“In truth,” my old friend and longtime Blood-Horse Editor and Publisher Kent Hollingsworth quoted legendary horseman Col. Phil T. Chinn as having said shortly before his death in 1962, “I did not always reveal my full knowledge of the animal which was the subject of a transaction.”
An historic marker honoring Col. Phil T. Chinn is located in downtown Lexington's Thoroughbred Park. (Photo from The Historic Marker Database.)
No better description has been written of the essence of the horse trader, the merchant, the sales agent who can take a worthless claimer in Kentucky, market him properly, and turn him into a champ — in the mind of a buyer — in Maryland. Or Nebraska.
According to Tom Gentry, the greatest commercial horse seller of the modern day, the man from whom they made the mold was Col. Chinn. “Bob,” Tom told me once, “at that old Kentucky Association Track, no one knew what hole in the ground the quarter poles went, so if he wanted to shave a fraction off a tryout run, he’d just move the quarter pole up a little bit.”
Of course, Kent Hollingsworth had heard the story, too, one of the most famous in racing, and he tracked its origin down to a particular incident in 1901, wherein Col Chinn was accused of having moved the three eighths pole, that is the pole that marked the point on the track three eights of a mile from the finish line. By moving the pole closer to the finish line, a horse would run less than three eights of a mile, thus posting a brilliant speed for that distance.
The purpose of the timed run was to demonstrate the speed of the horse to a potential buyer. The buyer quickly heard rumors that the pole had been moved, and a committee of well known horsemen was appointed to look into the matter:
“Col. Chinn did not, however, cause the three-eighths pole at the Kentucky Association track to be moved 44 feet and three inches closer to the finish line on Oct. 24, 1901, according to the findings of an investigating committee made up of the most prominent horsemen in Kentucky,” Kent dutifully reported, but many are not convinced.
“During more than a half century, Phil T. Chinn bought and sold more horses than any man who ever turned a blade of bluegrass. He dealt primarily in horses negotiable in five figures during an era when a stakes-class horse could be purchased for $2,000. He traded with many people in many countries, and whether the transactions were simple or complicated, the financial arrangements usually were intricate,” Kent wrote in the same article, collected in The Archjockey of Canterbury and Other Tales.
But did Chinn move the pole? Kent was apparently willing to take the committee’s word for it, but we will never know for sure what happened in October of 1901. One gets the idea from Kent’s description that things were a little informal at the Kentucky Association Track, when it came to physical markers. “For years,” he wrote, “the three-eighths pole had been marked by an old walnut tree, but after the timber had been cut from the centerfield, the distance was marked by a small pole nailed against the fence.” Chinn was ultimately vindicated by the blue ribbon commission charged with investigating the accusation.
Col. Chinn was not slowed down by the charge, and led a life worthy of Hollywood treatment. According to Jimmy Breslin’s biography of Damon Runyon, Chinn went to Mexico and sold racehorses to Pancho Villa, where he was visited by, among others, Runyon. Think of that image for a second: Damon Runyon, whose stories inspired “Guys and Dolls,” and who invented the image of the modern horseplayer (“Horseplayers always die broke,” he wrote), Pancho Villa, the stereotypical wild eyed radical, and Col. Chinn, the model horse trader, all sitting down to dinner together.
Chinn crossed the Atlantic like most people cross the street, he bragged in a Sports Illustrated interview in 1956. In the same interview, he bragged that he’d gotten the contract to provide 30,000 cavalry horses to the British forces during the First World War by having business cards printed with the title “Colonel,” leading the British officers to believe that he was with the US military. Chinn’s great talent was in finding big money buyers in New York and luring them to Kentucky to buy horses here. Breslin wrote that in Chinn’s early days, he bribed a bellboy at the Saratoga Springs Spa to have him paged once every 15 minutes, to make everyone there think he was receiving telephone calls from out of town buyers that frequently.
Col. Chinn maintained his flair even when he was at a low point, which all entrepreneurs suffer. The great equine lawyer C. Gibson Downing told me once that when he was a young associate working with Gayle Mohney, the father of equine lawyers, that he looked out the office window, saw a big black chauffeur-driven limousine pull up and double park in downtown Lexington, an imperious figure emerge from it, come into the building, go into Mr. Mohney’s office, and emerge a couple of minutes later, smiling. Mr. Mohney emerged from his office laughing, Gib asked him who his visitor had been. “Oh, that was just Col. Phil T. Chinn,” Mohney said, “coming by to borrow 20 dollars!” and roared with laughter.
Col. Chinn avoided overt scandal, and died peacefully in 1962, at the age of 88. In its 1956 interview and profile, Sports Illustrated painted Chinn as the last of the Kentucky Colonels, literally and figuratively. He spanned the age in which everyone was a colonel, and the modern age, in which no one is. He was also the last of the generation of horsemen who had taken Thoroughbred racing from its informal roots at tracks with quarter poles nailed to fences to the modern world of Churchill Downs and Keeneland, a world where one couldn’t get away with moving a pole a millimeter. And he had some fun along the way, whether or not he moved the pole in 1901. Racing has lost a little bit, good and bad, with the passing of that world.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.