In 1834, at the age of 6, Elias Jackson Baldwin and his mother, father and three siblings moved from Hamilton, Ohio, to an 80-acre farm in Terre Coupee Town, Indiana. His father, William Baldwin, had previously served as a community preacher. Now he was going to operate the new farm and tend to its horses. Elias liked helping out, especially with the animals, and as the years went by he developed a special mind for buying and trading horses. By the time he was 19, his capital was already several thousand dollars.
With this money, Elias decided to take his skills and knowledge to a new level. He opened a grocery store and a saloon. By this time, he had also become a father, after having eloped with Sarah Ann Unruh one year earlier. They were married without their parents’ consent.
Elias then opened a hotel and a general store in New Buffalo, Indiana, and although business was good, it was also boring. So, he decided to try his luck in Wisconsin with yet another grocery store and a hotel, but after a while he found himself without a challenge yet again.
Elias then opened a hotel and a general store in New Buffalo, Indiana, and although business was good, it was also boring.
However, news had travelled about gold from California. Like many other men who sought their fortune in digging, this was something for Elias. He did not want to find the gold, but rather, the businessman that he was, he saw an opportunity to provide food and supplies for the diggers who did.
And so, Elias decided to sell out in Wisconsin and head for the west coast with four wagons, which carried only his family, their belongings and brandy, tobacco and tea.
The trip out west was quite an undertaking in those days. The Baldwin family joined a wagon train, and it suffered several misfortunes on the way. After a month on the road, Elias went out scouting by himself and got lost for days.
He was lucky enough to be saved by friendly Native Americans who helped him back to his party. That luck would change by the time they reached Salt Lake City. The wagon train was attacked by the Ute tribe and had to flee for dear life. They were ambushed another two times before they completed the 2,000 mile trail and reached California.
In 1853, they settled in San Francisco, and once there, Elias finally got down to business. With the cash he brought with him from Wisconsin, he bought and improved the Temperance Hotel. Only 30 days later, he sold it for a $5,000 profit. Later he built another luxury hotel, The Baldwin Hotel and Theatre, and started making big money.
In 1867, his luck took a little turn when he became a divorced man after his wife left him for being absent at home. Elias decided it was time for a change of scenery and took off on a grand tour across the Pacific. He went elephant hunting in India and partying in Japan. When he came back to New York, he brought with him a whole group of Japanese acrobats and became a vaudeville producer.
Meanwhile, back home in San Francisco, he had left his broker with orders to sell off his shares of the Hale & Norcross Mine if their prices fell to $800 a foot. Unfortunately, or fortunately as it would turn out, Elias had forgotten to leave the key to the safe where the stocks were kept. His broker couldn’t sell. Just in time for his return, the value of the mine had climbed to $12,000 a foot. He had now earned himself the nickname “Lucky” as he was not only rich, but very rich. In fact, he was a multimillionaire.
Lucky was now ready for more new adventures. He went south in 1875 and started looking for a place where he could fulfill his dream—being a great farmer. The Rancho Santa Anita caught his interest, and he approached owner Harris Newmark with an offer that wasn’t accepted. He was willing to give $150,000, but Newmark wanted $200,000. Lucky wanted that piece of land bad—as anyone who has been to Santa Anita can easily understand. So, he packed a tin box full of cash—several million dollars—and went back to Newmark and offered him $12,500 in cash as a down payment.
Furthermore, Lucky’s luck continued—a bank he had lent money, with land as securities, collapsed and left him with even more property. He was now one of the biggest, if not the biggest, landowner in the San Gabriel Valley.
Lucky’s racing stables became among the finest in the country, and he loved horses almost as much as he loved women. He was married three more
times and had a string of affairs.
He even was sued for broken wedding promises four separate times. During one court trial, the sister of a woman he had gotten pregnant took a shot at him, grazing his skull. But he, lucky as always, came out of the incident more or less unscarred.
But forget the women—it’s horseflesh we’re interested in. In those days there were several tracks in California, but they were mostly at fairs and kind of raggedy. The big races were back east, and the big race for 3-year-olds was the American Derby at Washington Park in Chicago. Lucky won it four times in nine years, garnering national attention for California race horses.
His first victory came with Volante in 1885, then Silver Cloud the following year, Emperor of Norfolk in 1888, and finally with Rey el Santa Anita in 1894. In doing so, Rey el Santa Anita defeated the previously unbeaten Domino, which was an accomplishment that turned out to be worth nothing in the breeding shed.
Rey el Santa Anita, one of Lucky’s homebreds, was something else on the track—placing in 62 of his 69 starts. He traveled around the east coast and won big races in Chicago, St. Louis and New York but was no success at stud. There, Domino beat him soundly. Domino, who died after his first season at stud, only sired 19 horses but eight of them were stakes winners, and he’s still found in the pedigree of some of today’s runners, often through Seattle Slew.
Meanwhile, Emperor of Norfolk was considered by many as the best California-bred runner ever until Swaps came along 67 years later. Not to mention, Emperor of Norfolk has made a major impact on today’s Thoroughbred through his son Americus, who was sent to England after a successful career in the U.S. The great flying filly Mumtaz Mahal traces back to Emperor of Norfolk through Americus, and she herself can be found in Northern Dancer’s pedigree.
But not many of Emperor of Norfolk’s descendants can match his race record. He made 18 starts as a 2-year-old and won three races in Chicago in eight days, then won two more in four days at Jerome Park in New York.
As a 3-year-old, Emperor of Norfolk won eight in a row for a total of nine wins from 11 starts. He was some horse, as shipping around the country in those days was not the air-conditioned luxury that today’s horses enjoy.
As the years went by, Lucky’s luxurious way of living meant his funds began to dwindle. He even had to sell the old star Volante for a mere $425 to settle a feed bill. Lucky was never one to worry too much, though. One of his favorite sayings is said to have been: “By Gad, I’m not licked yet!”
In 1900 at the tender age of 72, off he went to Alaska where he teamed up with another western legend, Wyatt Earp. It didn’t quite work out as planned—Wyatt didn’t want to sell the piece of land in Nome that Lucky wanted, so he went back to California empty-handed.
Even though he didn’t amass a new fortune during Alaska’s gold rush, Lucky’s farming skills did pay his bills and then some. It also appears he settled down a little in his old age, keeping expenses for patrimony suits down.
In 1907, Lucky was finally able to fulfill his dream of opening his own first-class racetrack, the finest in the western United States.
The first incarnation of Santa Anita racetrack had its grand opening on December 7, 1907, and ran a 108-day winter meet. Opening day featured a full card, including the Pomona Handicap, and by all historical accounts met with great success.
The place was Lucky’s. He built it up beautifully with a racing stable staffed by a variety of Mexicans, Chinese, and formers slaves. The racetrack had a place for everybody.
In sadly odd timing for Lucky, Emperor of Norfolk died in his stall several days later at the age of 22. His death warranted a story in The San Francisco Call, which reported: “Emperor of Norfolk, winner of the American Derby and one of the greatest race horses and sires in the history of the American Turf, died of old age this morning at Lucky Baldwin’s Santa Anita ranch. The closing hours of the famous stallion’s life presented a unique spectacle. When word was sent out that the Emperor was dying, racing men who are at Santa Anita track gathered in numbers at the Baldwin stable, and the grand old horse passed away like a king surrounded by his court.”
Lucky himself was also not long for this world. He died in March 1909 at the age of 81 as the result of pneumonia and was buried next to his first wife, Sarah, in San Francisco. Just one month later, on April 17, 1909, Santa Anita held its final race. It was a time of turmoil, as lawmakers fought over whether horse race wagering was legal or not, and without its leader, the racetrack fell victim.
Eventually, the lawmakers sorted themselves out, and Santa Anita Park as we know it now opened on Christmas Day, 1934. It quickly became one of the most respected racetracks in the world and remains so to this day.
But that is another story. For Lucky, his life had ended with what it had