A Lifetime at the Track: Respected Racing Official Tommy Trotter Dies at 93

The paddock at Delaware Park, where Tommy Trotter worked as a steward. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tommy Trotter, whose 56-year career encompassed decades at the forefront of the turf as one of its greatest racing secretaries, and who made a vital contribution to the immortal careers of geldings Kelso, Forego, and other champions by assigning them forbidding amounts of handicap weight that served to certify their greatness, died Feb. 23 at age 93 in Aventura, Fla., after a short illness.

“When I think of Tommy Trotter, I think of Jimmy Kilroe,” said Tom Robbins, executive vice president for racing at Del Mar. “For those that remember Jimmy Kilroe, nothing more needs to be said. Simply put, Tommy was one of horse racing’s truly great professionals and gentlemen.”

Born on Sept. 21, 1926, approximately one mile south of Churchill Downs, Trotter’s deep-seated passion for racing was part and parcel of his DNA. Representing his family’s fourth generation, his father, Charles Hildreth (Tobe) Trotter, was a trainer, as were his grandfather and great grandfather. Trotter’s mother, née Helen Hoffler, had a brother, Jimmy, who was a jockey. Another uncle, Jimmy McGee, was a leading trainer.

It was due to Tobe Trotter’s longstanding friendships that his son came to rub elbows with, and become the beneficiary of, a first-class education in the sport of kings from several of its most revered figures including John Blanks Campbell, who many consider the turf’s greatest racing secretary, Francis Dunne, Julius Reeder, Jimmy Ross, and Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe.

Tommy Trotter with his wife, Ellie (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

In 1945, at age 18, Trotter commenced work as a clerk in the secretary’s office at Fair Grounds Race Track in New Orleans. That led to his first racing duties in New York as Campbell’s secretary. In 1959, upon answering a phone call from John Hanes, president of the New York Racing Association, Trotter agreed to succeed Kilroe as racing secretary when the latter opted to return to California. Trotter singled out Kilroe for the rest of his life as someone he held in the highest regard.

Trotter estimated he was employed by 22 racetracks –give or take– during his career. That included working for, and being fired by, Marje Everett at Arlington Park in Chicago, where he was hired in 1954 (and to which he would eventually return), before going to work for her again decades later at Hollywood Park in California.

Known for packing on weight in an era when handicap races were a cornerstone of the turf, helping to make Trotter’s job easier was that many of racing’s most prominent owners –Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Phippses among them— had no qualms whatsoever. The reason was that winning with top weight while conceding pounds on the scale to one’s rivals served to validate the greatness of an owner’s prized runner.

Given the inherent difficulty in compiling a condition book that will never garner unanimous praise from both backside (horsemen) and frontside (management), not to mention the rough-and-tumble politics that are a racetrack staple, it remains an enduring Trotter hallmark that he enjoyed decades-long friendships with owners and trainers.

To cite just a couple of examples, Trotter’s friendships with Kelso’s owner, Allaire du Pont, and trainer Carl Hanford, never suffered as their champion gelding – the only horse to win five consecutive Horse of the Year titles, from 1960 through 1964– carried 130 lbs. or more to the winner’s circle 12 times during his Racing Hall of Fame career.

“Allaire just took it,” Trotter said, referring to his weight assignments. “And we were always good friends. It was exactly the same with Carl Hanford; we were friends for the rest of his life. We even wound up in the steward’s stand together at Delaware Park.”

During a round of golf with Dr. Fager’s Hall of Fame conditioner John Nerud (who passed away at age 102 in August 2015), Trotter said they discussed his allocation for the second-to-last career start of Rough’n Tumble’s finest son. Just before launching his drive off the tee, Nerud remarked, “Put on him whatever you want. I don’t care.” After Dr. Fager duly went on to win, Trotter quoted Nerud as saying, “You should have put more weight on him.”

Dr. Fager (Jim Raftery/BloodHorse photo)

Further evidence of Trotter’s racing acumen was supplied when Dr. Fager’s half sister, Ta Wee, who also raced in the colors of Tartan Farms’ owner William L. McKnight and would one day join her half-brother in the Hall of Fame, won back-to-back renewals of the Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct Race Track in New York. Carrying 130 lbs. to victory against males in 1969 (the most ever carried by a 3-year-old filly), she affirmed Trotter’s handicap prowess the next year when the hickory-tough daughter of Intentionally won the race again, this time toting an impost of 140 lbs.

Two other particularly meaningful friendships, among scores of them, were with actor and longtime owner-breeder John Forsythe, a passionate racing fan himself, and (the late) Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens.

In an interview for The Florida Horse, Jerkens told the author he was particularly appreciative of Trotter’s help in 1962 when, after being interviewed in New York by Jack Dreyfus, whose nom de course was Hobeau Farm, two days later his new patron (in an association that would span more than 50 years) signaled he got the job by sending him half a dozen horses. Realizing he had no stalls to accommodate them, Jerkens, who would ultimately attain iconic status and become the then-youngest trainer inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1975 (a mark since broken by Bill Mott), headed straight for the racing secretary’s office to explain his dilemma. Trotter promptly instructed Jerkens to place his horses in the receiving barn. Problem solved.

Tragedy Strikes

Before Trotter would prove to one and all how supremely talented he was as both an administrator and handicapper who always had the best interests of racing at heart, his character and resolve was tested by tragedy.

Trotter was just 21 during the early months of 1948 as the calendar pages flipped toward the first Saturday in May. The cynosure of racing’s attention at the time was focused on a pair of sons of Calumet Farm stallion Bull Lea: Citation and his stablemate Coaltown. Trained by Horace Allyn (Jimmy) Jones Jr., Citation’s pilot was Albert Snider, who was just then making a name for himself on racing’s biggest stage. 

Citation began his 3-year-old campaign in a manner unheard of today. After dismissing older horses in a six-furlong allowance race at Hialeah Park on Feb. 2 in a superb 1:10 2/5, Citation then took down the Seminole Handicap, defeating older Calumet stablemate Armed, the 1947 Horse of the Year and yet another son of Bull Lea, on both occasions.

Without fail, Trotter would cite those winning performances by a still-young 3-year-old against his elders as beyond remarkable. Snider increased his record aboard Citation to nine wins in nine starts when the pair dusted the competition by six lengths in the Flamingo Stakes on Feb. 28, posting a solid final time of 1:48 4/5 for nine furlongs.

With racing having shifted to Tropical Park, Snider and several other adults, including Tobe Trotter, left for a few days of fishing in the Florida Keys. It was late in the afternoon of March 5 when Snider, Trotter, and Donald Frazier, a well-to-do Thoroughbred owner from Canada and member of the Ontario Jockey Club, set out to fish in a small skiff in the shallow waters off Sandy Key. As Debra Ginsburg described it in her piece titled, “Without a trace” in the September/October 2002 issue of The Backstretch: “They were in plain view of the Evelyn K. until well into the evening hours when a ferocious storm suddenly blew out of nowhere with 45 mph winds.” 

When there was no sign of the trio the following morning, an all-out search began which included private planes chartered by Warren Wright, the majordomo of Calumet Farm. Their bodies were never found when the search ended on March 9.

Racing at Arlington Park
Racing at Arlington Park (Eclipse Sportswire)

Citation would sweep through the classics in style to become racing’s eighth Triple Crown champion with Eddie Arcaro in the saddle. Arcaro, who had ridden Calumet’s Whirlaway to Triple Crown glory in 1941 as the sport’s fifth Triple Crown conqueror, thus holds the distinction as the only rider to pilot two horses to the ultimate prize.

Trotter would press on to burnish his father’s legacy in the decades to follow. Making his mark in myriad ways, Trotter compiled the Experimental Free Handicap by himself from 1962-71, and continued his involvement through 1989. An inaugural member of the (at one time) large North American Graded Stakes Committee in 1972, upon which he served for many years, Trotter was director of racing at Arlington Park in 1984-85 and chaired the selection committee for a new event: the Arlington Million. There were also steward’s chores in the 1970s at both Delaware Park and Atlantic City Race Course. He would conclude his career as a steward at Gulfstream Park in 2001.

Above all else, though, it was the universal respect Trotter was accorded by horsemen that spoke volumes.

“Tommy always exuded class, and it never wore on you,” said Brooklyn-born Nick Zito, who trained the winners of the 1991 and 1994 Kentucky Derbys. “I am not sure there is anyone like him in racing today, anyone who has what he did. You would see him walk by and someone would remark, ‘There goes Tommy Trotter.’ ”

Trotter is survived by his wife, Eleanor (Ellie) Gordon Trotter of Aventura. He had six children (four sons, two daughters) by his first wife, Sally Quinerly Trotter, who died in 1999. He was predeceased by a son, Barry Trotter, an equine dentist, who passed away in 2012.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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