence and he won the hearts of professional horsemen, breeders and all show ring audiences.
In 1893, the stallion won the Audrain County Fair’s $800 stake and the $1,000 Mexico Spring Stallion Stake in 1894. Later that year, he was sold for $3,050 and sent to Kentucky, according to Mexicoan Leta Hodge’s book – "A Gathering of Our Days". When Colonel F.W. Blees from Moberly, Mo. wanted to build a stable of prize-winning horses, he hired Willam D. Lee to manage them. Blees told Lee he wanted to establish the best stable of horses in Missouri - Lee replied that he had to have Rex McDonald - and set out to get him. Paying the then unheard-of price of $6,000, the champion saddlebred was stabled at the Grand Barn on the Boulevard, then owned by the Lee Brothers. Under Col. Blees’ ownership, Rex had “more attention, more adoration and more advantages than any horse ever has enjoyed.”
When the young stallion began to hit the show rings, his fame began to spread and grew greater and greater with each year. He even defeated his sire in the show ring at St. Louis fair and Rex Denmark, the sire, was in the habit of winning at St. Louis so it was a real upset but one that no one could context as both the judge and the audience were electrified by the performance of the younger Rex McDonald. He was considered by some to have been unbeatable, if he had been properly shod and ridden. It is noted in the Missouri Historical Review that “the six horses who defeated Rex, practically all were later defeated by him.” He met and defeated all the great horses of his day before finally retiring from showing because no one would show against him. In an attempt to get entries, shows stated in their prize lists that Rex McDonald would not show.
In 1900, Rex was sold to Ralph Orthwein of St. Louis. “In 1903 at the St. Louis Fair, Rex McDonald was crowned the champion saddle horse of America.”
In 1905 Rex was sold to a company out of Columbia, MO. These Missouri businessmen were intent on keeping him within the state. He was used for breeding purposes there. Then in 1910, the head of the company died and Rex McDonald was sold to Ben Middleton of Mexico, MO whose lifelong ambition was to own the great stallion. It was said that he turned down a $10,000 offer to sell the horse. Mr. Middleton had waited a long time to be able to secure the purchase of the now very famous and highly valued stallion. When the horse returned to Mexico, Missouri, the whole city turned out to do him home and to celebrate. Middleton rode him at special events seemingly to the delight of the old stallion, according to Mrs. Hodge’s account.
Rex McDonald died in Mexico in 1913. His remains were buried at the Audrain County Fairgrounds. At the opening of each year’s Audrain County Fair, the audience stood in silent tribute as a wreath was placed on the stallion’s grave near the inside quarter stretch of the race track. His hide was stuffed and displayed in the lobby of the Mexico landmark – the Ringo Hotel. When it burned in 1918, fire fighters saved Rex’s remains. Tom Bass took the stuffed horse to his barn where people could still see it. Ultimately the monuments covering his gravesite were moved across town to Graceland in the front yard of the Saddlebred Horse Museum.
Rex McDonald is recognized as the greatest of the greats by most horsemen and historians today. Many of the grand saddle horses today have the blood of this magnificent saddle horse champion flowing through their veins. The story of Rex McDonald will continue to be a part of Missouri history.
Today, visitors may visit his final resting place at the American Saddlebred Horse Museum on the grounds of the Audrain County Historical Society in Mexico, Missouri.
Tom Bass once was quoted as saying, “Rex didn’t walk or pace, he just glided.
Photo Credits: American Saddlebred Horse Museum, Mexico, Missouri and Audrain County Historical Society and Irwin Collection
Sources for this article include http://www.audrain.org/irwin/achs05.htm and http://www.artbycrane.com/horsearticles/rexmcdonald.html