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  • michellebennington

A Real-Life Kentucky Derby Mystery

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

I know, I know, the Kentucky Derby ended two weeks ago, but since we’re all still waiting on the 2021 Belmont Stakes (June 5), I figure I can still squeeze in another Derby-related blog—especially since it involves a mystery surrounding the famous Triple Crown winner Citation.

First, a bit about the American Thoroughbred, Citation: Born April 11, 1945, he was owned and bred by Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, though his bloodline was largely European. He was trained by Hall of Fame inductee Ben Jones and his son, Hall of Famer Horace A. “Jimmy” Jones. He won 16 consecutive stakes races and he was the eighth winner of the American Triple Crown. Citation retired after winning the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup and becoming the first horse in history to win one million dollars.

As a sire at Calumet Farm, he produced a number of noteworthy offspring including the Hall of Fame filly Silver Spoon, Get Around, Guadalcanal, and 1956 Preakness Stakes winner Fabius.

Apparently, while at stud at Calumet Farm, Citation (pictured right) was afraid of owner Lucille P. Markey's Yorkshire Terrier Timmy Tammy, who had reportedly nipped at him on several occasions. In 1959, Citation was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Blood-Horse magazine ranked him #3 in the Top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century. Citation died on August 8, 1970, at the age of 25 and was buried in the horse cemetery at Calumet Farm (pictured below).

In his early days, he was ridden by Al Snider, who was originally supposed to jockey on the day Citation ended up winning the Triple Crown. But Snider would never see the day. Instead Eddie Arcaro rode Citation into Triple Crown history. This is where the mystery begins.

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Al Snider (left, center) had great success as jockey in both Canada and the United States, winning many races. In fact, a week before Citation won the Triple Crown, Snider won nine races, including the Flamingo Stakes with Citation, just a colt at the time. They blew out the opponents by an impressive six lengths. This set the jockey and horse team on the path to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes—and potentially the Triple Crown. Soon after winning the Flamingo Stakes, Calumet Farm offered Snider a contract to ride exclusively for its racing operation, under another Hall of Famer, H. A. “Jimmy” Jones. The offer was a jockey’s dream since Calumet was at the height of its success and power under the ownership and guidance of Admiral Gene Markey.

Then on March 5, 1948, Snider disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.

As the story goes, Snider and two friends, trainer C.H. “Tobe” Trotter (father of longtime racing official Tommy Trotter), and a Canadian businessman, Don Frazier, along with several others boarded a yacht, the Evelyn K., for a week-long fishing trip. The Evelyn K., co-owned by New York racing secretary John B. Campbell, had a 15-foot skiff attached to it and was anchored near Miami, Florida. Snider, Trotter, and Frazier left the yacht to go fishing in the 15-foot skiff, planning to return within an hour. They carried with them reserve fuel, a jug of water, life-jackets, 75" of rope, extra spark-plugs, a bailing pail, oars, and an anchor.

Friends left behind on the yacht could see the skiff about a mile away until darkness began to fall and the men were lost to view. Not long after that, the captain of a passing boat saw the three men. There was no sign of any trouble, and the sea was calm. The skiff was a half-mile from land and in shallow water no deeper than four feet. If the boat had run into trouble, they could've easily swam, or even waded ashore. Yet, Snider and his companions were never seen again.

Interestingly, the man who helped design the skiff in which the three men vanished was jockey Eddie Arcaro—the man who went on to ride Citation to Triple Crown victory. He and Snider were the best of friends and had Arcaro (below) not been riding at Santa Anita, he might’ve been on the boat with Snider since he’d been invited to go on the trip.

There is much speculation as to what happened to the unfortunate fishermen.

The most popular theory is that a sudden storm blew up from out of nowhere. Winds reached 45 mph, which toppled a 70-foot elevator tower on Miami Beach and tore down phone lines, according to 1998 research by David Joseph, a former racing writer at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Joseph quoted Trotter’s son about the storm. He said, “It was a very unusual storm. It became so dark, and it seemed to last about an hour. There was lightning, heavy winds.”

Coast Guard and Navy searches began the following morning for Snider, Trotter, and Frazier. According to Joseph, Calumet’s trainer, Jimmy Jones, flew his own plane to look for the missing men. A week later, on the 13th of March, the skiff was found on Rabbit Key, 10 miles south of Everglades City. The skiff was completely empty except for a couple inches of water in the bottom. The circular life preservers, cushions and men were missing—so was all the other equipment and the outboard motor. Although their disappearance was officially ruled as an ordinary “accident at sea,” no one really knows what happened to the trio.

The strange circumstances invite many concerns and questions: If they were swept overboard by the sudden storm that blew in over two hours after they were last seen, they were in water shallow enough to wade in. At around four feet high, how could the water over take them? Granted, people also drown in bathtubs. It’s possible, I suppose, that a strong undertow carried them out to sea. Yet, they were close enough to land that their bodies, clothes, or equipment from the skiff should’ve turned up on shore. Yet, nothing did.

Further, why would they still be out fishing after dark, hours after they’d planned to return to the yacht? Lawrence Boido, one of the friends who remained on the yacht, later commented to Joseph, "I just can't figure what they were doing for the two hours or more before the storm hit."

While weather is the more popular explanation, more sinister theories surround Snider’s disappearance.

Where gambling is to be found, so is organized crime. Snider was said to have been an honest rider who couldn't be bribed into fixing a race. Therefore, some people believe that Snider’s honestly won him some dangerous enemies. But if those enemies decided to kill Snider, then what happened to the other two men and all the equipment?

Logic dictates that such a “hit” would draw less attention if it were framed as an accident. And it'd be harder to investigate and trace back to the killers if nothing was left behind. Thus, all the missing equipment--including the outboard motor.

However, if the purpose of the “hit” was to “send a message,” framing the job as an accident would certainly weaken the intended message. Further, if this was an organized crime “hit” then how were three men killed and disposed of and the boat robbed clean without anyone from the Evelyn K. or other boats seeing or hearing anything?

And there are other strange events surrounding this case.

The evening of the disappearance, Tommy Trotter, the son of one of the other missing men, said he received “vague phone calls” from Cuba. Tommy Trotter was in his 20s at the time. He told Joseph: “We received calls from the island speaking of the accident … the voice on the other end would disappear. Then a couple of days after that happened we got a good number of mystery calls coming in.”

Friends left behind on the yacht could see the skiff about a mile away until darkness began to fall and the men were lost to view. Not long after that, the captain of a passing boat saw the three men. There was no sign of any trouble, and the sea was calm. The skiff was a half-mile fd in shallow water—no deeper than four feet. If the boat ran into trouble, they could easily swim, or even wade ashore. Yet, Snider and his companions were never seen

Two months after Snider disappeared, Citation and his new rider Eddie Arcaro won the Kentucky Derby. Arcaro and Citation’s owner gave Snider’s wife half of their winnings from the race. The colt went on to win the Preakness and Belmont, as well as numerous other major races.

Four months after the men disappeared, a barnacle-encrusted bottle washed ashore in the Keys. It had a message inside which read: "Help. One dead. No Joke. Al S." However, no one ever knew if that was true or if it was a sick joke.

While Citation made horse-racing history, the fate of the three men in their little skiff, setting off from the yacht for a night of fishing in the Florida Keys, is probably forever lost in the mists of time.

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