True Crime in Horse Racing: Lost at Sea

June 12th, 2022

Any event, criminal or not, is a matter of cause and effect, with people or forces acting and then victims dealing with the effects of those actions. As humans, we seek a resolution whenever something happens, the reassurance of knowing that all of the questions have been answered and that justice is served. Sometimes, though, the questions go unanswered, and, when they do, those incidents leave a lifelong impression on those involved.

When someone disappears, witnesses answer the questions, the authorities doing their best to piece together what led to that person’s absence. Disappearances have explanations and resolutions — usually. In March 1948, a jockey, a trainer, and their friend went fishing off the Florida Keys and vanished, leaving more questions than answers in their wake.

Going Fishing

By 1948, Al Snider was on the top of the world. He had a contract to ride for Jimmy Jones and Calumet Farm. By the late 1940s, Calumet’s devil red and blue silks had come to dominate racing, especially the Triple Crown classics. Whirlaway had won the Triple Crown in 1941 and then Pensive followed in 1944 with wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, falling short in the Belmont. The stable was preparing their champion two-year-old Citation for the American classics and Snider, who had ridden the colt to nine wins already, was the jockey set to guide him. That year promised to be the rider’s best yet.

A native of Calgary, Alberta, Snider had started his riding career in Canada, finding success there before coming to the United States to ride in late 1938. At the tender age of 17, the young rider competed on most of the major circuits on the East Coast, from New England to Florida. Later, he piloted 1945 Kentucky Derby winner Hoop Jr. to a second-place finish in the Preakness Stakes.

In 1947, Snider was aboard Citation for his easy debut win in a 4 1/2-furlong race at Havre de Grace. He rode the two-year-old future immortal to victories in the Pimlico Futurity and the Futurity at Belmont. When Citation won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah on February 28, 1948, it was not Eddie Arcaro, the jockey most famously associated with the Calumet star, aboard, but Al Snider. He was 26 years old, married with a daughter, and was on the precipice of hitting it big with this colt. And then he went fishing.

On March 3, 1948, Snider accompanied trainer Tobe Trotter, Canadian businessman Don Fraser, and three others, including Snider’s agent, George Woods, on the yacht Evelyn K. for a fishing trip off the Florida Keys. The yacht belonged to Trotter, Jockey Club handicapper John B. Campbell, and others, and had a 13-foot plywood skiff for fishing. Snider had missed a previous opportunity to fish in the Keys on the Evelyn K. but took advantage of this second chance at some down time on the water. It would be a fateful decision.

The group fished all morning on Friday, March 5, and then napped that afternoon. About 6:30 that evening, Snider, Fraser, and Trotter set out on the skiff for more flat-water fishing in shallow water. The three were about a mile and a quarter from the yacht, still visible to the men who stayed behind watching them with powerful binoculars as the sun was setting. Then, two minutes later, the men and the skiff were no longer in sight, disappeared into the sudden darkness with no hint as to their whereabouts.

Going Missing

The men aboard the Evelyn K. were concerned about their missing companions, staying put in the area overnight just in case they returned. At dawn, the ship moved toward Sandy Key and found another boat with a radio that allowed them to alert the Coast Guard. Within hours, the search was on, with planes, boats, and blimps scouring the area where the men had disappeared.

How the three could disappear so completely like that was the biggest mystery of all. They had an onboard motor, life preservers, oars, and other supplies aboard the skiff that at least Trotter, an experienced fisherman, could have used to keep them safe when they got separated from the Evelyn K. But days of searching turned up no tracer of the men. On March 13, eight days after it disappeared, the skiff was found near Rabbit Key. The oars, the motor, and the men were all missing, but the little boat was otherwise undamaged. Where had Snider, Trotter, and Fraser gone? What happened to the equipment and supplies that had been on the skiff?

Speculation about the men’s fates abounded. The most nefarious of them included underworld figures that approached jockeys from time to time, seeking cooperation. Had Snider rebuffed them and then paid the price? When news emerged that a large amount of cash had been found when Snider’s wife, Dorothy, was packing his belongings, that theory had temporary significance, but Dorothy affirmed that her husband had a habit of hiding cash around their home. Had the three become disoriented and lost sight of the yacht, unable to return before a storm that hit the area two hours later? The waters were shallow, though, and islands were nearby. Even if the men had become disoriented, they had a motor and oars to help them make their way to land.

Whether they were lost to accident or intent, the three men were never found. Other than the stripped skiff, no trace of Snider, Fraser, or Trotter ever emerged from the waters of the Florida Keys.

Missing a Resolution

Tobe Trotter’s son Tommy and other family members continued searching for his father long after the official efforts were called off, but they found nothing of the three lost men. A life insurance investigation turned up nothing that hinted at a criminal element to their disappearance. With no trace of the men, the families had no closure, forced to move on lacking answers and any options for finding them. Even if their disappearance were a result of criminal activity, authorities had nothing to go on to even begin to piece together what might have happened, let alone who would have perpetrated it. Al Snider, Tobe Trotter, and Don Fraser had simply disappeared.

A few weeks later, Dorothy Snider received a check for $4,170 from Eddie Arcaro and Calumet owner Warren Wright. Citation had won the Kentucky Derby, and the check was Al’s share of the purse. The Calumet colt would go on to win the Triple Crown with Arcaro aboard, giving the jockey his second one after riding Whirlaway in 1941. The horses that had been Snider’s became Arcaro’s, the legendary jockey inheriting his absent friend’s mounts, “a cruel fate for Albert,” Arcaro said later.

Decades later, the disappearance of these three men remains a mystery, the passage of time relegating the incident to a footnote in the story of this historic decade in racing. Snider’s connection with Citation, though, adds an element of what might have been to a career full of firsts. If he had not disappeared, would Albert Snider have been in the saddle for it all?