Porter’s Stables, Part 2
A dollar won is twice as sweet as a dollar earned…from the movie, “The Color of Money”
Like a lot of Porter Ashe stories, it made good copy. Porter would prevent the romantic features of his life from fading from memory by constantly furnishing the public with material to weave an unending series of novelettes. While it didn’t get the coverage of the bear attack, the shark attack, the train crash or the kidnapping two months earlier, “Shaking dice for a wife” was a national story told and retold for decades. It was a tall tale first delivered four days after the divorce decree was signed ending the union of the Ashes (and Porter’s windfall) on June 14, 1887.
The original story quickly told was that many men made overtures for the possession of the hand and fortune of the glamorous Amy Crocker. Porter Ashe, recent graduate from the Hastings College of Law, and William Wallace, son of State Supreme Court Judge W.T. Wallace and grandson of California’s first governor, both met Amy Crocker, the frisky millionairess, and both quickly became finalists competing for the coveted prize of her hand in marriage. Instead of resorting to the old and barbarous practice of exchanging pistol shots or sword thrusts, the college buddies let a pair of tumbling dice decide their collective futures. Wallace won the shake. He proposed. Amy accepted.
One pleasant day, so the story goes, the somewhat engaged couple left the Capital to be married in San Francisco without announcing their intentions to anyone but Ashe, who they brought along as a witness. En route, Wallace left to have a cigarette with the congenial company at the smoking car. Ashe was left to entertain Miss Amy, and did so with such a remarkable degree of success that when Wallace returned, he discovered that his coquette fiancé and the rogue gambler were gone. Ashe persuaded the heiress to leave the train at Martinez and marry him instead.
Several suitors were named by various publications as involved in the showdown over the years including Governor Stoneman’s controversial executive secretary Harry Dam; Lans Mizner, an ambassador’s son, described as “three-quarters Irish and one-quarter Devil”; and the dashing opera singer and Bohemian Club darling Harry Gillig, no relation to her first fiance Charles Gillig. One variation of the story had Amy as both the dealer and the prize in a hand of poker with several gamblers participating.
Porter at 27 was already a nationally known turfman, his Maltese Villa stables racing against some of the greatest stables and turfmen in American horse racing history: J.B. Haggin, the Dwyer Brothers, August Belmont, Jr., the Preakness stables, the Hearst stables… Popular turfman Joe Courtney named one of his fastest horses Porter Ashe to commemorate his legend.
A month after the “Shaking Dice for a Wife” story broke, Porter was back on tour with some of his favorite racers. It was of course the attention and admiration that Porter showered over his winning stable on the road that led to the straying devotions of his fast filly at home. Amy was already linked to another fella, the aforementioned Harry Gillig. They were spotted together at the theater with Mother Margaret to see the great Lillie Langtry in “A Wife’s Peril,” and caused whiplash and gasps among the gossips when they were seen in a gentleman’s club in Los Angeles in a private box canoodling with libations and a hostess.
That summer, a few months after the divorce, Ashe’s horse Binnette won in Saratoga then lost by just half-a-nose in the Orange stakes to Kentucky Derby winner Joe Cotton coercing a new world’s record in a race recounted and remembered for decades, mostly over the fact that owner Michael Dwyer bet an exorbitant 60K (now 1.6M).
Also that summer, the phenomenally fast Geraldine, a chestnut mare, 15.1 hands high, sired by Grinstead, and foaled by Cousin Peggy, won at the inaugural running of the Sapphire Stakes at the Sheepshead Bay Race Track. She proved a veritable bonanza for her backers at 10 to 1 odds. The Lion was the first to show in front when the youngsters started on their run. Geraldine, Prospect, Speedwell, and George Oyster ran in a bunch behind him. Before the lot had run half way through the back stretch, jockey Mike Kelly sent Geraldine to the front, and from that point on she remained there to the end, winning easily by a couple of lengths,
The win of the season for Porter was at Gravesend, Long Island for the Brooklyn Jockey Club’s fall season opener. Before 10,000 spectators, Geraldine, who started at 30 to 1 against, beat Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin’s Emperor of Norfolk by a few inches in the Prospect Park Stakes, worth $2,850. Lucky was a California legend and the owner of Grinstead, the stallion that sired Geraldine. He would always carry a little regret for not holding on to Porter Ashe’s champion filly.
Lucky Baldwin built the luxurious Baldwin Hotel and Theater in San Francisco and bought vast tracts of land, some 63, 000 acres, in Southern California. Lucky also built Santa Anita Park on his estate in 1904 which today hosts some of the most prominent horse racing events in the United States including the prestigious Breeder’s Cup.
The first race of the spring meeting of the Pacific Blood Horse Association at Bay District on April 22, 1888 would have been eminently successful but for two unfortunate things—a miserably bleak, raw and chilly day and an accident which resulted in the death of an innocent bystander. Over 4,000 persons braved the biting wind. The Baldwin drag carrying his entourage was located near the judges’ stand. It was decorated profusely with flowers, and the ladies had corsages and bouquets which admirably matched their costumes. The arrival of the drag and the flourish of trumpets created quite the sensation as it swept into the paddock. Lucky and company was followed shortly by an open landau in which was seated Miss Amy Crocker, the former Mrs. Porter Ashe, in a striking costume. Her landau was drawn by two spirited chestnuts, and on the box were two liveried and tanned footmen. Stretching away along the paddock on both sides of the judges’ stand was a long line of elegant equipages.
Porter Ashe was arrayed in a light suit of steel gray. His brother Will walked with a couple of red-lipped ladies. Ex-Senator C.H. Maddox drove along in a double team. Near the club-house could be seen Uncle Charles Crocker, gobbling peanuts; the Spreckels brothers, John D. and Adolph B.; Frank Unger in a white vest and General W.H. Dimond. In the space along the homestretch in front of the grand stand lounged former Bohemian Club President General W.H.L. Barnes Jr., ex-Senator J.F. Wendell and Harry Gillig who was joined by Amy after she gave her grand entrance.
Porter’s horse Elwood (named after Amy’s teenage brother) rode in the Gentleman’s Race. He was ridden by Ashe’s good friend Thomas H. Williams, Jr. Elwood held a four lengths lead and was going strong. The positions were not altered until the homestretch was reached when Black Pilot, under skillful management sailed past the big chestnut, winning hands down with a length to the good. The bookmakers were busy paying out on this race when a cry came across the track from the Judge’s stand that a protest had been lodged. Pilot, jockeyed by Harris, had ridden thirty pounds under weight…Elwood was relegated to first place, Bay Rum, owned by Williams, took second.
The second event of the day was the California stakes. Theodore Winters’ colt Don Jose, ridden by Joe Courtney was at the home stretch when Courtney, hugging the fence too close, hit the colt a stinging blow on the flank which provoked him to leap over the fence, striking Sydney Marsh, a bystander, full in the chest violently knocking him down. The back of Marsh’s head struck the hard track. Horse and rider fell over on Marsh, and in the animal’s endeavors to arise struck him with vicious blows with his steel-plated hoofs. Marsh was taken by stretcher to the hotel dining room where he was pronounced dead by Coroner Stanton.
Tragedy was no stranger in Porter’s life on the turf. During 1888’s racing seasons, Porter lost both Vera and King Fisher, as well as Binnette, who died of lung fever while on route for her home in California. Ashe received a telegram from trainer Mike Kelly from Chicago bringing the sorrowful tidings. “It is a sad loss to the California representative horses on the turf,” said Ashe, “and a heavy financial loss to me, as I was offered $5,000 for the mare two weeks ago.”
Weeks before the spring opening, trainer John Kelly, Mike’s brother, died in a horrific accident when a stallion he was driving started to run away. When he could not stop him he jumped from the wagon hoping to mount the racing horse, but his feet got caught in the running gear. Kelly was dragged for a mile and mangled.
Days after winning the Gentleman’s Race at Bay District, Porter’s four-year-old colt Triboulet won in the fourth race beating the favorite, Haggin’s three-year-old Tennyson, by Longfellow. Triboulet, by King Ban, out of Herzegovina, also beat a world’s record that day at a mile and three furlongs, carrying 117 pounds in 2.21 ½ , The previous record was made by Uncas in 2.21 ¾ at Sheepshead Bay, with 107 lb., in September 1880. Porter would suffer another loss four months later at Monmouth Park when Triboulet died from lockjaw.
Feud Number One
Emilie Charlotte Le Breton (stage name Lillie Langtry) was the Marilyn Monroe of her day. Before her successful career on the stage (initiated at the suggestion of her close friend Oscar Wilde) Lillie was the mistress of three royals: The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (“Bertie”, later King Edward VII), the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Prince Louis of Battenberg all while being married to Irish landowner Edward Langtry. While the critics often condemned her performances, the public loved her, tainted past and all. She was the world’s most renowned beauty and celebrity and one of the highest paid performers of her day.
Two months after Langtry’s San Francisco engagements, at Monmouth Park Racetrack, Freddie Gebhard bet Porter Ashe a cool $1,000 that his horse Rosarium could beat the formidable Geraldine. The mismatch was obvious. The New York Tribune wrote, “a snicker started among turfmen in New Brunswick, broadened into a smile among the followers of the races in New York, expanded into a capacious grin in Chicago, and culminated in a roar of boisterous laughter on the California coast.” It was the most humorous farce of the theatrical season. Mike Kelly, who rode Geraldine immediately opened a gap of four lengths which sparked the laughter of the throng in the audience. Kelly and Geraldine beat Freddie’s nag by a dozen lengths. Rosarium’s astonishing exhibition of complete absence of speed in a thoroughbred horse caused tremendous disappointment, melancholy and embarrassment among the group gathered around Mr. Gebhard and Mrs. Langtry at the clubhouse. The Tribune called it, “the most comical match of the century.”
Porter presented to Mrs. Langtry the handsome silver trophy won by Geraldine.
A sentimental summer serial of a rivalry between Frederick Gebhard and Porter Ashe over “professional beauty” Lillie Langtry developed. Mrs. Langtry made Porter’s acquaintance back in San Francisco, and it was renewed at the racetracks of the Atlantic seashore. Porter became a member of the immediate Langtry coterie, and soon a favorite above the rest. He began getting special attention in public and was an almost daily visitor at her villa. For a while Ashe and Gebhardt seemed like cronies. Freddie, Porter and Lillie in time formed a menage at the racecourse, on the drive, in the surf and at the hotel. It soon became clear that Lillie was vacillating from Freddie to Porter. Ashe started walking and driving alone with Mrs. Langtry and took her to quiet dinners at Pleasure Bay. In a grand gesture of devotion, Porter named one of his horses Lillie Ashe.
By all appearances, Porter had won first place in the lady’s affections. For awhile Gebhard did nothing but mope around and sulk. He got tired of playing second fiddle to Ashe. Soon rumbling quarrels evolved into Freddie reading lovely Lillie the riot act. He gave her an ultimatum. Mrs. Langtry became indignant at Gebhard’s interference with her private affairs, and haughtily refused to gratify him by throwing over the festive Mr. Ashe on the spot. Freddie went off to England leaving nothing but a cold formal note of farewell. Mrs. Langtry was left with the decision to follow her lover to Europe or go to the Pacific slope to see her new brash love interest, Porter Ashe. She went to Europe. Having failed at wooing the catch of the century, Porter denied that a rivalry with Fred Gebhard ever existed to the press and announced that he met with the most beautiful woman he ever saw, in Richmond, Virginia…and that she was definitely more beautiful than Mrs. Langtry.
Porter would not be connected with any lady friends for the next two decades; he wouldn’t marry again until 1905. His true love was his race horses.
During her short turf career Geraldine had won twenty-one races, eight as a two-year-old, two as a three-year-old and eleven by July of 1889. Morris Park Racecourse at Westchester, conceived and built by majority shareholder John Albert Morris, opened on August 20, 1889. The racecourse was the site of the Belmont Stakes from 1890 through 1904 as well as the Preakness Stakes in 1890. The cost of the track was a little short of $1,500,000. The grand stand had a seating capacity of 15,000.
In all respects it was a great day. The public were delighted with the free field, free programs, and the cheap beer and vittles.
Public sentiment leaned to Mr. Morris’s flying black sprinter Britannic in the first race at the brand new tracks. As he galloped past the crowds in his preliminary, the grand stand shook with applause. Britannic’s most dangerous opponents were Porter Ashe’s chestnut filly Geraldine, second choice in the betting; Fred Gebhard’s bay gelding Volunteer; and L.H. Titus’ chestnut gelding Gladstone. Geraldine crossed the finish line first running the five furlongs in 1:00. When the time was announced there was considerable excitement, as Geraldine had knocked a quarter of a second off the world’s record of 1:00 ¼ made by San Harper at Jerome park a year earlier.
Ten days later Geraldine, carrying 122 pounds, beat the half-mile record made by Olitipa at Saratoga in 47 ¾ seconds at a breathtaking 46 seconds (some trainers timed the race at 0:45 ½). Andy McCarthy had the mount on Porter’s speedy filly. Geraldine was again the second choice in the betting. Porter beat rival Freddie Gebhard’s Volunteer who placed. Daisy F. took third.
Geraldine’s back to back world records became a front page story in The New York Times. So popular and beloved was the fast sprinter that Geraldine was featured on a trading card then given with the purchase of a pack of cigarettes. Porter Ashe became the Apollo of the American turf.
Porter Ashe was the quintessential gambler. He saw himself as the possessor of both the keen instincts of a cheetah and an oracle’s intuition. He was always on the lookout for opportunities to circumvent and accelerate the natural evolutionary flow of progress and growth. Porter certainly didn’t limit his gambling habits on thoroughbreds and on beautiful, powerful women. Porter was a smooth talker and agile deal maker. Anything and everything could be his if he played his cards right. Nothing was off limits and, to Porter, there was no deal too dirty or underhanded. (He once bet/conned cousin George Crocker out of a few grand on a cock fight meant to benefit needy children).
Porter Ashe also famously bet on pugilists. He was known as the discoverer of boxer James Corbett. “Gentleman Jim” was considered the “Father of Modern Boxing” because of his scientific approach and innovations in technique. Ashe was riding one day along a bridle-path when he overtook Corbett in running gear. He said that he was a boxer and was training in hopes of getting a fight with the formidable Joe Choinyski. To meet the terms of the purse he needed $1,000. Porter knew a bit about boxing. His brother Gaston was a national intercollegiate boxing champion out of Harvard. He had a gambler’s hunch about Jim and put up the money. Prizefighting was felonious in May of 1889 when the big fight took place. At that time, most matches were bare-knuckle with no rules, no weight divisions, no round limits, no referees. It was a sideshow type sport that was illegal in many areas of the country. Choinyski was knocked down in 27 rounds.
On September 7, 1892, Corbett won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship under the new, more civilized Queensberry rules by knocking out John L. Sullivan in the 21st round at the Olympic Club in New Orleans, beating all odds. Ashe bet on Corbett in his early years, helping him to become the mold of fistic form.
A month after the win by Gentleman Jim, his famous filly Geraldine was written into a play, “The Favorite,” by 23-year-old Aubrey Boucicault, which had a short run at the old Stockwell’s Theatre on Powell Street. The spectators saw, in succession, the racing quarters, Monmouth Park, a group of busy bookmakers, the celebrated racers paraded with the jockeys, and, above all, “the favorite”—the belle of the turf.
Satan, the favorite, was played by Geraldine. In supporting roles were Cupid played by Jocko and Skirt dancer played by Mozart, who were also members of Porter’s stable. The reviews were mostly merciless. The Oakland Tribune wrote, “Despite the crudeness of its construction it contains the elements of popularity. The horses are elegant animals and the characters of the play are in good hands.”
Feud Number Two
One of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a package of garden seeds…Dan Bennett (American comedian and juggler)
Porter enjoyed living large, on bluster, bravado and charm. His lifestyle was unfortunately larger than his bank account. He was in debt several thousand dollars to his trainer/jockey and the manager of his stables, Mike Kelly, who eventually had to mortgage his house and lot at Merced to pay for the maintenance of the stables. Kelly kept clamoring for money, and after receiving one too many worthless promissory notes finally persuaded Ashe to give him a bill of sale of the Maltese Villa string. Porter complied thinking of it as a good faith gesture with a long time friend and associate. Kelly showed Ashe’s buddy Tom Williams, Jr. the promissory notes and the deeds that turned over to him in trust six horses — Geraldine, Don Fulano, Sir Reel and three other yearling colts. Two days later Kelly sold the horses to Williams for $6429. The next day Geraldine ran carrying Tom Williams’ name and colors.
Porter immediately secured the legal services of General W.H.L. Barnes, who advised him that Geraldine was still his property, though Williams held a nominal possession. Under his contract for $1500 a year, Kelly was still in the pay of Ashe, and so was Duffy, the mare’s stable boy. So, legally, there was a question whether possession had passed to Williams, entirely and if Kelly, who held the horses in trust, had any right to sell them.
Tom Williams and Porter Ashe were once “running mates,” the best of friends who shared an undying passion for horse racing. Tom became the owner of the Bay District Race Track in 1890 and the president of the California Jockey Club in 1892. Williams rode for Ashe at the Gentleman’s Race. They owned a winning horse together named Arab. They also went to the White House together on an invitation by President Grover Cleveland to discuss pardoning mutual friend and felon Judge David S. Terry. Tom was one of only three people that Porter told about his secret marriage to Amy Crocker in 1882.
Mike Kelly and Geraldine’s stable boy Duffy went to work for Williams. Duffy was instructed to sleep at Bay District Race Track in the same stall with Geraldine and also had a lock put on the door. Both these precautions were often taken by racing men to prevent the horses being drugged just before a race by bookmakers or other people interested in the results. Duffy said that Porter had come up unsuspiciously and asked him to let him have one last look at the ‘dear old mare.’ Porter’s three burly brothers appeared on the scene. Will Ashe stood guard with a revolver. “Geraldine will never go back into that stable,” said Porter climbing into a buggy, while Sidney dropped a saddle on her back and mounted the mare. Gaston led the cavalcade down Point Lobos Avenue toward Geary Street at a hot gallop until they were all lost in the fog.
What followed was seven years of thoroughbred mayhem. Geraldine was at different times held by Lucky Baldwin, a constable, T.H. Williams and M.J. Kelly (again), a deputy sheriff, notorious bookmaker George Rose and bondsmen Fred Zeile & Horace W. Chase of Napa. Geraldine was smuggled again by Ashe in December of 1893 and taken back East. Williams instituted lawsuits to restore possession of Geraldine in 1896 and 1897. Another horse and another old friend would soon get caught up in the mix of bills, judgments and attachments…
Mike Kelly had certainly grown bitter over Geraldine. The San Francisco Call reported that he was directly responsible for the mare’s bad season in 1890 writing, “A subscription paper was passed around at all the great Eastern race courses and turfmen generally were asked to subscribe to a testimonial to Michael Kelly on condition that he would never ride Geraldine again.”
It is not clear what initially caused the annihilation of the long friendship between the Tom and Porter. Williams’ horse Rinfax did once beat the great Geraldine and set a new record at six and a half furlongs. Though Tom and Porter were fairly evenly matched as gamblers go, their tactics were very different. Porter’s charm would carry the day in spite of how much danger and wreckage he courted. He had no shortage of friends to bail him out of trouble. Tom was cutthroat and tenacious, known to browbeat and bully his opponents. He certainly had no shortage of enemies. Twice he attacked newspapermen over a stories written about him that he didn’t like, first breaking a man’s nose while brandishing a six-shooter, then beating and shooting an editor in his own home, in the presence of his wife, who narrowly escaped the flying bullets (Porter, not to be outdone, was indicted for kidnapping a San Francisco Bulletin editor in 1906).
Williams was in a perpetual feud with two Crocker cousins. Col. Charles Frederick who held a month to month lease on the land where the Bay District Race Track stood and Henry J. Crocker, Vice President of the new Pacific Coast Jockey Club who along with sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels built the Ingleside Race Track on 150 acres of land not more than four miles from the new City Hall and a rifle shot from the Pacific Ocean.
The San Francisco Call announced that Geraldine would make her reappearance on Thanksgiving Day at the grand opening of Ingleside in the second race against three other record holders, Libertine, holder of the mile record, Mamie Scott who held the record at seven and a half furlongs and Wernberg who beat the six and a half furlongs record at Sheepshead Bay. It was also reported that she would be wearing the colors of bookmaker George Rose. The managers gave 12,000 as a conservative estimate of the attendance. Among the turn-outs were Mayor Sutro, Lucky Baldwin, Thomas. H. Williams, and Will and Porter Ashe.
Geraldine was a no show.
Two weeks later, on Friday the 13th of December, 1895, the proud-gaited old mare did show up at Ingleside Race Track and at ten-years-old looked as young and well-conditioned as she ever did. Geraldine was led from the paddock after the bugle had called the horses to the post wearing the colors of George Rose. Doggett was on her back. She was marked at 50 to 1 odds against her at first which was adjusted to 30 to 1 by post time. In her day Geraldine was a phenomenally fast breaker under the flag system that prevailed on all tracks in America before the introduction of the starting gate.
By the three-quarter pole Geraldine took command, and into the stretch she led by three lengths. Doggett had her under a wrap and was looking back to see just what he would have to beat through the stretch. But nothing ever got near her. Babe Murphy gained some ground near the homestretch but old Geraldine crossed the finish first The Ingleside crowd was uproarious. There was never a more popular victory, and no horse ever bred in California was regarded half so affectionately as the game old daughter of Cousin Peggy and Grinstead, “The Queen of the Turf” Geraldine.
Feud Number Three
Ashe was in deep financial difficulty. Wherever he went it seemed that he left a trail of debt. During Thomas Williams’ 1897 replevin suit for Geraldine, the mare was held by bondsmen Fred Zeile and Horace W. Chase of Napa who agreed to present the horse or pay the damages if Ashe lost. The suit was bitterly fought at the Supreme Court of California who finally gave a judgment of $5, 200 in favor of Williams. Ashe then took the bondsmen aside and offered them another horse so that he could bring Geraldine back to Maltese Villa. He had in his stable a grandly bred colt belonging to the same family as Geraldine, Cousin Peggy’s grandson. Ashe couldn’t race him in his own name; the Sheriff would pounce immediately and seize the horse for unpaid debts. Bondsman Horace Chase was the brother-in-law to Porter’s friend, Edgar Mizner, who was at that time agent for Ruinart champagne. Edgar agreed to race the horse in his name and also to assist in paying for the training expenses. Mizner named him Ruinart. Before a big win for the Burns Handicap on the Oakland track Ruinart wasn’t worth more than $400. After the race he was worth at least $15,000. Horseman became much interested in the pedigree of Ruinart. The winner of the Burns Handicap was a veritable aristocrat among horses. What followed was a three way battle for Ruinart between Ashe, Chase and Mizner. This battle was over quickly. On May 7, 1897 a settlement was reached over Geraldine and Ruinart with the bondsmen.
Who paid Ashe’s bill this time no one knows.
Geraldine would spend her last years at the breeding farm of Adolph Spreckels. There Geraldine foaled a filly by St. Carlo, who was sired by British champion racehorse St. Blaise, winner of the Derby. She was named Geraldyn. The filly was presented as a gift to superstar actress Edna Wallace Hopper (a good friend of Amy Crocker) who won a fortune on her at Saratoga in the summer of 1901.
Porter Ashe made a career shift and in 1898 ran for state senator as a Democrat. He edged out his competitor winning by 25 votes (he later ran for the U.S. Congress and lost handily). On March 1, 1900 Geraldine died. Her newly born foal by Crighton died at the same time. When Porter was told of her death he had a hard time to keep from breaking into tears. He sighed to the reporters, “I feel so badly I wish you would excuse me from talking about her. Old Geraldine was one of the best friends I ever had.”