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Never Go to a Horse Race
The Revolution had dealt horse racing in America a blow, but by 1820 it was again a popular national sport. Money was plentiful and high purses an incentive to breed thoroughbreds and train them for racing. The intersectional contests between North and South aroused such partisan enthusiasm that in spite of the efforts of reform-minded educators even the very young took to betting.
When American Eclipse, owned by New Yorker C. W. Van Ranst, beat every horse in the East, it was hoped that he would prove a national champion by outracing Sir Charles, a great Southern horse. The match was arranged and run on the Washington, D.C., track and Sir Charles was badly outdistanced. Colonel William R. Johnson of Virginia, a top Southern horseman, immediately vowed to find a horse that could show his heels to the Northern nag.- He arranged with Van Ranst for a race between American Eclipse and any Southern equine he would bring to Long Island's Union Course on the last Tuesday in May 1823. Each side put up $10,000 for the winner of two out of three fourmile heats, with a $3000 forfeit if either horse failed to run.
Mr. Van Ranst gave Colonel Johnson until two days before the race to name his horse. At the very last hour, the South chose a first-rater from North Carolina, Sir Henry (known to his admirers as Henry), who, like American Eclipse, was descended from Diomed.
An army of Southern sportsmen came armed with thousands of dollars to bet on Henry. The ferry began running spectators across the East River from Manhattan to Long Island twentyfour hours before the start. Almost sixty-five thousand people massed in the stands and on the lawns and the procession of packed carriages extended miles from the home stretch.
American Eclipse was nine years old and carried 126 pounds; Henry, only three years old, carried 108 pounds. William Crafts was mounted on American Eclipse, John Walden, a Virginia boy, on Henry. As the two horses were led to the starting post, Southerners, almost to a man, stood up waving bank bills and yelling, "Henry to win the first heat!" It was estimated that each faction put up a quarter of a million dollars.
When the starting drum sounded the Southern horse moved into the lead and maintained it through the entire heat. Crafts had Eclipse make one great last try to overtake, but the attempt faded and Henry won by a length. His time for the four miles was 7:371/2, a record not broken for many years.
A slightly stooped, little gray-haired man fought his way through the crowds on the lawn into the worried group of men around Eclipse and Crafts. When he took off his topcoat and stood revealed in a jockey suit, old horse fans recognized him as the foremost jockey of some years back and began chanting: "We want Sam Purdy!"
Purdy was boosted onto Eclipse's back and every bit of loose Northern money was flaunted in the faces of Henry's supporters. The men of the South looked blank and refused to bet on the second heat. Purdy was old but Purdy was still Purdy.
It is American racing history how Purdy beat the young Southern rider. On the floor of Congress soon afterward the flowery John Randolph of Roanoke orated: "The renown of the performance of that day will go down with the history of civilized society, and transmit the name of Samuel Purdy as the most skillful of jockeys to the latest posterity."
Many North-South races were held henceforth to determine the turf supremacy of the nation, and of the twenty-nine North-South racing clashes during the eleven years after American Eclipse beat Henry the South won seventeen.
In 1834 a dark chestnut three-year-old, Post Boy, belonging to a New Yorker, began beating every other horse in sight. Post Boy was the greatest horse to appear since American Eclipse, and a race was arranged for May 31, 1836, with Post Boy the obvious choice of the Northerners. Where would Colonel Johnson and the rest of the South find a horse to equal his speed and stamina? For six months the Colonel combed the South. On April 12 John Bascombe, a light chestnut colt with a royal family tree, trained by a former handler of Andrew Jackson's horses, electrified the South by winning a $17,000 four-mile, four-heat race in Augusta, Georgia, with one heat clocked at 7:44. This was faster than any heat timed on Post Boy.
John Bascombe was walked all the way from Augusta to New York while curious crowds waited for hours to see him pass. The way to the track on the day of the race was a crush of North and South sympathizers, confusion, dust, noise, soused drivers, overturned carriages, oaths, and quarrels. Professional gamblers added a side show that became a feature of the North-South races ". . . booths for faro, roulette and other games were erected and a few miserable scoundrels went about with pea and thimble," an Englishman reported.
Gilbert W. Patrick, best-known jockey in the North, rode Post Boy, while Colonel Johnson chose a comparative unknown, one Willis from his own farm, for John Bascombe. The Southern colt, a natural running horse, won the first two heats to take the match from Post Boy.
The succeeding years brought even greater horses, larger crowds, higher bets. When Fashion beat Boston in 1842, their respective owners each had $50,000 side bets on their horses and the world turned out to the Union Course, with people who could not otherwise get in beating aside the police guard, tearing down the picket fence, and swarming onto the grounds. It took a band of stalwarts headed by famous pugilists, Yankee Sullivan, Rynas, and six-foot-four Jim Jeroloman (who wore gold earrings), to clear the track. Fashion ran the first heat in 7:32, the second in 7:45, and horse lovers, Northern and Southern, cheered.
Fashion went on to win twenty-three races out of twenty-four and, in 1845, to face a strong contender, Peytona, in what turned out to be the last of these matches. Currier & Ives made a colored lithograph of the scene. Attendance surpassed all other NorthSouth races, and people came from abroad especially for that May 12.
Before a deliriously excited, jam-packed crowd Peytona took the first race by a half length, though the horses had run neck and neck almost all the way. Her time was 7:39%. "A great number of carrier pigeons," said a sporting paper, "were sent up within a minute of the close of the lst heat, and the result was known in town in ten more!"
The second heat was even closer. The crowd went wild as the horses came past the last quarter post neck and neck. Peytona, with a desperate effort, managed to get a nose ahead to win the the race. The thrill was unequaled, although other tensions between the North and South were building up to the Civil War.
Politics and animosity were forgotten again on April 2, 1855, as Americans turned eyes and ears toward the Metairie Course at New Orleans and the most singular horse race in American turf annals. Lexington, a thoroughbred bay with white legs and a streak of white down the center of his face, was the sole entry against the record time for a four-mile run. The record, 7:26, had been set by Lecompte, and both horses had been foaled from different mares but sired by Boston.
All over America professional sports and men who had never risked a penny on a horse before plunged heavily on the bay to win or lose. Millions were wagered. The day before the race word leaked out that the jockey, Patrick, was overweight. He went to bed that night swathed in heavy clothing and buried from the neck down under layers of blankets. It was only partially successful: Patrick weighed in before the race at 103, three pounds over.
Those three pounds loomed like three thousand to people with money on Lexington. Fainthearted, they created a flurry of betting by putting up money that Lecompte would not be beaten.
Horse enthusiasts who made the journey to New Orleans were well rewarded for their pains. Horse and rider were like a centaur, harmoniously unified as they streaked down the course, a fleeting vision of brown and white. Lexington crossed the finish line and won immortality by being a six seconds' victor. He ran the four miles in 7:1934, a record that stood for nineteen years until his grandson, Fellowcraft, clipped it by one fourth of a second.
Lexington began going blind within the year and was retired to stud. He sired about 650 thoroughbreds, almost half of them winners in one or more starts.
As racing went on in the North, it began to attract a new element, professional gamblers who cared more for money than for horseflesh. In 1856, probably for the first time in America, a newspaper, according to The Annals of American Sport, admitted that to the opening of the Long Island racing season ". . . had come out in its strength, this racing world-this huge agglomeration of gambling and fraud, of weakness and wickedness ... men whose interest in [sporting events] is the interest of `sharps' and `gamblers.' "
The sharps and the gamblers did racing no good. People began to doubt the honesty of the races and attendance at the tracks declined.
At its outbreak the Civil War disrupted the sport entirely, but after a year the North felt more secure. It appeared that the fighting would be largely on Southern soil. Wages and war profits were high, and people, looking for an outlet for their money, wanted to narcotize themselves against lengthening casualty lists, so horse racing became popular again above the Mason-Dixon line.
Except in Kentucky (which never seceded from the Union and where the only suspension of racing occurred in the fall of 1862, when Kirby Smith's army camped on the Lexington track) there was virtually no racing in the South. A few Southerners who owned fine horses took them north to race and to win big purses, but most Southern thoroughbreds carried their masters into action in the famous cavalry troops under Forrest, Mosby, Morgan, Stuart, and Wheeler.
Racing started up again in New Orleans only after the Union forces captured the city and General Ben Butler was made military governor. Southern sharps, their eyes gleaming over Union hard money, then ran fixed races and reaped a rich harvest from Northern soldiers who bet blind and heavy on the ponies.
One gambler left town rather than pay the tribute demanded of all gamblers by General Butler's brother. When the general went on to another command, Henry P. McGrath drifted back to New Orleans and made an effort to resume his position as a man whose gambling activities had led to wealth and from wealth to respectability when he bought and raced a stable of horses.
McGrath had grown up poor in Versailles, Kentucky, where he had a little schooling and was trained to the trade of tailoring. Until he was twenty-one Henry was a pious boy whose greatest pleasure was in singing hymns. When this plaster saint kicked over the traces, gave up church going and work and took to drinking and gambling, his family and friends were relieved to have him leave Versailles for Lexington.
His professional career began as a capper for thimbleriggers and crooked dice artists who flourished during the Lexington racing season. He soon graduated to swindling at short-card games and in time broadened his range by learning to deal faro with a master hand. A hearty eater, he could hold his liquor, sing the gay and ribald tavern songs of the day, bend the boys back with laughter over a dirty joke, and also speak with authority on horses. Bigtime professional gamblers in town for the races soon gave him the final stamp of approval when they hired him to rope in suckers.
With the soul of a racketeer, and the aid of other hard sporting characters, McGrath succeeded in frightening pusilanimous visiting gamblers who set up faro banks in Lexington, Frankfort, Paris, and other nearby resorts. He chiseled an interest out of them, at no cost to himself, by strong-arm methods. Those he could not persuade he publicly accused of cheating, and the naive faro players believed their popular friend and allowed themselves to be steered to the gamblers who supported McGrath.
As soon as he could afford to deal his own faro games he did so, first in the Lexington area and then on Ohio and Mississippi steamboats until he joined up with Sherwood and Perritt in New Orleans in 1855.
His two estimable partners took an ardent interest in the Civil War, recruiting and equipping one of the first Confederate companies raised in the South and contributing generously to the support of mothers, wives, and children of the soldiers. McGrath seems to have been considerably less public-spirited. He turned his immense profits into the racing stable on which he bet heavily. He seldom won.
His efforts to reopen his well-known gambling joint at No. 4 Carondelet after Butler left New Orleans only landed him in a federal military prison for a year. With hardly a dollar to his name he headed for St. Louis after he was freed.
In St. Louis he met John Chamberlain, a second-rate cardsharp with a bad reputation even among gamblers. Chamberlain dreamed of opening a fashionable gambling house in New York, and McGrath looked to him like a man whose good connections and influence would give the project the veneer of respectability it needed. St. Louis was out for Chamberlain. He was too well known in town, and nobody but a complete stranger would take a fling at his tables any more. He propositioned McGrath, who agreed to go to New York with him if Chamberlain covered all initial expenses.
The partners arrived in New York City in the winter of 1864 with more than $50,000 from the sale of Chamberlain's St. Louis dive and the profits he had managed to hoard. They discovered to their dismay that the nest egg was too small to equip and furnish a house in the style that would enable them to compete with kingpin gamblers. But McGrath, predestined to good fortune, saved the day. Several topflight gamblers and John Morrissey, former bare-knuckle pugilist, Tammany boss, and gambler, gave them a chance to become part of a syndicate opening a resort in Manhattan at 5 West Twenty-fourth Street.
No. 5 was a gambling house in the grand manner, with decorations and furnishings alone said to have cost $60,000, small change compared to the millions of dollars reputed to have been taken in during its first four months. Rich Westerners who had come to New York to speculate in gold and stocks, war profiteers and wealthy New York capitalists, and market plungers of that hectic period dropped as much as $50,000 in a single night's tussle with the faro tables. "Faro houses in New York," wrote John Quinn, "have rarely exceeded one hundred in number except during the latter part of the Civil War.... In those feverish times faro playing increased with stock gambling, and the faro houses multiplied until they fluctuated between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and thirty in number." McGrath's greatest contribution to the house was roping in wealthy out-of-towners.
When McGrath pulled out in 1867, he took between $200,000 and $1,000,000 as his share in the syndicate. This, plus the profits he had saved during two years in New York, made it possible to buy a lordly estate near Lexington where he lived like a country squire and indulged his passion for horses by breeding a stable of thoroughbred racers, among them Tom Bowling and Chesapeake. In 1875 his Aristides beat out thirteen of the best horses in the United States and carried McGrath's colors to victory in the first Kentucky Derby.
McGrath was now a swell, hobnobbing with public officials, statesmen, military brass, and rich sportsmen, but he did not forget his old partner, Johnny Chamberlain, and helped him open his own gambling house. This was near the old syndicate's, at 8 West Twenty-fifth Street, and even more splendid. Furthermore, all the games were on the square except faro, where Chamberlain made the immense profits that enabled him to maintain the most luxurious house in town.
In 1869 Johnny Chamberlain persuaded his distinguished and just plain rich customers to invest large sums in a twin venture, the Monmouth Park Club House and race course, at Long Branch, New Jersey. Henry McGrath, who had speeded Chamberlain to his rocket-like success, was happy to be an original subscriber.
It was a smart move. Long Branch, known as the summer capital of the United States since President Grant vacationed there, was becoming popular with society and sportsmen. The former partners were cloaked in the respectability that came with owning race horses or an interest in a track and mingled with the best of them. WcGrath came up from Kentucky annually to race his horses and, as in the past, rope in rich suckers to the gaming tables, to the day of his death, July 5, 1881.
At the turn of the century anywhere up to forty thousand spectators would turn out for almost any horse race, and the bookmakers, catering to everybody from two-dollar bettors on up, were celebrated men. They were no common gamblers-in a sense bigger gamblers than the sports whose bets they accepted-and they considered themselves on the same professional level as stockmarket operators. Under the heading "Turf Exchanges" their ads appeared in the daily press alongside advertisements of leading banking and investment houses, often on the front page.
There were plenty of people who were charmed by the gilt-edge "sure things" they could bet on, like the "friendly tips" touts offered on the races. That they came from men usually in the employ of bookmakers the suckers seldom realized. An ex-gambler described the tout of his day as "a liar by instinct, by choice and by occupation, and no matter how engaging his manners, or however plausible his representations, you may safely set him down as a thief, and deal with him accordingly."
Bookmakers were particularly active in New York State after the pari-mutuel system was barred in 1888, thanks to Tammany boss Richard Croker, himself an avid horse player, and bookmaking politicians. The bookmakers with closest political connections and strongest financial support formed the Metropolitan Turf Association and ensconced themselves in the best positions in the betting rings of well-attended tracks.
The betting ring, generally beside the grandstand near the finish line, was a large circle of raised stalls in each of which bookmakers, their sheet writers, and pay-off men accepted bets and paid off winners. The ring was usually roofed, with the sides open. A big blackboard hung above each stall with the horses' names posted on top. The odds changed according to the individual bookie's mathematical calculations and the general trend of the betting. The bookmaker stood on a platform where he could see the blackboards of his rivals and compare his odds with theirs.
It cost money to belong to the "Mets." Caesar Young, the bookie who couldn't keep away from the ladies and was shot to death in a hansom cab while he was out driving with Nan Patterson of the Floradora Sextette, paid $7000 to become a member of the association-the price of a seat on the stock exchange at the time.
The big bookmakers of the Met were a strikingly colorful company. There was Barney Schreiber, from Kansas City, a devout man who named the horses in his stable after priests and discharged a well-meaning employee who invited him to a meat dinner on a Friday. There was Joe Yeager, "the boy plunger," who could not resist risking thousands of his own money on horses he believed could not lose. There was Fred Burton, a man of wit, best known for a pithy phrase accepted by wise turf bettors everywhere: "All horse players who play stable information must go broke." Fred was a picturesque bird who punished himself when he gave too liberal odds on winning horses. After such an occasion at Saratoga he took himself to Canfield's Club House and ordered the most expensive meal procurable, complete with wine and cigars. The food, the wine, the cigars were brought, but Burton did not touch a thing. He just sat in his chair looking at the table and said bitterly, over and over again, "Starve, you sucker! Starve!"
Virginia Carroll, a redheaded Western bookmaker, might have been the most successful of them all but for his quick temper. He had no patience with pikers and would pop like a safety valve when they gave him quarters or half dollars as part of their wagers, and threw the coins back in their faces. On a day when Carroll was losing heavily and was in a black mood a farmer studied the odds posted on his slate at length, then pointed his umbrella up and said to Carroll: "Give me one dollar on April Shower."
Raging, Carroll grabbed the umbrella, sent it flying into the stands, and shouted to his clerk, "Five umbrellas to one umbrella against April Shower! Give the hoosier a ticket for it."
Sol Lichtenstein was called "King of the Ring" because he usually proclaimed the odds before each race. Eole Pearsall divided his time between bookmaking and his own swell gambling house in New York City. Kentucky's Riley Grannon was a betting bookie who wagered fantastic sums at the track.
The fortunes of these turfmen seesawed up and down. Billy Cowan lost $250,000 during the pre-summer season in New York City and made $150,000 at Saratoga, only to lose it at Belmont. One year he had a winning streak that endured for sixteen days. On the seventeenth a friend greeted him in the lobby of the Grand Union with, "Hello, Billy. What's new?"
"Nothing new," Cowan answered. "Only I lost today."
Izzy (L) Ham carried on a long and bitter hostility against Co`van and operated a book nearly as big as his rival's. So did Joe Ullman, whose gambling career included being proprietor of gambling houses in Long Branch, Minneapolis, Chicago, Saratoga, and New York. For several years, in partnership with Kid Weller, he ran a highly successful book that refused no bet, large or small.
Life could be explosive. The Bridge Whist Club on Saratoga's Philadelphia Street was established in 1905 by Ullman, bookmaker Maxie Blumenthal, and gambler Bill Mackin. One night in August homemade bombs exploded near the United States Club and Canfield's Club during an anti-gambling raid. The police found a note that read: "Twenty pounds of dynamite found at Canfield's ready to go off. Canfield and Ullman to be dynamited, beware! Canfield says gas, I say dynamite." Several days later a parcel arrived in the Saratoga Springs post office for Joe Ullman. Remembering what had happened, he immersed it in water, then unwrapped it with great caution. The contents were several sticks of dynamite, fixed to go off when the package was opened. Defective caps had prevented them from sending him to kingdom come.
Rich plungers risked thousands to break the big bookmakers' bank balances, and the bookies met the bettors more than halfway. Marcus Daly, the Copper King, became Marc the Bookmaker Killer, the day in 1896 when his wonder horse, Ogden, won the Futurity at Sheepshead Bay. Daly had had the horse trained in secrecy at Saratoga, and when he ran ahead of the field he won Daly a million dollars from the New York bookies. He would have taken five million if his betting commissioners hadn't tipped his hand by falling over themselves to bet on the horse. The bookies turned cagey. The big bettors were the rich men of the day like Jesse Lewisohn and Richard Croker, William C. Whitney and Harry Payne Whitney, Pittsburgh Phil, Bet-A-Million Gates and his pal John Drake. Once Gates and Drake won so much they hired a huge Negro to follow them around the betting ring with a market basket into which the bookmakers dropped the cash that was owed them.
The bookmakers often pooled resources to take on Bet-A-MiIlion's wagers. One day at Sheepshead, with a hot tip on a horse named Von Tromp, Gates had his commissioner go into action for him. The opening odds were seven to five, but Joey Ullman, Kid Weller, Maxie Blumenthal, and other big bookies cut them to six to five, then to even money as Gate's agents succeeded in placing $135,000 for him. The spectators, sensing a good thing, began to swing their bets to Von Tromp and Gates kept his commissioners going back to the ring till odds were at three to five. Gates put up $65,000 more before the odds stood at two to five and the bookies were badly scared as the race started. Von Tromp was still running when the first horse breezed past the winning post and Gates and thousands of spectators who had followed him were sad men. They were startled when the bookmakers jumped down from their stalls and broke into a wild and boisterous dance. Any day they beat Bet-A-Million was a time for joy.
Chicago, always a lead city in organizing lawlessness and crime, had a bookmaking syndicate as early as 1885 under the control of politician Michael Cassius McDonald. Rival syndicates developed in Chicago's South Side, where Aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and John J. "Bathhouse John" Coughlin held sway, and on the North Side, where Mont Tennes was number one chief of his gambling domain. Mont Tennes was an ambitious character and soon extended his influence. In 1907, for approximately $100,000 a year, Tennes acquired, from the Payne Telegraph Service of Cincinnati, domination of the Chicago wire service for daily returns from race tracks throughout the country. Within two years any gambling house in Chicago that wanted immediate race results by telephone or telegraph had to pay Tennes, and every handbook operator had to turn over one half of his daily profits to Tennes's General News Bureau or go out of business.
Four years later Payne Telegraph was struggling with Tennes's News Bureau for national control of all racing news service. Tennes won and became king of bookmaking in the U. S. and Canada.
Before World War I, Tennes's dictatorship over gambling in the Chicago area was challenged by South Side gambler Big Jim O'Leary and by other easy-money gentry of Chicago's flourishing netherworld. A pattern of violence was established (to reach its climax during prohibition, when even bookmaking became small potatoes beside the illegal sale of liquor). In this early war among gang gamblers no machine guns came into play, but bombs were tossed with considerable indiscrimination, and at least thirty-four Chicago gambling setups were vigorously demolished. Hinky Dink Kenna interceded as peacemaker and for a fee quoted as $40,000 succeeded in achieving a truce.
The Tennes concept of snaring the rest of the country into his bookmaking web with Chicago as the hub would serve his spiritual descendants well. Many years later a congressional committee was to find that horse-betting wire services linked towns like New Orleans and Miami to octopus underworld organizations like A1 Capone's and the Mafia.