Steel Dust

Steel Dust

Fact, legend and myth surround the stallion.

Steel Dust, the early predecessor to the American Quarter Horse (Credit: courtesy of American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum - 2006.6.1BE)

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

The Bloodlines of the Breed temporary exhibit at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum traces the bloodlines of foundation sires including Lock’s Rondo, Old Billy, Printer, Peter McCue, Steel Dust, Roan Dick, Traveler, Shiloh, Little Joe, Old Fred, and Old Cold Deck. This exhibition displays pedigree charts from offspring of foundation sires and includes our archival papers about these horses.

 

By Richard Chamberlain

Of all the horses in the annals of the American Quarter Horse – from Janus to Peter McCue to Three Bars (TB) – none equals the near-mythic Steel Dust.

Or so legends say. Not a lot is known about the horse, and not all of what is can be proven. Beyond question, however, is the 19th-century stallion’s influence on even today’s horses and horsemen.

The preeminent racehorse and most sought-after sire of his time, Steel Dust had the unique ability to pass on his positive qualities. From the 1850s through the heyday of the Texas range cattle industry, the mere mention of “Steel Dust blood” often sealed a horse trade and anybody with a good one could do well in the quarter-mile wars. His influence was so great that Quarter Horses were often generically called “Steeldusts” and when Bob Denhardt’s interest in them led to the formation of AQHA in 1940, the founders considered naming it the American Steel Dust Association.

 A blood bay, Steel Dust was named for a rust-colored iron preparation common in 19th-century medical concoctions. It was also known as anvil dust and worn in charms to bring luck at gambling, just as the horse brought together the two most dominant lines of Celebrated American Quarter Of A Mile Running Horses, those of Janus and Sir Archy (TB). Steel Dust emerged the classic bulldog Quarter Horse: a powerfully muscled, short-coupled sprinter that stood 15 hands (or so) and weighed 1,200 pounds (or so), a lot of horse in a compact package, topped with bulging jaws and fox ears.

Foaled in Kentucky in 1843, Steel Dust was purchased as a colt by brothers-in-law Middleton Perry and Jones Greene, who paid $300 and brought the yearling when they emigrated to the Republic of Texas. Perry and Greene homesteaded near present-day Lancaster near what now is Dallas County, where they used Steel Dust as a saddle and workhorse and found he could supplement their income on the quarter paths.

Ridden bareback to save weight, and drenched in molasses to help the jockey stick, Steel Dust wound up cleaning far more plows than he ever pulled. One after another, the fastest horses around ate his dust. Steel Dust made his name humbling previously undefeated sprinters such as Monmouth, who drew such a crowd to the widely heralded match race at McKinney in 1854 (or maybe ’55) that court closed for the day and all the hotels in the area kicked out the men to provide room for women and children only.

By the time he was 12 or so, Steel Dust was afflicted by poor sight. He tended to be nervous and hard to handle at the post, but was still undefeated when he was matched against Shiloh, another Sir Archy-bred stallion that would figure heavily in the annals of the breed. (Foundation sire Old Billy was a son of Shiloh out of Steel Dust’s daughter Ram Cat.) Shiloh was owned by a Lancaster blacksmith who was a friend of Perry and Greene and bred many mares to Steel Dust, but he agreed to race the more famous stallion on a track with wooden starting chutes near Dallas.

Eager at the start, Steel Dust plunged and reared, leaped forward and shattered a board, driving a long shard into his shoulder. Shiloh claimed the forfeit and a crippled Steel Dust never raced again.

Nearly blind, Steel Dust lived the rest of his life on Perry’s farm, dying sometime between 1864 and 1874. Even more famous as a sire, many of the top racing, ranching, roping and polo horses in the West were Steeldusts. Horses such as Peter McCue, Old Sorrel, Oklahoma Star, King P-234 and Leo carried his legacy, and today, Steel Dust blood flows in leading race sires from First Down Dash to Mr Jess Perry, and in leading performance sires such as Invitation Only, Blazing Hot, Shining Spark and Smart Chic Olena.

 Ol’ Steel Dust was quite a horse. At least, that’s what the legends say.

 

Richard Chamberlain is senior writer for AQHA publications. To comment, write to richc@aqha.org.