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By all accounts, the brilliant William (Willie) “Smokey” Saunders led a somewhat “mysterious” life — both before and after guiding Omaha to win the Triple Crown.

Willie "Smokey" Saunders and Omaha's owner, William Woodward, celebrate the colt's Derby win.

Willie “Smokey” Saunders and Omaha’s owner, William Woodward, celebrate the colt’s Derby win. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE TIMES.

In a 2014 article about William Saunders in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle — Bozeman, Montana being the place of Saunders’ birth — journalist Kyle Sample begins:

“As best as anyone can tell, Willie Saunders was a time traveler.
He would sporadically pop up in the time’s newspaper headlines, and then just as easily drift away, leaving family members unable to tell what became of Saunders’ marriage to Pauline Waterbury, or even if the couple had children.
Not even Lou Ocauz,  {driving force behind the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame –AA} who wrote the biography of Saunders for the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame when the hall made Saunders one of its first inductees, could tell how Saunders came to fame, or what happened to him after it.
‘He’s a mystery,” Ocauz said. “Don’t try to interpret the mystery.’ ”

Mind you, evading publicity might have been what Saunders learned from the headlines that pursued him after the mutilated body of Evelyn Sliwinski was found on River Road in October 1935, just months after Saunders had swept to fame as the youngest jockey to win the American Triple Crown. It was an honour that would stick, until snatched away by Steve Cauthen and Affirmed in 1978.

The horse that had carried Saunders to glory was Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox, himself  the 1930 Triple Crown winner. And although Willie “Smokey” Saunders’ life may remain shrouded in mystery forever, one thing is certain: the 20 year-old loved Omaha.

OMAHA with 20 year-old Willie "Smokey" Saunders share a moment before the camera.

OMAHA with 20 year-old Willie “Smokey” Saunders share a moment for the photographers. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

Born in Bozeman, MO in 1915, the Saunders family moved to Calgary, Alberta when Willie was eight and it was there that the boy’s connection to thoroughbreds began. He was a hot-walker and exercise boy until returning to Montana to attend high school. But after growing up on the back field, high school must have seemed a very strange world and, predictably, Saunders shows up in the winner’s circle at Tanforan on April 14, 1932. It was his first recorded win.

Jockeys had contracts that were transferred to different trainers/owners and, shortly thereafter, the boy began working for the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and riding horses from the Phipps Stable and Belair Stud. So, as the “dirty Thirties” began to unleash their force on America, young Willie found himself in privileged circumstances. It isn’t a stretch to assume that the boy worked and worked hard to gain Fitzsimmons’ confidence. Fitzsimmons was kindly, but a hard task-master; and having come up through the ranks himself, Sunny Jim knew all about the vices of the track and tolerated none of it. He was tough to deceive and exacted high standards from all who worked with him, including indentured jockeys. In a race and occasionally when he was training, Omaha had the habit of trying to lash out at any colt that got near to him. Willie was able to work with the big chestnut to avoid these kind of attacks. Clearly, “Mr. Fitz” saw something special in the Saunders – Omaha connection and so it was that the young man from Bozeman got the call to ride the Belair colt on the Triple Crown trail.

It was the ride of Willie’s life.

"Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons aka "Mr. Fitz" as portrayed by PAP

“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons aka “Mr. Fitz” as portrayed by PAP

OMAHA WORKS OUT_$_57

March 7, 1935: The 3 year-old OMAHA works between two other colts. Although his 2 year-old season was less than stellar, OMAHA was still a Kentucky Derby favourite by March.

 

OMAHA in shed row_$_57

OMAHA walks the shed row. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

Two short takes of Omaha’s Derby and Preakness wins, followed by a 3-minute segment that summarizes his Triple Crown campaign from the ESPN series “Jewels of the Triple Crown,” moderated by the legendary Jim McKay:

 

OMAHA _THE BELMONT_2PpytBSY)!cB!C!~~60_57

OMAHA and Willie Saunders shown winning the Belmont Stakes to sweep the 1935 Triple Crown. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

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The kid aboard his champion colt.

Willie and OMAHA coming in following a work. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

OMAHA coming in following a work. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

One can only imagine the fame and fortune that landed in young Willie’s lap.

Racing in the early part of the last century was a popular sport, one that was patronized by the wealthy and working person alike. In the Thirties it also provided a grand escape from the woes of the Depression. William Woodward and Fitzsimmons were no strangers to all that accompanied great horses, but for their jockey it was all new — and undoubtedly overwhelming. There would have been scores of unsavoury types waiting to prey on him, as well as a mass of groupies only too willing to stand in his albeit diminutive shadow. Suddenly, he was a “Sir” at Kentucky restaurants and a notable to the press. And Saunders was, by all accounts, on his own — as were most youth who rode at the time — without the security of either his family or a real mentor, although some reports of his jockey days assert that he was mentored by the great George Woolf in the early years.

It was one thing for the great "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons to cope with the fame of OMAHA'S Triple Crown. After all, it was Fitzsimmons second Triple in a mere 5 years! But for Willie Saunders, it must have been overwhelming. Here, admirers visit with Mr. Fitz and OMAHA. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

It was one thing for the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons to cope with the fame of OMAHA’S Triple Crown. After all, it was Fitzsimmons second Triple in a mere 5 years! But for Willie Saunders, it must have been overwhelming. Here, the press visits Mr. Fitz and OMAHA. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

So it was that early one night in October 1935, Saunders and a friend, exercise boy Walter Schaeffer,25, showed up at a Lexington bar and dance hall called Howard’s looking for a good time. The policy at Howard’s was that men needed to be accompanied by a woman to get in, but the bouncer called upon one of the establishment’s regulars, Agnes Mackison, 28, to partner up with Schaeffer. Once inside, Saunders spied a woman sitting at another table with a couple and asked Mackison to invite her over. The woman was Mrs. Evelyn Sliwinski, 25, the wife of a Louisville tailor who may/may not have been another Howard’s regular, depending on whose story one chooses to believe.

Therein lies the problem: there were two different stories of what happened next, the Mackison version reported in the Louisville Courrier-Journal in detail, and the Saunders-Schaeffer account, that appeared in several national newspapers of the day, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. (Most papers reporting the story were at pains to draw a sharp contrast between the two versions of what happened that night, with a distinct preference for the Saunders-Schaeffer version.)

The foursome left Howard’s and climbing into Saunders’ car, stopped in at two other nightspots, The Venexia Club and the Cotton Club. The men had introduced themselves to their dates as “Jimmie” (Saunders) and “Tommy” or “Paul”(Schaeffer), according to Mackison. Both were great dancers and the money and drink flowed freely.

Below, the great Mabel Lee who, along with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, spiced up the club scene of the Thirties:

By the time Saunders, Sliwinski, Schaeffer and Mackison left the Cotton Club, all were very drunk. Schaeffer took the wheel after an alleged row (Mackison reported) between a very woozy Sliwinski and Saunders, before the pair crawled into the back seat. Then they took off out of town and ended up on River Road. The whole time, “Jimmie” (Saunders) and Sliwinski continued to argue, according to Mackison, adding that Saunders then raped the woman several times (The Chicago Tribune).

At some point, Sliwinski threw up in the back of the car and Saunders pushed Sliwinski out of the car. According to Mackison, as Schaeffer accelerated, he ran over the staggering Sliwinski. According to Saunders and Schaeffer, they left her on the road and drove on. All agree that between 10-20 minutes later, heading back to Louisville, Saunders’ car struck “something” in the middle of the road, although Saunders testified that as he was in the back, he felt a “bump” but actually saw nothing. Both men also denied that Mrs. Mackison had been threatened when she was dropped off at her home: “You ain’t seen nothing; you ain’t heard nothing; you don’t know nothing and you’re lucky you’re alive.” (Oswald, writing The Courrier-Journal).

Evelyn Sliwinski’s mangled body was found by a high school student early the next morning. Beside the body was a man’s brown hat that carried a California label. The coroner described the murdered woman’s body as one of the worst he’d ever seen. There were strong indications that she’d been badly beaten.

The same following day, Agnes Mackison, accompanied by her brother-in-law, came in to report a crime. From photos made available to her, she identified Saunders and Schaeffer. A warrant was issued for the two men, both of whom had gone missing. Saunders turned himself in first and bail was set at $5,000 USD (a fortune at the time). Detectives arrested Schaeffer in Baltimore and charged him with murder; Saunders was indicted as an accessory.

Willie Saunders (foreground) and Schaeffer at the latter's trial for the murder of Evelyn Sliwinski.

Willie Saunders and Walter Schaeffer (foreground) at the hearing into the $100,000 civil suit launched by the Sliwinski estate. Published in The Courrier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky in 2014.

At Shaeffer’s trial, the defense argued that the teenager who had found Sliwinski’s body was the one who had initially run her over. Agnes Mackison was the only witness for the prosecution. The jury returned its verdict quickly: not guilty. The way they saw it, the two women were “experienced ladies of the night” looking to”pick up men,” whereas the two young men were innocent victims. Following Schaeffer’s acquittal, the charges against Saunders were dismissed.

Following the Schaeffer trial and Saunders acquittal, a $100,000 civil suit was launched by the estate of Evelyn Sliwinski. Following the acquittal,  a settlement of $10,000 USD was reached.

 

Post Script

Willie Saunders married Pauline Waterbury of Detroit in 1936. Among the winners he rode in a career that continued until 1950 are Fareino, a Belair Stud colt that he piloted to a win in the 1934 Rochambeau Handicap, Dunlin Lady, winner of the inaugural Santa Anita Oaks and, as first-string jockey for Hal Price Headley’s stable, Whooper (a grandson of Man O’ War). During World War II, Saunders joined the U.S. Army and fought in the South Pacific. Like so many who fought in the Pacific, he contacted malaria, which left him light enough to resume his jockey career when the war ended.

In the 1948 Preakness, Saunders rode Bovard to a third-place finish behind the mighty Citation and Eddie Arcaro. He rode the colt to a win in the Louisiana Derby the same year. Other races won by Saunders include the Chicago Derby (1936), Detroit Derby (1936), Monrovia Handicap (1936), San Juan Capistrano Handicap (1936), Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (1937), New Year Stakes (1937) and the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (1937).

After his retirement in 1950, Saunders worked as a racing official at various American racetracks.

He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1976.

Another shot of Willie and the great OMAHA. The two understood each other well and Saunders was able to stop the big chestnut from savaging other horses during a race. However, following the Triple Crown, Saunders never rode Omaha again. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Another shot of Willie Saunders and the great OMAHA. The two understood each other well and Saunders was able to stop the big chestnut from savaging other horses during a race. However, following the Triple Crown, Saunders never rode Omaha again. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Sources

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame: William (Smoky) Saunders

Kentucky Derby/ Triple Crown? Murder? It was 1935 by Jessie Oswald in The Courrier-Journal, April 26, 2014

Various articles in newspapers of the day covering the Evelyn Sliwinski murder trial and acquittal of William Saunders: The Chicago Tribune, Schenectady Gazette, Lewiston Journal, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Herald-Journal

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