While we wait to see if California Chrome becomes the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, here is a look at one of horse racing's biggest mysteries, involving an earlier TC champion:
Early in March 1948, jockey Al Snider, the regular rider of Calumet Farm's magnificent colt Citation, and two friends, trainer C.H. "Tobe" Trotter and businessman Donald Frazier, set sail from Miami for a week-long fishing trip in the Florida Keys. On the afternoon of March 5, the trio left their yacht, which was anchored in Sandy Key, to go fishing in a 15-foot skiff. They planned 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. Then 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 ran into trouble, they could easily swim, or even wade ashore. Snider and his companions were never seen again. A week later, a search party found the skiff, but not the slightest trace of the three men was ever found. Another oddity was that the boat was completely empty--oars, seat cushions, everything was gone.
Although their disappearance was officially ruled as an ordinary “accident at sea,” no one really knows what happened to the trio. If they were swept overboard by the sudden storm that blew in over two hours after they were last seen, they were close enough to land to make it odd that their bodies—or even life-jackets or clothing—never turned up. And why would they still have been out fishing in the darkness, hours after their planned return to the yacht? Lawrence Boido, one of the friends who remained on the yacht, later commented, "I just can't figure what they were doing for the two hours or more before the storm hit."
There were some far darker rumors about the tragedy. Snider was said to have been an honest rider who could not be bribed into fixing a race. To this day, some believe that Snider’s refusal to "pull up" Citation in certain key races made him some very dangerous enemies. (I'm friends with an eightysomething fellow who worked at Calumet during the Citation era, and who knew Snider personally. When I once asked him what he thought had happened to Snider, he instantly replied matter-of-factly, "Why, the gangsters got him. Everyone knew that.") Tommy Trotter, the son of one of the other missing men, talked of getting “vague phone calls” from Cuba the evening of the disappearance. Years later, Snider’s daughter Nancy, who was just six when her father vanished, remembered being pulled out of school afterward because of fears for her safety.
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." Sick hoax or baffling clue? No one knew.
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. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.
Albert Snider has his place in history, too, but for all the most unfortunate reasons.
|Snider after winning the Flamingo Stakes with Citation. |
He disappeared less than a week after this photo was taken.