Hambletonian champion lost to history

It shouldn't have ended like this.

One of the most dominant horses of his generation, ridden by one of the best trainers of his era shouldn't have slipped away the way he did. Walter Dear, the winner of the 1929 Hambletonian disappeared amidst the rubble and chaos that followed the last days of Nazi Germany during World War II. Owner and trainer Charlie Mills escaped the devastation and went on to find success after the war. No one ever found Walter Dear.

Walter Dear won the 1929 Hambletonian -- domestic harness racing's most prestigious race -- in impressive fashion. Before the race found a home amidst the shadows of New York City at the Meadowlands Race Track, the Hambletonian criss-crossed the nation for decades, never truly settling. After finding permanence in Goshen, New York for 26 years, the 1929 race was held in Lexington, Kentucky. There was one clear-cut favorite on that day in early October, that horse was Walter Dear.

Winner of his six previous contests, Walter Dear won both starts from the post that day in an era when the Hambletonian winner was decided via several heats. Most notably, it was Walter Dear who the week before won the Kentucky Futurity in straight heats, setting expectations unreasonably high. The horse, would match the hype at the Hambletonian and would make owner William Cane and his Good Time Stable very proud.

It was just a little under three weeks before "Black Thursday," the day the stock market infamously crashed. America was still in the Roaring 20's, an era of fast cars and even faster gangsters. During a period of largesse and excess, harness racing was one of the biggest draws of the time, and Walter Dear was closing out the decade with a fantastic domestic run that would make him a household name.

The Hambletonian was held on Saturday, October 8th that year, still the latest date the race has ever run. It took only two heats to decide the winner -- multiple times over the next decade it would take three if not four heats to declare a winner -- and it was Walter Dear all the way. Each time another William Cane horse, Volomite, would place.

It was pure dominance on the part of Walter Dear, driven by one of the era's most successful riders, Walter Cox. In the first heat, it was Walter Dear who emerged in the final eighth of a mile to win by 1½ lengths. In the second heat, Walter Dear led almost from the start, holding off stiff challenges from Cane's two other entries in the race -- Volomite and Moss Werner - but ultimately held on for victory. The time of 2:02 ¾ was the second best time in Hambletonian history up to that point. Factor in Walter Dear's performance in winning the Futurity and you have quite a stretch of impressive racing.

It was a lucrative day for Cane who had won over $18,000 with Walter Dear in his previous four races, with half of that came from the horse's triumph in the Kentucky Futurity. For winning the Hambletonian, the Good Time Stable netted over $39,000.

"It was a time before programmed trainers when it was assumed the trainer and driver were the same person. I believe I've seen in some of the old magazines that it was a rule of the Lexington meeting, if a driver had more than one horse in a race, the judges could name the other driver(s)," said Tom Charters, the president of the Hambletonian Society. "In all probability, Mr. Cox was still managing them and assigned them himself to the three other drivers' barns. 'Longshot Cox' was, by reputation, not above cashing with bookmakers, but from all I've read, everybody at the time, and since, considered the four as Cox's entry. It seemed to be the consensus that the best horse won."

But Cane would be depositing another check due to Walter Dear soon.

From the Archives

Charlie Mills remains a man of truly epic proportions, a once in a lifetime character who was as big off the track as he was while riding around it. Martin Källberg is the editor of Travronden, Scandinavia's most prominent horse racing magazine. Founded in 1932, Källberg can rely on Trayronden's impressive archives to shed some light on Mills' and his most famous ride, Walter Dear.

KD: How good was Charlie Mills? Was he the best or one of the best of his generation?
MK: Charlie Mills was the dominant trainer in Europe in the early 20th century. At that time, Germany was the leading trotting nation in Europe, and Mills' dominance during those years really speaks for itself. A very important factor in his success was the influences in training, shoeing and breeding that he collected during his numerous trips to North America. He put them into practice here -- and the results are well known. His importance in bringing new blood to Europe must also be mentioned. But if it hadn't been for World War II, that importance would have been much greater.

KD: How important would a horse like Walter Dear, whom he purchased in 1929 after winning six starts including the Hambletonian, have been in helping to breed his stable in the years after the first world war?
MK: Walter Dear was the crown of the cooperation between owner Bruno Cassirer and Charlie Mills. Cassirer was one of Mills' most important owners, and he owned many horses in training with Mills. The horse won the two biggest races in Europe after being bought in the US, the Prix d'Amérique in Paris and Matadoren-Rennen in Berlin. The horse was also a very good stallion, but his influence on European trotting breed would have been even greater if it wouldn't have been for the war. The purchase of Walter Dear was a very big thing -- in itself, it stated that Europe wanted to play on the same level as the US.

KD: Walter Dear was lost in the last days of World War I -- in your estimation and having somewhat of an idea about the chaos of those times -- would it be reasonable to conclude that he fell into the hands of the Red Army?
MK: Yes, every attempt to find out the fate of Walter Dear has come to the same conclusion: it is likely that he fell into the hands of the Red Army, sweeping through Germany. And at that time, under those circumstances, there was probably no one who thought about his breeding value -- or any other sentimental reason not to use him as labor -- or as food. So yes, one of the world's best trotters of the 20th century shared the fate of millions of people -- he became a civilian casualty of war.

Two months later, Cane would sell Walter Dear to Charlie Mills for $25,000 dollars, a slightly eccentric yet highly esteemed trainer and driver who lived in a castle in Germany. As Germany escaped from the misery of the Great War, Mills was leading a renaissance of the country's racing industries. In the weeks prior to his purchase of Walter Dear, Mills had bought several other horses for top dollar, but none quite so expensive or as highly regarded as the Hambletonian winner. It was the largest purchase price ever by a European trainer for an American bred horse up to that time. The story made newspapers from coast to coast.

Mills, an Irishman who had traveled the continent and was one of Europe's most successful trainers and riders, had a passion for life and art. In Walter Dear, he saw a horse who could still trot his way to victory and eventually help sire future generations for his stables. Even across the Atlantic, Walter Dear continued his torrid pace in Europe, becoming one of the continent's top horses. In 1934, he captured the Prix D'Amerique, perhaps the most prestigious harness race in the world. All told, Walter Dear would be considered one of the top horses of his generation and would stand stud in Germany the following years.

It was amidst that backdrop that Walter Dear's whereabouts and legacy become clouded. Mills was considered one of the top riders and trainers in Europe and his life in Berlin was filled with comfort and ease. His art collection filled his castle, and he slowly began to build one of the most powerful stables in Europe. In the years leading up to the war, he had 120 horses and continued to ride winners into the victory circle.

As a neutral in Germany he continued his winning ways on the track, even as the war rolled along. Slowly over the course of several years, Mills would slip part of his vast fortune and financial holdings out of Germany. It was part of a plan to establish himself after the war. In his mid-50's when Germany finally capitulated, Mills was wise enough to know that he'd need a nest egg to be able to survive in the days to come.

Days before Hitler committed suicide in April of 1945, thousands of Russian soldiers marched through the acreage which surrounded his castle. An army on the march to Berlin, hell-bent on revenge after years of suffering, the Red Army sacked, pillaged and burned its way through Eastern Germany. Much of Mills' property was taken and all of his horses.

Walter Dear, winner of the 1929 Hambletonian and one of the greatest horses of his generation, disappeared. It may have been the result of a B-52 bomber or a stray artillery shell, but Walter Dear was never seen from again. One popular theory holds that he fell into Russian hands.

Despite being a very mechanized war, the armies of Russia and Germany still relied heavily on horses for transportation. A horse with the strength and power of Walter Dear very easily could be used to pull supplies or cannon. It also wouldn't be a great surprise if the Russians, many of whom grew up on farms, recognized the value of Walter Dear for breeding purposes. A horse with his characteristics could help replenish stables throughout Russia.

"At the end of World War II, a good horse was too valuable to eat, though you never know what hungry soldiers might have done. It's impossible to say where the horse ended up. It could have been seized by Soviet soldiers, grabbed by local peasants for their own use, or killed in the crossfire," said Dr. David Stone, a professor of military history at Kansas State University. "In Eastern Germany during the war, a lot of the agricultural work was done by slave labor imported from Poland. And with the collapse of Germany, many of those Poles grabbed what they could (including livestock), and headed for home. It's just as likely the horse ended up seized by the Soviets."

It wouldn't be out of character for the Red Army to take such a valuable resource. In a time which Stone described as "panic," the Russians took advantage of a nation in disarray.

"Indiscriminate looting was against policy, but enforcement was pretty lax. Joseph Stalin himself said that Red Army soldiers should be entitled to a little fun after all they'd endured. Stalin's ideas of fun, though, were pretty brutal," said Stone. "Five million tons of raw materials and equipment, and that doesn't include the agricultural products, equipment, and livestock. Then after the war, the Soviets removed additional materials -- billions of dollars worth -- from eastern Germany as reparations for war damage. All of this was with the agreement of the Soviets' Western allies."

Yet, when Mills slipped to freedom, he was unable to bring along his treasured Walter Dear. No one knows what happened to the horse. To this day Walter Dear remains the only winner of the Hambletonian whose whereabouts are unknown.

Mills would go on to start another racing career in Paris and would once again emerge as one of the continent's top drivers. He would continue to race and make headlines and would retire as one of the greatest riders of his generation. He never again lived in a castle, instead settling in for a comfortable life in a 28-room country estate. Mills' would go on to establish a legacy after the war, but the status of Walter Dear in those chaotic last days of Nazi Germany remains a clouded affair.

"Everyone loves a mystery and the case of Walter Dear's Disappearance is no exception," said Gail Cunard, Director of the Harness Racing Museum and Society. "Our efforts to discover what happened to him have not been successful nevertheless it's a grand story and one that allows our imaginations to run wild."

Maybe that isn't a bad thing -- perhaps the mystery lets Walter Dear run forever free in our heats and minds.