True Crime in Horse Racing: A Deadly Evening |  The TwinSpires Edge

True Crime in Horse Racing: A Deadly Evening | The TwinSpires Edge

Of the thirteen Triple Crown winnersthree came in the 1930s, including a father-son duo in gallant fox and Omaha. As the country grappled with the Great Depression and the looming threat of war in Europe, racetracks across the country provided respite from those woes, watching the famous names of the era go head-to-head on their favorite ovals. Figures like Seabiscuit and War Admiral, George Woolf and “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons have become as familiar as baseball players like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. They were celebrities, and with that came the temptations of money and fame, distractions that can lead some astray.

For Triple Crown winning jockey Willie Saunders, the trappings of fame led to an evening that went tragically wrong, leaving a woman dead and her life changed forever.

On top of the world

William Saunders found himself on the biggest stages of the race earlier than some. Born in Bozeman, Montana, Saunders was eight years old when his family moved to Calgary, Alberta. He exercised horses at Canadian racetracks, but eventually returned to Bozeman to live with his uncle and attend high school. There he raced on the “kerosene circuit,” the area’s smaller competitions, honing his skills in half-mile races before moving to California. The day after his seventeenth birthday, Saunders got his first win at Tanforan near San Francisco. It didn’t take long for the young jockey to catch the eye of “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who brought Saunders east in 1933.

At the time, Fitzsimmons trained for both Phipps’ Wheatley stable and William Woodward’s Belair stable. As Omaha de Belair prepared for its 1935 campaign, it was Saunders who was chosen to ride this son of Gallant Fox. At twenty, the native of Bozeman was play the Kentucky Derby for the first time, easily winning the biggest race in the country by 1 1/2 lengths. Omaha continued to take the stakes of Preakness by six lengths and a rain-Hardened Belmont Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths to seal the third triple crown. In just three years, the blond young man had gone from an unknown Montana jockey riding half-miles to a Triple Crown hero working for the biggest stable in the country.

With his success came the money. With his age came a desire to enjoy the spoils of his accomplishments, especially as the repeal of Prohibition brought the country back to its favorite libations. In October, several months after his Omaha triumph, Saunders and his friend Walter Schaeffer, a practice rider, decided to hit the town in Louisville, Ky., for a fun night out. But their pleasure would become deadly within hours.

young and free

Schaeffer and Saunders decided to hit Howard’s, a bar and dance hall with a dubious reputation. They weren’t allowed in without companions, so the bouncer asked club regular Agnes Mackinson to accompany the pair inside. Mackinson herself was married but estranged from her husband and consented to drink and dance with Schaeffer and Saunders, but they still needed one more person to complete the party. The men waved to Evelyn Sliwinski, seated with a couple at a nearby table, and persuaded Mackinson to ask the young woman to join them. Sliwinski, also married but flying alone that evening, joined the group as they settled in for the evening. The foursome took to drinking liberally, both gentlemen more than happy to spend the money on their companions.

The group followed their turn at Howard’s with a trip to other clubs, such as Venexia Gardens and then the Cotton Club. Schaeffer and Saunders, who had introduced themselves to women as “Jimmie” and “Tommy”, were excellent dancers, with the four partying late into the night. They left the Cotton Club when Saunders grew jealous of Sliwinski approaching other men, piling into Schaeffer’s car for some fresh air. By this point in the evening, everyone had had their fair share of booze, which likely weakened them, including the person behind the wheel, Schaeffer.

As the four drove down River Road in Louisville, the tension between Saunders and Sliwinski continued to run high, with the two arguing as they drove down the twisty road. The evening’s festivities caught up with Sliwinski, who threw up in the backseat of the car. Fed up with the situation, Saunders told Schaeffer to pull over, opened the back door, and told Sliwinski to get out. The three left her on the side of the road, continuing down River Road as Sliwinski staggered drunkenly behind them.

A few miles down the road, Schaeffer turned around and walked back to where they had dropped off the woman. As they accelerated down River Road, they felt the car hit something, but did not stop in the dark road to see what it was. Mackinson screamed when she felt the car shake, but Schaeffer blasted her, saying they must have hit a cat or a rock. The two men dropped Mackinson off and continued on their way, informing Mackinson that she hadn’t seen or heard anything.

A high school boy named Philip Scholtz and his date found Sliwinski’s mutilated body on River Road. Mackinson went to the police the next day to report what had happened the previous night. Soon warrants were issued for Walter Schaeffer and Willie Saunders. Less than six months into his Omaha career, Saunders turned himself in to Baltimore police and returned to Louisville, charged as an accessory to murder.

A question of fault

Both men admitted to joining the two women in town that evening, but maintained that they were not responsible for Sliwinski’s death. The drama unfolded during Schaeffer’s murder trial in a Louisville courtroom in January 1936, with Mackinson recounting the evening in detail, including Saunders’ treatment of Sliwinski during that evening. The defense focused on Mackinson and Sliwinski’s reputations as “experienced” women, implying that Schaeffer and Saunders were compromised by their companions. Sympathy seemed to lean towards the men rather than the deceased woman, even after Philip Scholtz described the discovery of her body.

A defense witness described seeing Scholtz standing over the body that night on a dark river road. Scholtz reportedly told the witness that he was the one who hit the woman. This testimony was enough to cast doubt on the roles of Schaeffer and Saunders in Sliwinski’s death. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on Schaeffer’s murder charge. As soon as this acquittal was entered, Saunders’ attorney requested that his client’s charges be dropped, which the presiding judge did. Saunders and Schaeffer were free, but Sliwinski’s estate later sued the men, seeking $100,000 in restitution. This civil lawsuit was settled for $10,000, ending the drama of a Triple Crown jockey’s deadly night.

After losing his contract with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons earlier in 1935, Saunders continued to ride for Hal Price Headley, but was not allowed to ride in Kentucky in 1936, his legal troubles dogging him even after his acquittal . He continued to ride until World War II, when he joined the army as part of the mechanized cavalry. Saunders was stationed in the Pacific theater, where he contracted malaria. This illness helped him lose the weight he had gained during the war, which enabled him to resume horse riding after the war. He retired from riding in 1950 and later served as a race official in Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.

Changed inheritance

so far, True crime in horse racing explored kidnappings, disappearances and racetrack gang wars. Saunders’ run-in with the law is all the more extraordinary for his status in the sport at the time. Horse racing was one of the most popular sports in the country in the 1930s, rivaled only by baseball. Anyone who read a newspaper during the 1935 Triple Crown season would have seen the blond youngster smile back at them as he stood next to William Woodward to accept trophies from three of the country’s most famous races. Seeing Saunders in legal trouble, having his name attached to the sordid story of Evelyn Sliwinski’s death, was an amazing turn of events, with his name forever associated with that fateful night on the River Road.

#True #Crime #Horse #Racing #Deadly #Evening #TwinSpires #Edge

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.