Wing Commander was the first Saddlebred celebrity. His fame spread around the world. He 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.
“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 of wining six World Champion Five-Gaited titles, achievement, equaled by only one other great Saddlebred, 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.
Six Times Five Gaited World Grand Champion 1948 - 1953 Six Times Number One Sire 1963 - 1968
The effect this one stallion had on the Saddle Horse 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 he in the show ring and breeding barn.
This is his story ...
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 victories 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.
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 the dam of Wing Commander - Flirtation Walk. They bought her from Dixiana Farm in 1940. She was a daughter of King’s Genius and her show career paralleled that of Anacacho Shamrock. She showed great potential but never achieved it.
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 beat him at the Royal Show in 1940.
A chestnut filly was born out of this mating in 1942, called Lover’s Lane and who became the World Champion Five Gaited Mare in 1948 and 1949. Lover’s Lane was the older, full sister of the yet to be born foal, Wing.
On Friday, 23 April 1943, Flirtation Walk produced 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.
Edna May’s King
Highland Squirrel King
Queen of Lincoln
Red Light 2nd
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 break Wing to saddle.
Despite all these troubles Francis Dodge Johnson retained 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 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 was the same.
Wing Commander 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 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 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 beat 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 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 showed back in the Championship and he won it.
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 and The Replica (Lee Roby showing) were send back to the rail. The crowd soon realized that The Replica could not keep up with Wing and changed their allegiance. The Replica pulled a shoe and Wing prevailed again.
Like all great champions, Wing 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 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 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.” Featured in Life Magazine and having established himself as a world celebrity, visitors came all across America and from many foreign countries, just to see a glimpse of him.
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.
American Horseman, 1953 Saddle and Bridle, 1951, 1982 (Lynn Weatherman article) The Horse by D.J. Kays, 1969, revised by John Kays 1973 American Saddle Horses in South Africa, 1972 - Lee Z. Kaplan