WAS THE 1921 TRAVERS FIXED?

Arnold Rothstein–a New York gambler, bookmaker, and racehorse owner–who carried the nicknames “The Brain” and “The Big Bankroll,” was never convicted of a single crime, yet his name lives in sports infamy.  He was reputed to be the mastermind behind the Black-Sox scandal in the 1919 World Series and also may have orchestrated a conspiracy that successfully predetermined the outcome of the 1921 Travers Stakes.

Eight players from the Chicago White Sox were alleged to have thrown the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  Though the eight players were banned for life from Major League Baseball, they were acquitted of criminal charges.

In 1921, Harry Payne Whitney’s filly Prudery was such an overwhelming favorite for the Travers at Saratoga Race Course that it looked as if no other owner would take her on, and that the race would be declared a walkover.  Rothstein, seizing an opportunity, ostensibly to get second-place money, entered his colt Sporting Blood.

On the morning of the Travers, trainer Sam Hildreth entered Harry Sinclair’s formidable colt Grey Lag, as race-day entries were permitted in those days.  (Sinclair was later involved in the Teapot Dome scandal and served a brief prison sentence for jury tampering.)

Bookmakers made Grey Lag the heavy favorite, with Prudery the next choice, and Sporting Blood last at odds of about 3-1.  Rothstein reportedly bet $150,000 on his colt.

Shortly before the Travers was run, Hildreth inexplicably scratched Grey Lag, leaving just two entries.  Sporting Blood won the race by collaring the heavily favored filly Prudery in the stretch, and Rothstein pocketed his considerable wagering earnings plus the winning purse.  The putative cause for Prudery’s loss was that she was off her feed.

Questions still linger and will never be answered:  What did Rothstein know about Prudery’s not eating well prior to the race?  Was Hildreth part of a fix or an innocent party?  Why did Hildreth enter Grey Lag and then abruptly scratch him the same day, with no explanation?

Rothstein, of course, claimed no involvement in both the Black Sox-scandal and the suspicious Travers outcome.

On November 6, 1928, Rothstein was assassinated in New York City at age 46, and no one was ever convicted of his murder.  Hildreth and Grey Lag are enshrined in the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame.

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Adding intrigue to the 1921 Travers mystery is that Sam Hildreth is likely to have harbored a grudge against the Whitneys, as he was once fired by William Collins Whitney, whose son Harry Payne Whitney owned Prudery.  Could a vengeful Hildreth have entered Grey Lag in the Travers to keep the younger Whitney from winning the race, and then withdrawn the colt after having second thoughts or being overruled by Harry Sinclair?

Following is an excerpt from Hildreth’s biography by the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame:

“Samuel Clay Hildreth, the youngest of Vincent and Mary Hildreth’s 10 children, enjoyed success as a trainer in the Midwest for owners Elias J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin and Ed Corrigan before moving to New York in 1898 to work for William Collins Whitney.  Hildreth’s path to the top of the sport became an interesting journey.

Hildreth was an immediate sensation training for Whitney and others in New York.  His first major victory was in the 1899 Belmont Stakes with Jean Bereaud, who was owned by Sydney Paget.  Hildreth’s association with Whitney, however, was brief, as was his initial stay in New York.  In the spring of 1900, Hildreth got into a wild brawl with fellow trainer John E. Madden in the paddock at Morris Park, which led to an embarrassed Whitney dismissing Hildreth as his trainer and basically blackballing him in New York.

Fearing risk of Whitney’s disfavor, most prominent owners stayed away from hiring Hildreth for several years.  Instead of success on the big stage in New York, Hildreth was forced to train in places such as Chicago and New Orleans and slowly build his business.  When Whitney died in 1904, Hildreth returned to the New York stage and established himself as one of the sport’s top trainers.”

A coincidence pertaining to the 1921 Travers episode is that Grey Lag was bred by John E. Madden.

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