The Story of a Wonder Horse That Won for Missouri
Laurels Which Long Had Been Kentucky’s
By C. P. Cauthorn
(As told to a member of the staff of The Star Magazine)
As much as men love horses and dogs, it is unusual to find one now in this busy world who will take time to compose a memorial such as Mr. Cauthorn has given here.
His enthusiasm was so compelling, therefore, that it carried this story of his friend, Rex McDonald, the wonder horse, to a leading place in today’s magazine.
When you read how Cauthorn-the freckled, tousle-haired boy—found his greatest joy in the owner of the champion show horse of the world renting his father’s barn and the boy being privileged to ride the great, friendly stallion every day; of how a man who didn’t have even $100 to buy Rex when he was a colt lived to race two of the stallion’s own daughters to a sale to become part owner when the “wonder horse” was worth many thousand; of the death of Rex, his head in the arms of the boy who had loved him so—perhaps you will begin to feel that Mr. Cauthorn’s eulogy is justified.
A story of a horse is here told—the wonder horse of America. It is the story of a true “Black Beauty,” but a “Black Beauty” who played his role in real life instead of in fiction. It is the story of a horse that set men against men and state against state, but a horse that, in the end, held the united love and affection of every person who knew him. It is the story of Rex McDonald—called by many “the grandest horse the world has ever known.”
Rex McDonald’s popularity never has been equaled in the horse world. Until his death, twelve years ago, he was the equine king of America—his name was a household word where fine horses were known and discussed. When he was in his prime thousands of persons met him whenever he was shipped to different cities. Bands paraded the streets and banquets were given in his honor—banquets attended, needless to say, by his owners and admirers, while Rex very peacefully munched hearty portions of oats in his stall.
Horsemen of Missouri and Kentucky almost had pitched battles over Rex McDonald. Missouri always called him “the wonder horse.” Kentucky, for a long time jealous because he came from a rival state, called him a “shoestring, a big awkward bull,” and tried to defeat him in every way they knew; but the end of the battle saw Rex the victor. His worst enemies joined the ranks of his friends, and he ended his career with everyone singing his praises.
Finally when Rex McDonald died in Mexico, Missouri, the town went into full mourning. A funeral procession followed him to his last residing place, in the center field at the Mexico fairgrounds where he had made chapters of horse history. There Rufus Jackson, editor of the Mexico Intelligencer, gave Rex a eulogy such as no other animal probably ever received. There the people who loved him most, with uncovered heads and heavy hearts, bade him their last good-by.
The story of Rex McDonald reads like a romance. To tell of his many triumphs in the tanbark ring would take volumes. Practically every event in his life was interesting. They all are worthy of narration—the manner in which he was bred, the story of his triumph over fair and unfair opposition, the slander, the lies and the actual fights that he caused and, of course, knew nothing about. When one considers the recognized fact that Rex McDonald’s blood flows in 90 per cent of the great show horses in America today some idea of his worth and his importance in the horse world may be gauged.
The beginning of the Rex McDonald narrative must go back to the days in Missouri after the Civil War, when county fairs were the thing and there was keen competition for the blue ribbons that were awarded the best of livestock. Many of the Missouri settlers, as is well known, were southern people—just as practically all of the Kentuckians were—and Southerners of those days had a passionate pride in the quality of their horses.
By the time the year 1880 rolled around the two states were involved in a keen rivalry for horse growing supremacy and they often used to fight out the issue at the old St. Louis fair—that being to the horse world what the world’s series is to baseball today.
The youngest and most ambitious horse lover in Missouri in those days was my cousin Lan B. Morris of Mexico and I say this with all due reservations of family pride. He was recognized as such everywhere. Mr. Morris had one great goal in his life—to raise in Missouri “the finest horse that ever looked through a bridle” as he expressed it. Therefore, with my father, he went to Kentucky in 1881 to see what was on the market there.
The two men were sitting in the grandstand in Lexington one day when they saw James Graves, a noted Kentucky horseman, appear on the track riding an animated, very stylish, perfectly going young black stallion. “What horse is that?” Mr. Morris demanded of Gen. John B. Castleman, who was sitting next to him. “Oh,” responded the latter, casually, “another colt that Jimmie Graves is wasting his time on.” “I don’t consider that he’s wasting his time,” Mr. Morris replied. “That is the greatest horse I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to buy him.” “That will be easy enough to do sir,” the general told him, with a touch of dignity in his voice. He was not mollified by the fact that the Graves colt was a winner in the show, which started immediately. He still saw nothing unusual in the animal, and he considered himself just as good a judge of horseflesh as Mr. Morris was.
Mr. Morris hurried to the stables after the show and engaged Mr. Graves in conversation. The name of the colt, he found, was Black Squirrel, and he discovered, also, the fact that Mr. Graves did not intend to part with him for love or money. Mr. Graves’s creditors had other ideas on the matter, however. When they heard that Mr. Morris had made a high offer for Black Squirrel they hurried to Mr. Graves’s stables and practically compelled him to sell the animal.
Mr. Morris ordered his precious purchase to be shipped to Missouri and the train had a wreck on the way. Joe Stanup, Black Squirrel’s caretaker, was killed and Black Squirrel himself was injured. It appeared as though Mr. Morris had lost his investment without getting a dollar’s worth of good out of it, but the horse beat back to health and became invaluable for breeding purposes, although the accident had put a severe handicap on his show work. However, it was sent to some exhibitions under the charge of a young Missourian, “Joe” McDonald and in that fact we see how the Rex McDonald that was to come later got his last name.
“Joe” McDonald, like Mr. Morris, had an ambition to obtain—breed, if possible—an “ideal horse.” The Harrisons, over in Callaway County had bought in Kentucky a famous stallion, Rex Denmark 840, and Mr. McDonald saw in him the father of the wonder colt he had in mind. One day he and one of the Harrisons were talking the matter over in the Morris stables, while Black Squirrel peacefully dropped his feed in a stall a few feet away.
“Rex Denmark is a wonderful horse,” Mr. McDonald said, “but there,” pointing to Black Squirrel, “is the king of them all, and from him I’m going to raise a mare to breed to Rex Denmark that will produce the greatest horse the world has ever known.”
Mr. McDonald carried out his plans and in the spring of 1890, a black colt, which was called Rex McDonald, resulted. Mr. McDonald had lost his health in the meantime, however, and had to sell his horses. Lucy Mack, the mother of Rex, went to a man named R.T. Freeman for $250, and then Mr. McDonald led Rex himself, an awkward, long-haired, thin yearling foal, into the ring.
“Gentlemen,” he said “in this black colt you see the result of my lifetime of study and experience and work in the horse business. For years I have dreamed of such a colt. For years I have studied the good points of fine horses, and when I bred Black Squirrel’s mare to Rex Denmark I knew we would produce the finest horse ever known. Here, my friends, is the result of that mating. I am not disappointed.”
It seems impossible that the horsemen who listened to him would be unimpressed, but such was the case. Mr. Freeman bought Rex McDonald in a somewhat lackadaisical manner for $105, actuated chiefly by the fact that he had just purchased Lucy Mack and decided to keep mother and colt together. Mr. McDonald died before the blue grass pastures of Callaway County turned green in the spring.
Mr. Freeman turned Rex over to “Billy” Davis a widely known horseman of that day, for training and showing and it was Mr. Davis who “made” Rex McDonald. When Rex was a 3-year old he was shown fifteen times in the best shows of the land, and returned the victor each time. In the fall of that year the shows wound up as usual, with the St. Louis fair. There was keen competition entered. The great Rex Denmark was in the competition. So was Forest Squirrel, who had won the Chicago World’s Fair stake. So were Potts’s Artist, Monte Cristo and Nellie Rex, other famous animals of the time. Rex McDonald really was thought to have no great chance.
Four horsemen were watching the show together, the two Harrisons, who owned Rex Denmark; Mr. Freeman, who owned Rex McDonald; and Col. John T. Hughes of Lexington, Ky., a Southerner of the old type, who was the most influential man in the horse world of his state at the time and who, pardonably, was rather opinionated in his ideas on horses and their merits.
“Well, gentlemen,” the colonel said deliberately, “that’s the first shoestring that I ever saw Billy Davis ride in my life, suh.” “Do you know colonel,” Mr. Freeman parried, good naturedly, “you Kentuckians are going to like that shoestring a little better after you see him work.” “I am a Kentuckian, suh,” the colonel replied in high dignity, “and I reckon I know a good horse when I see one. No shoestring like that ever can do anything to my liking.”
The show was on and Rex, as the persons who saw the exhibition said, “went wild” that night. The lights and music and cheering thousands thrilled him through and through and he went through the paces as he never had done before. The judges were astonished and the crowd was electrified. Colonel Hughes was the first to see he had been wrong in his appraisal of Rex and switched at once to the role of his most ardent supporter. He yelled and screamed for Rex, despite the fact that Jack and Tim Harrison his old friends, who were in the box with him, were the owners of Rex Denmark.
“By thunder, Harrison,” the colonel shouted to the former, “you have shown the old horse once too often.”
The Harrisons did not believe it and, on the spot one of the biggest bets ever made in a horse show was laid. Rex McDonald won and the Harrisons lost the championship and their money, but they had the consolation that their own horse, Rex Denmark, was the sire of the new champion.
Colonel Hughes immediately inquired for the owner of Rex McDonald and was covered with embarrassment when he found that Mr. Freeman to whom he had abused Rex so severely a short time before, was the fortunate man. He asked Mr. Freeman to sell Rex and Mr. Freeman refused. He came back the next spring and again asked Mr. Freeman to sell the horse. Again Mr. Freeman said no. At last by a queer turn of fate the same thing that caused Mr. Graves—a staunch Kentuckian—to sell Black Squirrel to a Missouri owner made Mr. Freeman—a firm Missourian—dispose of Rex McDonald to a Kentuckian. He owed a bank money and when the bankers heard that Colonel Hughes had offered $3050—an immense sum for that time—for Rex McDonald, they closed down on Mr. Freeman and made him sell the horse.
It was then that the real battle over Rex McDonald began. Kentuckians were indignant to the extreme over Colonel Hughes’s deal. The thought that one of their number should have to go to the much hated Missouri and pay a “crazy” sum for a horse was more than they could swallow gratefully. Missourians knew nothing about horses, in Kentuckians estimation. The only time a Missourian was ever to be recorded as a horseman was when he came to Kentucky to buy. And now look what Colonel Hughes had done! The Kentucky tradition of years had been upset and the Missourians probably would get chesty about it and never quit talking about the matter.
Rex knew some defeats in those days—despite the popularly accepted story that he never was beaten—and they all were at some little known fair, where the top prize was perhaps $10. If Colonel Hughes thought it was odd that his prize winner would take down the blue ribbons at the biggest events in the country and then suffer an occasional loss at some small show, where half the animals, probably, were not pedigreed, he was too fine a gentleman to say so. There was one case, for instance, where for some whim or other, or to give the country folk a treat, he showed Rex at a little street fair, where the first prize sum was $6.
He expected Rex to win in a walk, of course, but to his intense surprise, the judge paid little or no attention to Rex and awarded the blue ribbon with no hesitation to another animal. “Who drove the winning horse?” Colonel Hughes asked mildly. “The wife of the mayor, sir,” one of the townspeople replied gloatingly. “I see,” from Colonel Hughes, musingly, “and who was the judge?” “Our town marshall.” The colonel said nothing more.
Colonel Hughes kept Rex until 1898, when he sold him to Col. W. F. Blees of Macon, Missouri who purchased the animal for Will Lee, a Mexico boy, who had always wanted to show Rex. In the Blees regime Rex had probably more attention, more adoration, and more advantage than any horse ever has enjoyed. Colonel Blees surrounded Rex with every known horse comfort, and spent a small fortune on his care.
It was during the Blees ownership that Kansas City first saw Rex. Will Lee showed him at Fairmont Park against the incomparable Miss Rex, who had never been defeated and who had been crowned “world’s champion” for having won the honor in Chicago. Miss Rex and Rex were half brother and sister inasmuch as each had the same sire, Rex Denmark. Rex beat her, as he beat all good animals, but had he known she was such a close relative he doubtless would have let her take the honor, as Rex was ever a gentleman.
Ralph Orthwein, a young St. Louis millionaire at that time, and a widely known member of the Board of Trade here today, bought Rex in 1900, when the horse was at the pinnacle of its success. He was exhibited at the leading shows of America, never dodging a big contest and never being defeated in one. There were hundreds of horses brought out year after year to beat Rex, but his superiority was so outstanding that defeat was impossible.
When Mr. Orthwein bought Rex he immediately decided to make him the center of a great saddle horse nursery in Mexico. As it happened, he leased our place there—my father reserving only the house and the family horse stable. That left the old show horse barn that my grandfather had built of solid walnut before the Civil War, as the home of the world’s champion.
No matter what success shall come to me, no matter what great happiness I may know, nothing can come into my life that will make me as joyful as I was when I heard this news. How I loved horses! My daily riding companion for a long time had been the peerless Tom Bass, and now I was to have in my own backyard Rex McDonald, the Frenchman, Betsy Diamond, Governor Folk, Miss Rex, and a dozen or more other famous horses that I had gone to fairs to see do battle.
It developed that the Negro groom, “Headlight,” who was supposed to lead Rex every morning for an hour’s exercise was lazy, and he would slip me on Rex’s back and with a little single lead bridle, I would ride the champion of the whole world every morning. They didn’t need cold water or alarm clocks to get me out of bed in those days, I should say not.
In 1904 the more important fairs of Missouri and Kentucky and the horse shows of other states where saddle shows were the chief attraction faced a serious issue. Horsemen refused to enter their horses where Rex McDonald was to be shown. With the elimination of competition in this way it meant the end of horse shows. Ralph Orthwein stepped into the breach at this point and showed what a real sportsman he was. To save the entire horse exhibiting game he withdrew Rex from competition, pulled his shoes, sent him home and there a barefooted kid had the privilege of playing with him, riding him up and down on his private dirt track and feeding him apples for another year.
Ralph Orthwein had not seen me since 1905, freckled, dirty and ragged as I was then, yet when I walked onto the trading floor of the Board of Trade last fall a white-haired man known only as a grain man to his associates here, but to me the hero of my boyhood, in that he owned old Rex, yelled, “Hello, there, Jumpie—how would you like to ride old Rex this morning?” What a feat of memory that was! And now, when the excitement in the wheat pit dies down we talk about the days when I was a hero worshiping boy and Ralph rode in private cars and owned the world’s champion show horse. I say to Ralph, “Those were the good old days—seven-eighths May wheat—a half July corn,” and so we come back to earth.
In 1905 Mr. Orthwein became involved in business difficulties and dispersed his stable of show horses and his breeding nursery. Colonel Hughes again came out of Kentucky to buy the champion, still in his prime, but not being shown, but a group of business men from Columbia were determined that Rex should not leave the state again, and they bought him. He was used in breeding service there and the many prize horses that have his blood in their veins have been told of.
When Rex McDonald was born there was a young lad working for Ian Morris, who loved horses even as I love them. His name was Ben Middleton and he wanted to buy Rex at the McDonald sale, but $105 was a fortune to him then, and he had no money to even make the smallest bid. As Rex triumphed up and down the land Mr. Middleton watched him—and in the meantime worked and saved—and always declared that some day Rex McDonald would be his. Twenty years passed and fortune smiled both on Mr. Middleton and Rex, but now that the former had the money he could not buy the champion because Rex was held priceless by the citizens of Columbia.
In 1910 Dr. Graham, the largest owner of stock in the Rex McDonald company, died, and it was decided to sell the horse. Colonel Hughes, now an old man, and still in Kentucky came post haste to make the purchase, but friends of Ben Middleton in Columbia telephoned Mr. Middleton to get on the scene quick if he even wanted to be in on the bidding. Ben got there by hooking two daughters of Rex to a buggy and driving the forty miles across country at top speed.
Columbia probably never has known a busier day. Both sides were trying to see Rex’s present owners without seeing each other, and there were hurried meetings and counter meetings. Colonel Hughes had just about won over the directors with his bid when Mrs. Graham remembered that the doctor had promised Mr. Middleton first chance to buy Rex if the horse ever was put on the market. Accordingly, Ben acquired the animal and was the happiest man in town that day!
It was on Rex’s return to Mexico that the great scenes took place. Rufus Jackson and I were at that time associated in publishing a magazine devoted to the horses, and we made the name Rex McDonald a household word wherever horses were known. Rex’s court was always crowded with visitors. People came from all over America to see him, and Mexico got all the thrills of a summer resort town.
– – – –
The morning of Thursday, November 13, 1913—look at the thirteens in that date—Ben Middleton phoned me. “Come down to the stables at once,” he said. “Rex is sick.”
There I found the poor old champion nearly dead, and he had looked in the height of shape the day before. Veterinarians were sent for from all over the state and in the meantime every doctor in Mexico and I mean the regular doctors of medicine—not the veterinarians—came down to see what they could do and went into consultation over Rex. They found the trouble—it was a stomach one—and they shook their heads over the sure result they saw of it all.
Everything that human hand or brain could do was done, but Rex was losing at last, in a great battle. Ben loved him as a mother would her baby and talked to him as though he were human. Rex may not have understood what Ben said, but I know the super intelligent horse knew that those around him loved him and that if he could have talked he would have told us all good-by.
Finally a veterinarian asked me to hold Rex’s head off the bedding that he might give him a capsule. I sat down in the stall, picked that great, beautiful head of his up in my arms and the doctor administered the medicine, but it was useless. A tremor passed through the velvety black body and Rex McDonald laid his head down in my lap. Rex mortuus est! (The King is dead).
This article is from the Kansas City Star Magazine, Sunday, May 10, 1925