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Gene Autry and his many Champions

(From Old Corral collection)

TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS (Republic, 1935) was Gene Autry's first starring B-western, and the above title lobby card shows Gene on the original Champion (with that unique face blaze and three white socks).

During a film and TV career that spanned about twenty years, Gene Autry had a variety of horses which were billed as some variation of 'Champion'. And Champ was the only hoss of a western film hero to have a TV series. THE ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION was produced by Autry's Flying A production company, and starred Barry Curtis as Ricky North, Jim Bannon as Uncle Sandy North, Francis McDonald as Will Calhoun, and Ewing Mitchell as Sheriff Powers. The program first aired on the CBS television network, and ran from September, 1955 through February, 1956. There was also a Champion comic book (but Gene's horse wasn't the only one to have a comic series - Roy Rogers' Trigger also had a comic book run).

Shown below are the main Champion and several of the primary Champion variations. Autry had several others.

Special thanks to Sky Corbin for providing some of the caption information and details under the following pictures of Gene's primary hosses ... and to Leon Jackson for his investigation into Autry's acquisition of Champion Jr.

The official Gene Autry website has a nice writeup on the many Champions:

Henry Crowell did an interesting article on his work and association with Gene Autry, Champion and Melody Ranch from about 1949-1990:

Did Gene ride Champion in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE serial?

(Courtesy of Boyd Magers)

About six months prior to TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS, Gene made his first starring film, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) serial. Many folks have questioned whether the original Champion was used in that cliffhanger. And the answer is "sure looks like it!".

The above Chapter 1 lobby card shows Gene on a horse with three socks and a face blaze ... and that looks like Champ. See the crop/blowup below left. The scene in this lobby card is a posed production still which doesn't show up in Chapter 1 of the serial (or any other chapter).

In one of the early chapters, Gene's stunt double does a quick mount on a horse with a large face blaze and white socks on three legs and missing a stocking on the right front leg (just like the original Champion). But the horse is visible from the side only, and I can't tell if the face blaze matches. See screen capture/crop below right of what appears to be the original Champion.

Looks like Champion.

Looks like Champion.

Be aware that Autry rides at least four different horses in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. One appears to be Champion while one or two others have face blazes, four white stockings, etc. He also rides a couple of nondescript brown horses, one of which has a small dot on the face between the eyes.

Not Champion.

The Original Champion

(From Old Corral collection)

Above and below, Gene with the original Champion.  This was the horse Gene rode during his glory days from 1935 until he went into the service in 1942.  The original Champion came off a ranch in the Ardmore, Oklahoma area, not far from where Gene grew up.  He had only three stocking feet, a distinctively shaped head, and a large 'I'd know him anywhere' blaze down his face.

(From Old Corral collection)

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above are Polly Rowles and Gene, on the original Champion, in a scene from SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES (Republic, 1937). You can see the missing sock on Champ's right front leg.

(From Old Corral collection)

Gene strums his guitar and serenades pretty June Storey, while the original Champion looks on (probably thinking "c'mon Gene, let's hit the trail!".)

Champion Jr.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above is Champion Jr., the second of Gene's fulltime steeds.  His distinctive, narrow, well-designed blaze makes him easy to identify. He was Gene's main mount in the years following his return to the movies after World War II. He first appeared in SIOUX CITY SUE (Republic, 1946).

Leon Jackson resides in Coalgate, Oklahoma, and during September '99, we exchanged some e-mails about the origin of Champion Jr.  The story goes that Gene Autry purchased a four year old named 'Boots' from a Charles Auten around 1946 for $2,500 or so.  Auten lived in Ada, Oklahoma, and he exhibited 'Boots' at various fairs and rodeos.  He learned that Gene was looking for a new 'Champion' and that the cowboy film star was doing personal appearances including a rodeo in or near Fort Worth, Texas.  The two met, struck a deal, and 'Boots' became 'Champion Jr.'.  Leon was able to contact Charles Auten's nephew Melvin Auten, who confirmed that his uncle did sell 'Champion Jr.' to Autry, and one of Auten's ranches was the Echo Ranch in Ada, Oklahoma.  Seems that Auten and Gene Autry also became good friends.  In later years, Auten had a ranch in Sulphur, Oklahoma where he trained and sold horses - this included some Roman style riding horses for Montie Montana (who would spend time at the ranch), as well as one or more of the 'Silvers' used in the LONE RANGER TV show and THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER (1981) movie which starred Klinton Spillsbury.

(From Old Corral collection)

After returning from World War II service, Autry made a few pictures for Republic before he formed his own production company and moved over to Columbia Pictures.  Above is Gene on Champion Jr. with sidekick Sterling Holloway in a lobby card from TWILIGHT ON THE RIO GRANDE (Republic, 1947).  Champion Jr. was Gene's first post World War II steed. Note the narrow blaze with the 'arrowhead' tip. He was a Tennessee Walking Horse and pranced prettily down the trail as Gene sang a mighty fine song.

Lindy Champion

Above are DVD screen captures from the opening titles and credits from Chapter 1 of THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935). While the credits are rolling and scrolling on the screen, Tom Mix rides two different horses, and introduces us to his latest, "Tony Jr."

Note the long and thin face blaze and "dot" on the nostril of Tony Jr.

A few years after MIRACLE RIDER, this horse became Gene Autry's Lindy Champion:

Noted horse trainer Johnny Agee - who was with Mix and his circus in the 1930s - brought this horse and others to Gene circa 1939 or soon after Mix's 1940 death. Never saw Autry riding Lindy Champion in one of his films. But Lindy Champion was used on many tours and personal appearances.

TV Champion

(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)

Above is Gene and TV Champion. This was the last of Gene's three main horses and was used in the feature films of the 1950s and THE GENE AUTRY SHOW and THE ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION television programs.

Touring Champion

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above is Gene Autry putting one of his Champions through his paces, doing one of their rodeo tricks (possibly the 'End of the Trail' routine). I had originally thought this was Lindy Champion, but decided to investigate further by doing a blowup of the face blaze (shown below) which seems to be off center and toward the left eye.

If the various Champion identifications are correct at the Gene Autry website, this horse is Touring Champion:

(From Old Corral collection)

Above are Barbara Britton, Gene Autry and his Touring Champion in a scene from LOADED PISTOLS (Columbia, 1949). If you'd like to see another film with Touring Champion, look at GAUCHO SERENADE (Republic, 1940), and in particular, the scenes where Gene, Smiley Burnette, June Storey and Mary Lee camp near the lake.

Gene and a few other hosses ...

(From Old Corral collection)

Above, Tom Mix on the white Tony II chatting with Gene Autry riding ??? during their 1939 Christmas Parade appearance in Hollywood.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above is Gene Autry atop one of the white hosses used by the Muranian Thunder Riders in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) serial.

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