Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Gene Autry's Champion at Vasquez Rocks

Agua Dulce, California

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Actor Gene Autry's horse, Champion, trots through Vasquez Rocks.

No written information accompanies the photograph other than "Gene Autry's Champion" on the back.

We're not sure which "Champion" this was. There were several horses Autry called "Champion" at different times and for different purposes. All were sorrels with a blaze and four white stockings (of varying sizes, which is how they can be distinguished). This is not Television Champion, the star of "The Adventures of Champion" (CBS, 1955-1956).

However, the "CH" in the number at lower left (CH-801-67) tells us this photograph is from "The Adventures of Champion."

Best guess? This is probably Champion Three, standing in for Television Champion. Yes, Autry's screen horses used stunt doubles.

Champion Three was the "last" Champion, and the one best remembered locally. Champion Three toured with Autry in the 1950s and retired in 1960. After Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, the property was used for an episode of "Combat," but mostly it sat fallow except as a home for the last Champion, which held on for another 28 years. He died at age 41 on May 9, 1990, and was buried on the grounds next to the barn. Autry wrote in 1995: "I have been back only a very few times. I kept [Melody Ranch] until the last living Champion died and then sold it to two enthusiastic young men, Renaud and Andre Veluzat, who decided to rebuild it."

About the Champions.

From Gene Autry Entertainment, 2020.

Champion appeared with Gene Autry as his partner and sidekick throughout their legendary career in film, radio, and television.

There were three "official" Champions that performed in Autry films and several specialized Champions, such as Little Champ, Lindy Champion, Touring Champion, and Champion Three. Other horses, for which we have no documentation at this time, served as doubles for movie stunts and personal appearances. The Original Champion was sorrel-colored, had a blaze down his face and white stockings on all his legs except the right front. His first onscreen credit was for 1935's Melody Trail. He died while Gene was in the service.

Gene's second screen horse was Champion Jr., a lighter sorrel with four stockings and a narrow blaze, who appeared in films until 1950. While onscreen with Republic, Champion Jr. was billed as "Wonder Horse of the West," and at Columbia, he was known as "World's Wonder Horse." The third screen horse, Television Champion, costarred in Gene's last films and also appeared on television in "The Gene Autry Show" and "The Adventures of Champion" during the fifties. Also a light sorrel with four white stockings, he resembled Champion Jr. but had a thick blaze. In the late forties, Little Champ joined Gene's stable. A well-trained trick pony, this blaze-faced sorrel with four stockings appeared in three of Gene's films and made personal appearances.

Rushing from a movie set in Hollywood to his annual appearance at Madison Square Garden for the World's Championship Rodeo in 1940, Lindy Champion made aviation history as the first horse to fly from California to New York. Gene used Lindy, a sorrel with four white stockings and an oval-topped blaze, for personal appearances.

Touring Champion and Champion Three were also personal appearance horses. A darker sorrel with four white stockings and a medium-wide blaze, Touring Champion appeared at rodeos and stage shows in the late forties and fifties and has his hoof prints next to Gene's handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Champion Three appeared with Gene on the road from the late fifties until 1960, when the sorrel with four white stockings and a crooked blaze retired happily to Gene's Melody Ranch in Newhall, California, where he died in 1990.

Collectively, the Champions performed the world's largest repertory of horse tricks, including dancing the hula and the Charleston, jumping through a ring of fire, and playing dead. Greeting crowds from Brownwood, Texas, to Dublin, Ireland, Touring Champion even enjoyed a proper high tea at the Savoy in London.

Always popular, Champion received thousands of fan letters each month, proving that the World's Wonder Horse was an important element in the Singing Cowboy's success.

Throughout their careers, Gene Autry and Champion were featured in dime novels, children's stories, and comic books. Champion even received equal billing with Gene above the leading ladies on movie posters and lobby cards promoting Autry films.

LW3751: 9600 dpi jpeg from original publicity photograph purchased 2019 by Leon Worden.
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