There was this gentleman named Charlie Ellison, or Charles R. Ellison to be precise, from Chicago. He was involved with the horse racing game in the late nineteenth century, and as the calendar flipped to 1900, began finding great success.
Ellison was famous for his large wagers, and turf writers seemed to revel in detailing his betting successes His countenance was fair, and as he was towheaded, these very recognizable locks earned him a unique sobriquet, the “Blonde Plunger.” The plunger in his nickname implied a reckless speculator or gambler.
A gamble the Blonde Plunger made in 1901 paid off in spades, or rather, roses. He purchased the chestnut yearling colt, Judge Himes, from Senator Johnson N. Camden Jr.’s Hartland Stud in Versailles, Kentucky. Charlie Ellison had his entry for the 1903 Kentucky Derby, but no one gave him a chance, leading some to speculate that the Blonde Plunger may have seen odds as high as 30-1 on his color bearer. The favorite that year in Louisville was another chestnut colt, named Early, ridden by the African-American jockey Jimmy Winkfield, who had won the Kentucky Derby the two previous runnings, and was looking for a hat-trick. There was no charm for the twice-successful Winkfield, as Judge Himes ran down Early at the Churchill Downs’ wire.
Charlie Ellison now had the connections and the confidence from his Derby win, along with the money, to acquire more well-bred horses. The big, light-haired Westerner proved a fair judge of young horses and began developing a chestnut filly named Lady Navarre who won the Tennessee Derby. He also raised a bay colt named James Reddick, honoring the Cook County, Illinois Republican Chairman, that won the Albany Handicap at Saratoga. He frequently ran the filly and the colt as an entry. In the Kentucky Derby won by Sir Huon, Ellison’s Lady Navarre finished second with entry-mate James Reddick running third. The 1906 Derby produced the heaviest betting ever known, with the Blonde Plunger certainly doing his best, a genuine hero to the habitues of the track.
Another fellow advancing his career as the Gay Nineties transitioned into the twentieth century was Scott Hudson of Lexington, Kentucky, who started on the standard bred side of the industry. Hudson was an exceptional driver of trotters and developed a fine reputation for reliability and integrity before he transitioned to thoroughbreds with his own horses, and training for others. His skills as a horseman earned him a great deal of success, which was enhanced by his compassion for the animal.
Charlie Ellison continued with his method of purchasing better bred thoroughbreds. He purchased a yearling colt who was the son of Sir Dixon, and out of the Henry of Navarre mare, Sallie of Navarre, from the last crop of the late Charles F. McMeekin’s Oakwood Stud. Charlie Ellison not only took a lot of New York bookmaker’s money back to Chicago, but also some fine yearling stock.
The Blonde Plunger would typically winter-over at southern tracks, first at Montgomery Park, and then moving further south to the Fairgrounds. As he traveled by rail from Memphis to New Orleans, he pondered over the name for his newly acquired Sir Dixon colt.
We might be able to imagine how good Charlie Ellison felt about his purchase of this colt as he followed the waterfowl while they chimed their annual migration song. He would have known by the time he reached his leased abode on Esplanade Avenue in the Crescent City that his colt’s dam had thrown the winner of multiple stakes races. This gelding named Salvidere went on after that to win the Adirondack Handicap and Saratoga Special, nicely rounding out his 2 year old season. The name for his new colt would have to be selected to represent the rarefied level he hoped the young chestnut would achieve.
The Empire State, the epicenter for horse racing in America, has also always been a hotbed for fervent politics, and individuals with lofty political ambitions and ideals. The gubernatorial election of 1906 pitted lawyer Charles Evans Hughes against newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It was widely known that Hughes, who hailed from Glens Falls just north of the Saratoga Race Course, planned to usher an era of government-decreed morality. A prospective Governor Hughes would be no friend to racing because of his oft stated strong anti-gambling sentiments. The reforming son of a Baptist minister becoming New York Governor caused Scott Hudson to sell all his horses, and those of owners he trained for, less than a month before the election. Realizing the negative impact on racing, Scott Hudson turned his interest into becoming an equine merchant with operations in Lexington and Atlanta. He also handled the breeding and sale of mules, at a time when those animals were in high demand.
Charlie Ellison may have also feared the prospect of a reforming Governor Hughes; however he chose to deal with it in a different and distinctive way. He filed papers with the Jockey Club requesting to name his new colt Governor Hughes. He felt that horses named after politicians had good luck, and fortune seemed to have shined for the Blonde Plunger as Charles Evans Hughes became the Empire State’s 36th Governor. The Ellison colt, named Governor Hughes after the Governor elect, was expected to be among the top candidates for two-year-old races in the East, being nominated by his owner for several important stakes races.
It did not take long for the new order in the Executive Mansion in Albany to exert itself. The Blonde Plunger was advised by the Registrar of the Jockey Club that he would have to select a name other than Governor Hughes, even though that name had been selected before the election, registered and published in the Racing Calendar. The Jockey Club, still to the present day in charge of equine name registration, did not feel compelled to provide a reason for the order to change the horse’s name.
This was the opening salvo of a pitched battle between the Governor and the racing establishment, which continued through his entire administration. This culminated in a period of two years (1911-1912) when racing did not occur in New York, and those with equine interests were driven from the state. Certainly Charles Evans Hughes moving from the Governor’s office to the Federal Supreme Court bench removed much of the contention. Decades later, George F.T. Ryall, the long time turf writer for the New Yorker, related that Governor Hughes, who always wore a full beard and mustache, was referred to by frustrated horseman as “that animated feather duster.” The personal insult had been coined by William Randolph Hearst during the heated campaign and the most unlikely of protest symbols, the feather duster, was many times derisively shaken in the direction of the hirsute Chief Executive.
Charlie Ellison was forced by official decree to tempt fate and invite the catastrophe feared by the superstitious in changing a race horse’s name. The frustration of having the name Governor Hughes awarded and subsequently denied must have been tremendous, and the forced new name chosen was Sir Navarre.
The feared jinx drew even with Sir Navarre, and he contracted “shipping fever” while in route by rail from Memphis to New York in the late spring of 1907. This malady, sometimes called pleuropneumonia, is a dreaded respiratory tract infection, most often caused by virulent bacteria that blitz the pulmonary defense mechanisms. With fractions of a second being the fine differential in many contests, a race horse with damaged lungs cannot compete. Charlie Ellison gave Sir Navarre time to recover at the metropolitan New York tracks and later Saratoga, but he never started there.
When he returned to his native Chicago in November 1907, Charlie Ellison began planning his winter racing and subsequent season. Always glad to share his thoughts with turf writers, the Blonde Plunger detailed his misfortune with Sir Navarre, feeling he was “hoodooed on the spot” by the forced name change. Scott Hudson began collecting stock that no longer had a place at the track.
There was a need in Europe for horses that perhaps were not successful runners, but were familiar with being saddled and ridden, the farriers rasp, were sound in wind and sight and through training understood and were comfortable in the activity of competition. In January 1908 at Lexington, Scott Hudson purchased twenty inexpensive thoroughbred mares and geldings for export to Europe where they would be used as hunters. In February of 1908 at New Orleans, Scott Hudson purchased a number of the poorer class of horse, intended for sale abroad.
Rumors abounded about the disposition of poor Sir Navarre, such that he was pulling a yam wagon at Tampa, Florida or that he was shipped to Cuba to race, but ended up pulling an ash cart. Scott Hudson was able to confirm to Daily Racing Form that he purchased Sir Navarre in New Orleans from Charlie Ellison, and sold him to huntsmen in England and on the Continent, final destination Belgium.
Illustrations, from above: portrait of Thomas Evan Hughes by Thomas C. Corner; Daily Racing Form article from November 10th, 1907; and American Stud Book Principal Rules and Requirements.