Riding the Belair Bullet

1398463924000--DERBY-1935-OMAHA-IA secret, three-day bachelor party that includes a trip to Kentucky to watch the Derby is just what John Welles and Claude Willoughby have in mind for their best friend, Sam Feldman. They believe they’ve given the bride-to-be and Sam’s mother the slip, but the ladies are on to them.

Claude, whose father used to breed races horses in Kentucky, undoubtedly suggested their entertainment. Even though the three friends don’t gamble, they are excited about the opportunity to attend the running of the Kentucky Derby. Unbeknownst to the trio, they picked a good year to go. In 1935, the thoroughbred racehorse, Omaha, owned and bred by William Woodward Sr., owner of Belair Mansion and Belair Stud Farm, was on his way to winning the Triple Crown starting with his performance at the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, horses don’t get to the finish line by themselves. The year Omaha won the Kentucky Derby, jockey William “Willie/Smokey” Saunders was aboard for the ride.

Saunders learned to ride in Alberta, Canada, and Montana. He earned his first win at Tanforan Racetrack in northern California on April 14, 1932, and was tutored in riding by the famous jockey, George “The Iceman” Wolfe of Seabiscuit fame.

The outbreak of World War II, as well as weight problems, interrupted Saunders’ career. He joined the Army, serving in the Pacific theater for four years. During his service, he contracted malaria which led to considerable weight loss, a silver lining to an unpleasant condition for the jockey who returned to racing when the war ended.

Saunders finished his career as a jockey in 1950, and he served as a racing official at various tracks in New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois. He worked as a trainer then as a placing judge. His final honor in the world of horse racing came in 1976 when he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.1398463924006--SCHAEFFER-AND-SAUND

Unfortunately for Saunders, the same year he won the Triple Crown, media attention of the less desirable sort also followed him. In October of 1935, Saunders faced the accusation of accessory to murder of Mrs. Evelyn Sliwinski.

The case cast a bad light on Saunders riding career, and he never rode in another Kentucky Derby. His final days were spent in Florida where he died of cancer at the age of seventy one.

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