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Steel Dust

by Clay Coppedge
Cowboys and horse racing enthusiasts have often rhapsodized about horses they call Steel Dusters, or sometimes Steeldusters. They praise the horse’s speed, durability, handling and virility and many have been and still are reluctant to ride or handle any other kind of horse.

Old timers believed the Steelduster is a separate breed but the horses can trace back to single horse named Steel Dust. The original Steel Dust was foaled by a Kentucky thoroughbred mare and brought to Texas in 1843 by Middleton Perry and Jones Green. The horse was described as being muscular with small ears and a big jaw that made him just look more determined than other horses.

What set Steel Dust apart was not only his blazing speed around a quarter-mile track but he had more common sense – true horse sense – and durability than other horses. But it was his speed that made everybody take notice. Steel Dust raced against horses owned by Texans and Indians and he beat all of them. (We can be pretty sure that some of the Comanches’ best horses had some Steel Dust blood in them, too.) How fast was he? Steel Dust was so fast that it’s said his jockey coated the horse’s back with molasses so he wouldn’t fall off.

In his time, Steel Dust was as well known in Texas as Sam Houston and probably more universally revered. Money was a murky concept more than a reality in the days of the Republic, but a lot of coin, currency and barter changed hands when Steel Dust was racing; some fools always thought they had a horse to beat him and other fools thought so too and put money on it. The smart money always stayed with Steel Dust.

Challengers arose. One was another “unbeatable” horse in McKinney named Monmouth. The race was so highly anticipated that even the courts shut down to watch it. Today, Monmouth is best remembered for losing that race. Not long after that Steel Dust defeated a horse named Brown Dick from Hopkins County in another high profile race. But there was another horse that people said was unbeatable: Shiloh.

Shiloh was foaled in Tennessee in 1844 and brought to Texas in 1849 by Jack Batchler. Like Steel Dust, Shiloh’s speed around a short track was startling. The two horses were set for the “Race of the Century” at a well-groomed track on the outskirts of Dallas in 1855 but it never happened. In his eagerness for the race, Steel Dust reared up against the starting chute, breaking a board and running a splinter through his shoulder. Later, he went blind. His racing days were over but his sex life was just beginning.
“Steel Dust had the qualities that farmers, cowmen, and racing men wanted in a quarter horse; and he had an unusual ability to transmit them to his colts,” Wayne Gard wrote in a biography of Steel Dust. In “Quarter Horses: A story of Two Centuries” author Robert Moorman Denhardt wrote: “The important thing is that there were such horses as Steel Dust. They lived, worked, ran and begot sons and daughters and founded a mighty race, the American quarter horse.”
Steel Dust and Shiloh have had something to do with an astounding number of well-known, award-winning, race-winning horses in this state but their contribution to the modern quarter horse runs deeper than that; they are widely credited with creating the quarter horse we know today. The King Ranch began using breeding lines from Steel Dust and Shiloh in 1916 to form the foundation of the famous King Ranch herd, which produced Triple Crown winner Assault and other notables.

Steel Dust died in 1864 and was buried at Ten Mile Creek on Middleton Perry’s farm. Shiloh lived for 30 years and might have lived longer had he not slipped into a corral with another stallion and taken a severe kicking that eventually put him away. He was buried on Bear Creek in Ellis County in 1874.

In a way, though, both live on in today’s quarter horse. When looking back at how that iconic horse was created, it’s easy to get a little sentimental. Wayne Gard did in his biography of Steel Dust, which also included sections on Shiloh as well as Sam Bass’s famous race horse, the Denton Mare.

“The former haunts of Steel Dust still are horse country,” Gard wrote. “On stormy nights some of those who live on Ten Mile Creek may think they hear his whinny – and an answering neigh from Old Shiloh on Bear Creek. If the two stallions could break away from their equine Valhalla, undoubtedly they would come back some night and finish that race of 1855, and thus settle for all time the question of which was the fleeter.”



© Clay Coppedge
June 16, 2013 Column
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