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William Gaines ‘Billy’ Christmas, colorful fixture in Maryland thoroughbred racing, dies

William Gaines “Billy” Christmas was a past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
William Gaines “Billy” Christmas was a past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. (Handout / HANDOUT)

William Gaines “Billy” Christmas, who was recalled as a colorful member of the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry, died Sunday of old-age complications at his Idle Miss Farm in Monkton. He was several days short of his 96th birthday.

“Billy was one of the last of the great characters of the horse breeding industry in Maryland,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland Million. “He loved the politics behind the scenes of racing and he personally had a colorful history.

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“He came from an important family — the Christmas family has a deep legacy in racing and breeding, and yet I could never get him to sit down for a formal interview for an article. He would just tell great stories.”

Christmas was active in Maryland thoroughbred racing from 1947 until his death. He had his last winner in 2019.
Christmas was active in Maryland thoroughbred racing from 1947 until his death. He had his last winner in 2019. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Southern Maryland, he was the son of Benjamin Franklin Christmas, a well-known Maryland horse breeder, and his wife, Margaret Kershaw, a homemaker.

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He attended St. Joseph School in Washington and served in the Army during World War II.

“He was on a troop transport on the way to the Pacific when the military got a report the Panama Canal was going to be attacked. My father spent the rest of the war guarding the canal,” said his son Dr. James T. “JT” Christmas.

Mr. Christmas left military service as a supply sergeant.

After the war, he worked briefly at the Bethlehem Steel Co. and soon joined his father, uncles and aunts in Southern Maryland.

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He began training thoroughbred horses and saddled his first winner at the old Marlboro Race Course in Prince George’s County. He was active in Maryland thoroughbred racing from 1947 until his death. He had his last winner in 2019.

A Sun story reported that he had his first winner, Rex Romanus, at the old Bowie Race Course on March 31, 1949. A $2 wager paid $12.40.

He soon moved to Monkton and built a farm on property adjacent to his father’s Idle Miss Farm, a celebrated 140-acre horse breeding operation in in northern Baltimore County.

He met his future wife, Louise White as they were galloping horses at Pimlico Race Course. They married in 1953 and she assumed the duties of farm manager.

“My father bred and sold hundreds of mares, and he took great personal pride in how rarely his horses were injured. He also never lost a mare in foaling,” Dr. Christmas said.

In 1954, the couple’s first son, William G. “Chris” Christmas Jr., was born on Christmas Day at Union Memorial Hospital.

“Mr. Christmas, a horse trainer who lives on Paper Mill Road in Monkton, was surprised by the event, as were the nurses, for William’s arrival had been predicted for a later date,” The Sun reported.

Mr. Christmas was a past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

In 1978, he and his wife established Maryland Sales Agency, a Monkton thoroughbred auction company, which they operated until the business closed in 1989.

Mr. Christmas was also a former part-owner of the Delaware Park racetrack.

J. William “Bill” Boniface, of Bonita Farm in Darlington, said: “He was a dear friend and a horseman’s horseman. He was politically conscious and devoted a lot of time calling on legislators at the General Assembly.

“He helped win important legislation for the Maryland thoroughbred industry, including the Horsemen’s Fund. Billy was also a real rooter for the underdog.”

Mr. Christmas trained Terrible Tiger, owned by his wife, Louise, who won national prominence with a couple of important stakes victories in 1969.

Newspaper storied recounted how history was made aboard Terrible Tiger when he was ridden in 1971 at Marlboro by Kathryn “Kathy” Kusner.

The Sun reported that Ms. Kusner, an Olympic medalist in show jumping, applied to the Maryland Racing Commission for a jockey license in 1967, but was turned down because she was a woman. She successfully took her case to court and in 1968 became the first licensed female jockey in the United States, and in 1971 the first woman to compete in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

William Gaines “Billy” Christmas and his wife, Louise W. Christmas, who were married in 1953.
William Gaines “Billy” Christmas and his wife, Louise W. Christmas, who were married in 1953.

“Billy let Kathy ride Terrible Tiger,” said J.B. Secor, a neighbor and friend. “He was a good-hearted soul who helped so many people. He and his wife, Louise, were outstanding individuals.”

To celebrate Terrible Tiger’s success, the Christmases’ home soon became decorated with toy tigers.

Services are private. A public memorial service is being planned.

A memorial fund has been created in his name at the Maryland Horse Foundation.

Survivors include his three sons, R. Whitney Christmas of Monkton, Dr. James T. “JT” Christmas of Richmond, Virginia, and B. Frank “Biff” Christmas II of Palm Desert, California; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A son, William G. Christmas Jr., died in 1980. His wife of nearly 56 years died in 2019.

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