1936: Former U.S. Vice President Charles Curtis was slated to become Thoroughbred racing’s ‘czar’

800px-Charles_Curtis-portrait

Former U.S. Vice President Charles Curtis.
Photo: Library of Congress, Digital ID: cph 3a41922.

“Had Charles Curtis, former Vice President, lived until April 1 he would have been appointed ‘czar of racing’ in the United States, Robert I. Miller, his law associate and friend, said last night. Curtis virtually had accepted the offer of a group that included Joseph E. Widener and Col. Edward R. Bradley as well as members of Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, Texas and California turf bodies. The former Vice President was to fill a post similar to those of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in baseball and Will Hays in movies. He was to be the final ‘court of appeals’ in all cases involving the turf and it was believed that under his guidance uniform racing rules would have been adopted throughout the country.

Curtis, whose funeral is to be held today in Topeka, Kans., was well qualified for the position. Thirty years in the Senate and a Vice Presidency had failed to dull the enthusiasm of the part Indian for racing. He acquired his love of the horse as he learned to walk, became a jockey before he was 15 and had been a keen student of thoroughbreds down through the years. During his long residence here, he missed few opportunities to see a horse race.

He was as proud of his knowledge of horses and of racing as he was of his Indian ancestry and his Vice Presidency. Some of the lure of the race track to the man probably was born of the fact that here was one place where he could ‘be himself.’ Around the Maryland plants he was such a fixture that he was seldom even pointed out in the clubhouse crowd. Here he could move about freely, bet if he wanted to bet and cheer for this horse or that as he saw fit.

Even as Vice President of the United States, Curtis was a race fan. He would have an answer for the age-old turf question, “Who do you like?” and he numbered many owners, trainers, jockeys and track employees among his friends. Asked to name his favorite ‘big’ men, “Washington Jake,” the harmless handy man about the track, invariably replied, “Vice President Curtis and Admiral Cary T. Grayson.”

“Mr. Curtis not only knew horses, but he was an expert handicapper,” Miller said last night. “It’s a good thing for you newspaper fellows that he was in racing for entertainment only. He certainly would have taken over somebody’s job. He knew all there was to know about the past performances and also used keen observation of races to determine the best horses. He picked many a winner.”

Curtis was only a ‘light’ better, his intimates will tell you. Miller, who accompanied the former Vice president to the track for 20 years, says he can remember only one instance where Curtis invested more than his usual $2, $5 or $10.

“He wagered $100 on Valencia at Havre de Grace a few years back and won his bet. However, the bet was a sentimental one. I owned Duchess Lace, the dam of Valencia, and Mr. Curtis had taken an especial liking to the filly,” Miller said. “He went to the races rain or shine, snow or blow, but other sports had little appeal to him. I purchased a box for a big league game one morning, but that afternoon we were at the track.”

The former Vice President had a winning day on his last visit to a Maryland track. He bet on the daily double with Mrs. Miller and the twin bet brought a $226.70 mutuel. The horses were Curtis’ handicap choices.

He liked to recall his saddle days in the West. He was a jockey on Indian ponies which ran short distances over straight courses. The racing was in conjunction with small fairs and young Curtis received $5 for each winning mount.

In addition to riding, the jockeys were in charge of the transportation of the ponies from town to town, and Curtis often told of leading the animals many miles in the morning and then riding them in races in the afternoon. The late Sam Hildreth, who became trainer for the Sinclair Stable and had Zev among his charges was a jockey on the same circuit and the two swapped stories whenever they met.

Curtis always tried to keep away from the spotlight of racing, but on several occasions he has presented the trophies to winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

In turfdom he will be remembered as ‘race fan,’ and not ‘czar of racing’ – he would have preferred it that way.” (Walter Haight / The Washington Post, 02/11/1936)

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