One of the strangest unsolved cases in thoroughbred racing gets colder every year, more than 70 years after Citation’s original jockey went missing.
Television could make something of this one: three men disappeared from their skiff after setting off to fish in the Everglades at dusk the night of March 5, 1948. One was Al Snider, 28, the first ever to ride Calumet Farm’s Citation in a race. He won nine races aboard Citation and a week prior to disappearing, had won the Flamingo Stakes with the champion colt by an impressive six lengths.
Citation’s winning the Flamingo at Hialeah Park had set him on course for what was to come: winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes that comprise racing’s holy grail: the Triple Crown.
When Citation did win the Triple Crown later that spring he had another jockey, Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro, in the saddle. Snider and his companions had disappeared without a traceback in March, just as everything was looking up for Snider. The jockey stood poised on the cusp of winning the very races that could crown his own career.
In fact, the day prior to Snider disappearing, Calumet Farm had offered him a contract to ride exclusively for its racing operation, under another Hall of Famer, H. A. “Jimmy” Jones. Any jockey would have coveted this contract, for Calumet was at the height of its power. The Lexington farm, then owned by Admiral Gene Markey, appeared invincible with its juggernaut of horses winning every major race up and down the East Coast. As the season began, the year was looking like Calumet Farm would own it.
But Snider and his companions were not there to enjoy the stable’s success. Snider had set out in a 15-foot skiff with trainer Tobe Trotter (father of longtime racing official Tommy Trotter) and a Canadian businessman, Don Frazier. The skiff had been attached to a 65-foot yacht named the Evelyn K, co-owned by New York racing secretary John B. Campbell. Suggestions of foul play emerged sometime after the three men failed to return to the Evelyn K. Bizarre phone calls from Cuba heightened the mystery. Snider’s daughter was pulled out of school amid fears for her safety. A bottle with a note washed up on shore in Hallandale, Florida. The 15-foot skiff was found but not the men. No clues ever revealed their fate.
Ironically, the jockey who helped design the skiff in which the three men vanished was Arcaro. He and Snider were the best of friends. Snider was so much in awe of Arcaro that he once suggested Arcaro, not he, should be riding Citation. Stranger still, Snider had invited Arcaro to accompany them on this very fishing trip. But Arcaro was riding at Santa Anita. He told Snider he could not leave his work for a few days off in Florida.
So it was that Snider, Trotter, and Frazier cast off in their skiff from the Evelyn K, their fishing gear ready for whatever they might find. What the men found was a sudden storm that blew up from out of nowhere. Winds reached 45 mph and toppled over a 70-foot elevator tower on Miami Beach, according to 1998 research by David Joseph, a former racing writer at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Telephone lines came down. Somewhere out in an angry, windblown sea were the three fishermen.
Joseph quoted Tobe Trotter’s son, Tommy Trotter: “It was a very unusual storm. It became so dark, and it seemed to last about an hour. There was lightning, heavy winds.”
Another ship that found safety while anchoring in the Keys was a cruiser named Tonga, with actor Gregory Peck aboard. But nothing was heard from the 15-foot skiff.
Searches began the following morning for the three men. As Joseph wrote in his newspaper article, Calumet’s trainer, Jones, flew his own plane to look for Snider and his companions. The Coast Guard and Navy also searched. Then, a week later, the skiff was found on Rabbit Key, 10 miles south of Everglades City.
The skiff was empty except for some water in the bottom. The circular life preservers, cushions and men were missing.
The phone calls from Cuba began the first night the men went missing. The calls went to the Trotter household. Tommy Trotter was in his 20s at the time. He told Joseph, the Fort Lauderdale turf writer: “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.”
Meanwhile, Snider’s daughter, Nancy, then 6, was taken out of school at Miami Springs Elementary. She told Joseph that the school “asked I be taken out, and I had to repeat first grade. There were some who thought there may have been foul play involved, and they’d come looking for me.”
Oddly, despite the talk at the time, the story slipped from horse racing’s collective memory of the 1948 Triple Crown. The talk was all about Citation and his stablemate, Coaltown. The news angle was always which horse was better, and which horse Arcaro would pick to ride.
Arcaro’s decision has remained the historical narrative. Only a brief mention of Snider’s accident remains in the record. It is found in Jim Bolus’s book about the Kentucky Derby, “Run for the Roses.” The item reads, “Citation originally was scheduled to be ridden by Calumet contract rider Al Snider, but the twenty-eight-year-old jockey was lost – and never found – while on a fishing trip off the Florida Keys on March 5, 1948.”
Theories that developed following the fateful fishing trip brought the possibility of foul play to the front. Someone later told Snider’s daughter, Nancy, that they spied her father on a banana boat. She added that someone also told her a story about another jockey, Ted Atkinson. According to Nancy, Atkinson was told if he didn’t throw a race, the same thing would happen to him that happened to Snider.
It was no secret Snider liked to carry large amounts of money on him. As Joseph wrote, he might have been seen flashing some of that money earlier in the day.
Four months after the disappearance, a bottle washed up on a beach at Hallandale. Several notes were inside. One of the notes read, “Help. One dead. No joke.” The signature was “Al S.”
Was the message in the bottle a hoax? Were the mysterious phone calls from Cuba intended to confuse the families of the three men? Why were the life preservers never found floating in the ocean? What became of the three men?
The Triple Crown races went on without Al Snider and history soon forgot his disappearance. Mention Citation and Snider’s name no longer comes up. The fate of the three men in their little skiff, setting off from the yacht for a night of fishing in the Florida Keys, has slipped into obscurity, a forgotten mystery connected to thoroughbred racing.
Memory of Citation lives on – but not memory of Al Snider, the lost and forgotten jockey.