The First AQHA Grand Champion

The First AQHA Grand Champion

Del Rio Joe made his mark as AQHA's very first grand champion halter horse.

Historical black and white photo of the stallion Del Rio Joe, standing in profile with handler at his head.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

It has been more than 80 years since AQHA hosted its first AQHA show. That first event was in conjunction with the Texas Cowboy Reunion at Stamford, July 2-4, 1940. The grand champion stallion at that first show was Del Rio Joe, a bay stallion of the bulldog type, standing 14.2 hands and weighing between 1,100-1,150 pounds.
Del Rio Joe’s sire was an unregistered son of Harmon Baker, who was himself a son of Peter McCue. Del Rio Joe's dam, Cinch, traced to Little Joe and the Rondo line of Quarter Horses. Del Rio Joe, who was foaled in 1936, and his dam was among the first 300 horses to receive registration papers from AQHA.

At the time of that first show, Del Rio Joe was owned by Robert M. “Bob” Denhardt, who in the 1940s brought together the ranchers and breeders who formed AQHA. Bob then was a professor of history at the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) at College Station.

“I first saw Del Rio Joe out in Del Rio (Texas),” recalled Bob, who became the first AQHA executive secretary. “He was owned by ‘Cooter’ Wardlaw, who raised horses, sheep and goats, and became a good friend of mine. Cooter had this colt he called Del Rio Joe, and that colt was almost my ideal of what a Quarter Horse should have been at that time. I didn’t have the money to buy him and so on my way back to College Station, I stopped at San Angelo and called Lee Underwood to tell him about him.”
A lifelong horseman, cowboy and stockman who became the third president of AQHA (1944-45), Robert Lee Underwood was an enthusiastic supporter of Steeldust horses. The American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer ranched at Wichita Falls, Texas, where he stood the Golden Chief stallion Dexter to what Denhardt said was the most uniform band of broodmares he had ever seen.

“I told Lee about the colt, said there’s a horse out there at Del Rio that’s better than Dexter. Lee said, ‘Aw, go jump off a log. There aren’t any horses better than Dexter.’ I said, 'OK.'”

Bob drove back to College Station and found a message from Lee saying he was going to see the horse and for Bob to meet him. So Bob turned around and went back. 

When they got to Cooter’s ranch, they found he wasn’t home.

“So I led the horse out,” Bob said. “Lee said, 'Let’s saddle him.' Well, I didn’t even know if he was broke. The colt was at most, oh, 3. I didn’t want to get on him. But Lee did. And he must have been 40 years old. So he got on ‘Joe’ and rode him around a little and he said, 'Well, I think I’ll buy him.' I said, ‘If you buy him, you gotta buy him for me. I don’t have the money.’

“That was alright with Lee, because he knew he could keep the colt as long as he wanted. So Lee bought him and after he got him home, he compared him to Dexter. He still liked Dexter better. I always liked Del Rio Joe better.”
Bob was able to buy Del Rio Joe a little bit later.

“And he was the grand champion stallion at Stamford, Texas,” said Bob. “That was in 1940, our first official Quarter Horse show.”

The Stamford show offered $1,000 in prizes, which were divided among four classes. One class was judged at each afternoon and evening performance, and the grand champion was chosen the afternoon of the final day. Judging the event was legendary horseman and AQHA Inspector Jim Minnick of Crowell, Texas, who was there with other AQHA officials Bill Warren, Jim Hall, J.D. Cowsert and Bob.

Punkin, owned by Jess Slaughter of Big Spring, Texas, won the show’s class for geldings foaled prior to May 1, 1938. The mare class was won by Breezy D, owned by Ramon Wood of Wichita Falls. George Clegg’s stallion Jiggs won the class for stallions and mares foaled on or after May 1, 1938.

Del Rio Joe won the class for stallions foaled prior to May 1938, and put his name in the history books as the very first grand champion at an AQHA show. 

Peter McCue was the paternal grandsire of Del Rio Joe. In fact, most American Quarter Horses trace to Peter McCue. Learn more about Peter McCue in this free e-book from AQHA.