True Crime in Horse Racing: A Deadly Night Out

July 17th, 2022

Of the thirteen Triple Crown winners, three came in the 1930s, including a father-son duo in Gallant Fox and Omaha. As the country grappled with the Great Depression and the looming threat of war in Europe, the country’s racetracks provided a respite from those woes, watching the era’s celebrated names duke it out over their favorite ovals. Personalities like Seabiscuit and War Admiral, George Woolf and “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons became as familiar as baseball players like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. They were celebrities, and with that came the temptations of money and fame, distractions that can lead some astray.

For Triple Crown winning jockey Willie Saunders, the trappings of fame led to a night out gone tragically awry, leaving a woman dead and his life forever changed.

On Top of the World

William Saunders found himself on racing’s biggest stages earlier than some. Born in Bozeman, Montana, Saunders was eight when his family moved to Calgary, Alberta. He exercised horses at Canadian racetracks, but eventually returned to Bozeman to live with his uncle and attend high school. There, he rode on the ‘kerosene circuit,’ the area’s smallest meets, honing his skills in half-mile races before moving his tack to California. The day after his seventeenth birthday, Saunders got his first win at Tanforan near San Francisco. It did not take long for the young jockey to grab the attention of “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who brought Saunders east in 1933.

At the time, Fitzsimmons trained for both the Phipps’s Wheatley Stable and William Woodward’s Belair Stable. As Belair’s Omaha geared up for his 1935 campaign, it was Saunders who was tapped to ride this son of Gallant Fox. At twenty years old, the Bozeman native was riding in the Kentucky Derby for the first time, easily winning the country’s biggest race by 1 1/2 lengths. Omaha went on to take the Preakness Stakes by six lengths and a rain-soaked Belmont Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths to seal the third Triple Crown. In three short years, the fair-haired young man had gone from an unknown jockey in Montana riding half-milers to a Triple Crown hero working for the country’s biggest stable.

With his success came money. With his age came the desire to enjoy the spoils of his accomplishments, especially since Prohibition’s repeal allowed the country its favorite libations again. That October, several months after his triumph on Omaha, Saunders and his friend Walter Schaeffer, an exercise rider, decided to hit the town in Louisville, Kentucky for an evening of fun. But their fun would turn deadly within hours.

Young and Free

Schaeffer and Saunders decided to hit Howard’s, a bar and dance hall with a dubious reputation. They were not allowed in without companions, so the bouncer asked a club regular, Agnes Mackinson, to accompany the two men inside. Mackinson herself was married but separated from her husband, and consented to drink and dance with Schaeffer and Saunders, but they still needed one more person to round out the party. The men gestured at Evelyn Sliwinski, sitting with a couple at a nearby table, and persuaded Mackinson to ask the young woman to join them. Sliwinski, also married but flying solo that evening, joined the group as they settled in for the evening. The foursome proceeded to drink liberally, the two gentlemen more than happy to spend money on their companions.

The group followed their turn at Howard’s with a trip to other clubs, like Venexia Gardens and then the Cotton Club. Schaeffer and Saunders, who had introduced themselves to the women as “Jimmie” and “Tommy,” were excellent dancers, the four carousing well into the night. They left the Cotton Club when Saunders grew jealous about Sliwinski approaching other men, piling into Schaeffer’s car to get some air. By this point in the evening, all had had their fair share of alcohol, likely impairing each, including the person behind the wheel, Schaeffer.

As the four drove down River Road in Louisville, the tension between Saunders and Sliwinski continued to play out, the two arguing as they drove down the winding road. The evening’s festivities caught up to Sliwinski, who vomited in the car’s backseat. Fed up with the situation, Saunders told Schaeffer to pull over, opened the back door, and told Sliwinski to get out. The three left her on the side of the road, continuing down River Road while Sliwinski staggered drunkenly behind them.

A few miles down the road, Schaeffer turned around and drove back toward the spot where they had dropped the woman off. As they sped down River Road, they felt the car hit something, but did not stop on the dark road to see what it was. Mackinson screamed when she felt the car shudder, but Schaeffer blew it off, saying they must have hit a cat or a rock. The two men dropped Mackinson off and went on their way, advising Mackinson that she had seen and heard nothing.

A high school senior named Philip Scholtz and his date found Sliwinski’s mangled body on River Road. Mackinson went to the police the next day to report what had happened the night before. Soon, warrants were out for Walter Schaeffer and Willie Saunders. Not six months after his career high on Omaha, Saunders surrendered to police in Baltimore and returned to Louisville, charged with accessory to murder.

A Question of Fault

Both men admitted to joining the two women out on the town that evening, but they argued that they were not responsible for Sliwinski’s death. The drama played out in Schaeffer’s murder trial in a Louisville courtroom in January 1936, with Mackinson recounting the evening in detail, including Saunders’s treatment of Sliwinski over the course of that evening. The defense focused on Mackinson’s and Sliwinski’s reputations as ‘experienced’ women, implying that Schaeffer and Saunders were compromised by their companions. Sympathy seemed to swing toward the men rather than the dead woman, even after Philip Scholtz described discovering her body.

A witness for the defense described seeing Scholtz standing over the body that night on a dark River Road. Scholtz had allegedly told the witness that he was the one who had struck the woman. That testimony was enough to cast doubt on both Schaeffer’s and Saunders’s roles in Sliwinski’s death. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on Schaeffer’s murder charge. As soon as that acquittal came down, Saunders’s attorney moved to have his client’s charges dropped, which the presiding judge did. Both Saunders and Schaeffer were free, but Sliwinski’s estate later sued the men, seeking $100,000 in restitution. That civil suit was settled for $10,000, ending the drama of a Triple Crown jockey’s deadly night out.

After losing his contract with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons earlier in 1935, Saunders went on to ride for Hal Price Headley, but was not permitted to ride in Kentucky in 1936, his legal troubles following him even after his acquittal. He continued to ride up to World War II, when he joined the Army as part of the mechanized cavalry. Saunders was stationed in the Pacific theatre, where he contracted malaria. That illness helped him shed weight he had gained during wartime, allowing him to go back to riding after the war. He retired from the saddle in 1950, going on to serve as a racing official in Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Legacy Changed

Thus far, True Crime in Horse Racing has explored kidnappings, disappearances, and gang wars on racecourses. Saunders’s run-in with the law is all the more extraordinary for his status in the sport at the time. Horse racing was one of the country’s most popular sports in the 1930s, rivaled only by baseball. Anyone who picked up a newspaper during the 1935 Triple Crown season would have seen the fair-haired young man smiling back at them as he stood next to William Woodward to accept the trophies for three of the country’s most famous races. To see Saunders in legal trouble, to have had his name attached to the sordid story behind Evelyn Sliwinski’s death, was an astonishing turn of events, his name forever associated with that fateful night on River Road.