Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: Bets, Brawls, and Beefs at the 1911 Derby

March 15th, 2024

The sport of horse racing has been a part of American history since the 17th century, when the first racecourse appeared on Long Island. In the three and a half centuries since, racing has seen its share of uplifting stories and a few notorious ones. In 1911, the famed Kentucky Derby was the scene of a racing drama with a cast of characters that included a Kentucky hardboot, a Chicago plunger, a classic-winning jockey, and a suspicious bit of cash.

Setting the Scene 

Captain James T. Williams was a Bluegrass politician and owner of Stockwood Farm near Spring Station, Kentucky. Among his best horses were Joe Cotton, the 1885 Kentucky Derby victor, and Hall of Famer Luke Blackburn, who he bought as a yearling and then raced him at two before selling the colt to Phil and Michael Dwyer. His 1911 Kentucky Derby hopeful was a gelding named Governor Gray.

Charley Ellison, the “Blond Plunger,” was a Chicago bookmaker and horseplayer who had won the 1905 Kentucky Derby with Judge Himes. Ellison and Williams knew each other but were not on good terms after the former bid up one of the latter’s horses in a selling race, forcing Williams to pay more for his own horse. His play for the 1911 Kentucky Derby was a colt named Meridian. 

Roscoe Troxler had already won a Derby in 1906 with Sir Huon. He had ridden William’s Governor Gray three times, winning two and finishing second in the other, during the gelding’s two-year-old season. He was also a friend of Ellison’s.

The scene is Churchill Downs on May 13, a beautiful sunny day in Louisville, the crowd of 35,000 filling the racetrack, ready to witness another edition of this historic feature.

Running for Roses

Governor Gray had prepared for this test in the American Derby at Moncrief Park in Jacksonville, Florida, winning the 10-furlong stakes before going to Lexington for the inaugural Bluegrass S. on May 10. There, he defeated Meridian by a half-length and set a track record for 1 1/8 miles. Meridian, for his part, won only three of his 12 starts at two, but boasted Broomstick, Travers S. winner and future Hall of Famer, as his sire. Coming off that second to Governor Gray in the Bluegrass, Meridian supporters, including Charley Ellison, thought their colt was fit for the big race. 

Williams, though, had a question he needed to answer in those intervening days between Lexington and Louisville: Who would ride his Governor Gray? The gelding’s jockey for both races, George Molesworth, was injured in a spill, leaving the owner and trainer, James Everman, short of a rider. They tapped Roscoe Troxler, who botched the ride from start to finish.

The 1911 Kentucky Derby featured a short field of seven, with Governor Gray the even-money favorite and Meridian second choice at 3-1. The gelding was slow to find his stride from the starting line and soon was boxed in around the first turn. Troxler took his horse to the outside and went around the field, making up lost ground and passing horses as they approached the stretch. As Troxler and Governor Gray were closing in, a tired Meridian swerved near the sixteenth pole, cutting off the gelding’s bid for the lead. At the wire, the winning margin was three-quarters of a length, Meridian’s 2:05 a Kentucky Derby record.

He had gone into the race thinking his horse was a sure thing, but Captain Williams found himself bereft of a second Derby win and accused Troxler of a questionable ride on Governor Gray. Two days later, he heard that Charley Ellison had cashed in on Meridian’s victory and then was seen giving the jockey money. Was this a fixed race? Had Troxler pulled Governor Gray in favor of Meridian? Williams was beside himself with fury and would make sure Ellison knew it.

Landing Blows

The two met again at Churchill Downs two days after the Derby. Whether Williams threw his cane or took a swing for his mark, there was no doubt that Ellison was his target. The captain claimed that the horseplayer had stepped on his foot, but either way, he was not shy about his ire toward Ellison, calling him “a Chicago pickpocket.” 

Track police broke up the altercation, but the track’s executive committee was not going to let the issue lie. They took up the case, with Ellison testifying that he had given Troxler $50 for travel as the jockey and his wife wanted to leave Louisville and were short of cash. Williams admitted to losing his temper and hurling abusive language at Ellison. A fine of $100 was levied at the latter, but in the captain’s mind, the issue was not settled.

Four days later, the two encountered each other on a streetcar. Williams again swung his cane at Ellison, who caught it just in time to avoid a strike. To avoid more trouble, he got off the streetcar while Williams continued on to the racetrack. Though Governor Gray’s owner still maintained that Ellison’s loan to Troxler was more insidious than the horseplayer claimed, nothing more came of the matter.

Eager to avoid any more controversy, Matt Winn did his best to suppress stories of the men’s confrontations, though mentions of the incidents would come up now and again in the ensuing century. In the end, Meridian’s record-setting victory was simply the backdrop for this cane-raising ruckus between two prominent men over the matter of one botched ride and a suspicious gift of cash.