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The Twentieth Century comes down the Track
IN the first decade of the twentieth century there were three ways that Americans bet a half-billion dollars annually on horse races. The most privileged (six million) people went to the tracks. The least privileged resorted to handbooks. In between stood the poolroom. Poolroom was a misnomer. Its chief furnishings were a blackboard, telephone, telegraph, and ticker tape, folding chairs, slips of paper, and the day's issue of the Chicago Racing Form or the New York Telegraph. Few of its customers played pool.
An information bureau sent the names of horses scratched and where the odds stood over the wires a half hour before each race. The patrons bet accordingly, in person or via phone or runners. Ten to fifteen minutes before starting time the bureau submitted a final summary of the odds as the betting at the track had affected them, and a second wave of betting went on till an employee called "post" and "time."
The official report of the race was read out in staccato snatches as the ticker transmitted it. Winners were announced, bets paid off, and betting began at once on the next race, with clients given a half hour to get their money down. Odds, though the bettors seldom realized it, were rigged in favor of the poolroom operator. For a fee, race-track correspondents cut them by as much as half so that if the price were six to one at the track it might be three to one at the poolroom. Ex-gambler Harry Brolaski testified before a senate judiciary subcommittee that they were "from 25 to 150 per cent against the player in every race."
One swindle was watertight. If bettors were backing a favorite heavily, the poolroom operator could keep on accepting bets long after he learned that the horse had lost, and give out the bad news in his own good time.
With eight thousand races each year as lure, poolroom business was immensely profitable despite the high cost of protection. "I had a place," one New York owner told a magazine writer, "on Third Avenue, near Thirty-seventh Street. It was about a fifthrate room. My rent was one hundred, and I gave about twelve hundred dollars each month to square the game with the police and certain anti-vice societies. Then there was my help, my telegraph, and my telephone bills. After all were paid, I had for the season of seven months over $54,000."
The handbook operators made less but their expenses were practically nil. The place of business was generally a neighborhood cigar store or saloon, rent free and tolerated as a side show to attract extra customers. Bets might be pitifully small, as low as five cents, but at this rate the handbookie needed no more than fifty cents capital. If the customers hit him hard with bets he could take off for parts unknown.
Many a man, woman and child who backed horses with money never saw a race track, that mile-long elongated circular course originally designed as a testing ground for horses. By the twentieth century it had become a merry-go-round gambling trap.
Life at a race track habitually started around four-thirty in the morning. Foremen, stable hands, and exercise boys turned out then to feed, walk, warm up, and gallop their charges. The trainers and owners went to the secretary's office - usually under the betting shed-at 10 A.M. to enter their horses in races they thought they had the best chance of winning on the following day. The entry clerk, at the sight of a bribe, was not above giving tips as to where the competition was least formidable.
After registration, lists of horses and riders were sent to the printer, and early in the afternoon private touts, bookmakers, and track correspondents set the wires humming with these facts, probable odds for tomorrow and scratches for today. Owners, trainers, and stable hands wired tips to bookmakers.
Before the news went out, bookies and their confidential agents were capable of arranging to have the races fixed. The actual dirty work, one gambler confided, was done in the home stretch. "A strong but secret pull on the bridle to the right or left, a sway of the body, a trick of the whip or spur, and the favorite and the near favorite are out of the running, and the horse that has been fixed is declared the winner by a nose, a throatlatch or a neck."
Not all bookmakers were dishonest, any more than all gamblers were. However, the absence of strict control, the fat killings to be made, and the ease of cheating conspired to make dishonesty remarkably appealing. Pierre V. Lorillard (who bought some of the six thousand acres of Tuxedo Park and won the rest from his relatives by keen poker playing) had no reason to feel sour about racing. He owned Iroquois, the only American thoroughbred who ever won the English Derby. Yet when he quit racing he announced, "I am very much opposed to bookmakers, because they rob the public and they rob owners of horses. There is no fairness in their dealings. All bookmaking is against the horses. A bookmaker, of course, could not live unless he bet against the horses and in the course of plying his trade he steals stable secrets and buys up jockeys and trainers. The bookmaking system is, therefore, demoralizing to jockeys and trainers, and hurtful to everything and everybody connected with racing. The bookmakers are, with few exceptions, rascals who would be fit subjects for prison. when their profitable trade of robbing the public on the race course is at an end. We have outlived the necessity for these fellows."
There was no honor among thieves and, though the bookmaker never lost money to the tyro turf fans, he might to fellow bookies who double-crossed him or to owners and their demoralized jockeys, who fixed races to the bookie's disadvantage. The most common sharp practices were:
1. To feed a horse just before a race since, "filled up," he could not do his best. 2. Steal a favorite from his stable before midnight and give him a five or six-mile workout on a macadamized road. "Night riding" or sitting on a horse in his stall all night was a good way to tire a horse out. 3. Give a horse the "wobbles" by putting a heavy shoe on one front and the opposite back hoof and light shoes on the other hoofs to make him run shakily, or drive a nail into a horse's foot, called "shoeing." 4. Send a horse into a race with lead in its shoes 5. Hold a horse back a few seconds at the post. 6. Restrain a horse during a race (called keeping him "under wraps") by the jockey's wrapping the rein around his hands; twice round was called "under double wraps." 7. Crowding, "pocketing," or "locking." To lock a horse, the jockey would ride beside the favorite up to the main stretch, then move as close as possible and lock the leg of the rival jockey with his till two or three other horses had passed. On complaint the jockey guilty of locking was fined twenty-five or fifty dollars and made twenty-five to fifty times that much from the bookmaker for whom he acted. 8. Give "foo-foo" dust, a powdered narcotic, to make a horse sluggish or "needle" him so he "ran hot." A horse used to stimulants was said to "run cold" if he did not get them. 9. Use a saddle with a small battery under the pommel pad that could be made to charge the horse with electricity, rousing him to run his fastest. Less artful than the electric saddle but quite as effective was the practice of "pricking" a horse with a pointed steel burr.
The drive to make gambling on races illegal began in about 1890 and intensified till, by the twentieth century, many states were outlawing it. Bookmakers paid anywhere from $17.50 to $57.50 apiece each racing day to the tracks, so this was an attack on the pockets of track owners. The fees usually totaled as much as the gate receipts.
To preserve a golden source of income, track managers resorted to a subterfuge called "oral betting." Blackboards disappeared from the bookmaker's stall and instead he wrote the odds on a daily program held in his hand. It was no break for the public, which now had twice as much trouble checking and shopping for odds. The bettor came close enough to look over the card, called out, "I have fifty dollars on Fleetwing to win." The bookmaker answered, "Taken" or "You're on," and a clerk recorded the bet. What he was on could easily be a "dead one," a horse the bookie knew was fixed to lose or had no chance to win. Since judges and officials ignored betting, the bettor was on his own.
Legislation against horse-race gambling grew, paradoxically, out of a fight by Illinois track gamblers to prevent a combination of bookmakers the notorious CAT of St. Louis from invading what they considered their domain. In 1900 Louis Cella, Sam Adler, and Cap Tillis, whose initials gave the combine its nickname, established a gambling house, large poolroom, and race track at Madison, Illinois, just over the state line from St. Louis.
This trespass was resented by Charles "Social" Smith, Harry Perry, John Condon, and other Chicago gamblers. Political friends of Condon's went to Springfield and pressured various officials to put Cella-Adler-Tillis out of business in Madison. A writ of injunction was somehow obtained. Cella, Adler, and Tillis, bristling with anger, demanded that the attorney who issued the writ against them issue a similar writ against a track operated by Condon. Condon's connections were good. The demand was denied.
Thirsting for revenge, CAT hired Colonel W. D. Washburn, a Chicago lawyer and member of the governor's staff, to fight the Chicago racing kingpins. Washburn, a man dedicated to reform, cheerfully accepted the assignment and a large fee on the understanding that he be allowed to fight the battle to the finish on his own if need be. He made it clear to his clients that they need pay him no more money unless they wanted to.
From honest judge Holdon, Washburn secured an injunction against John Condon's Harlem Race Track, at the time netting its owner $10,000 a day, and the track was closed. Despite the Illinois officials and politicians who had in the past protected track and gambling interests, able lawyers on the governor's staff, heartened by Washburn's courage, joined his colors. However, Governor Yates ordered them to call off the fight and they obeyed, except for Colonel Washburn, who resigned in order to finish what he had started.
Condon, stalemated, worked out a deal that would allow CAT to operate in Illinois. This did not deter the colonel. CAT and Condon, in unholy alliance, thipped in $100,000 to stop him. They brought $20,000 of this war fund around and told him that he could have it if he quit. The colonel's office was on the tenth floor. It was not inconceivable, said VVashburn, that the next person who tried to bribe him would be thrown out of the window. The emissary left in haste, by the elevator.
CAT had its counterpart wherever racing flourished and was a prototype of the professional gambling clique that stirred up a general outcry against everyone connected with racing. "What chance has the public got against such a combination?" a gambler mourned.
Reform went on the warpath. In March 1903 a bill to allow gambling on race tracks had already passed Pennsylvania's lower house, when the Reverend Wilbur F. Crafts, superintendent of the International Reform Bureau in Washington, threw the weight of his organization against it, won over Philadelphia's influential North American newspaper, and persuaded a top Pennsylvania politician, M.A.J. Cassatt, to reverse his previous support of the measure. Governor S. W. Pennypacker promised to veto the bill if both houses passed it, but the upper house defeated it and it died an ignominious death in committee.
In New York a Captain Norton Goddard went to the Western Union Telegraph Company, posing as a poolroom king. As The Literary Digest put it, the captain "found the company ready to run a wire down the chimney of his house to supply his supposed poolroom with news of the races, and to send an operator who was an expert at jumping out of windows."
The president of Western Union, Robert C. Clowry, defended his company on the grounds that it was obliged to carry all messages (unless they were obscene) but said that he would gladly cut off service to any poolroom if the police informed him of its existence. Police Commissioner McAdoo retorted acidly that Western Union knew more about poolrooms since their operators were in them-than the police did. The treasurer of Western Union was well aware what the services earned for the company.
The press excoriated Western Union for selling racing news to poolrooms, and when pictures of the company directors were published people from all over the country inundated them with fervent protests. There was talk of criminal action for aiding and encouraging a felony, and United States Senator Chauncey M. Depew threatened to resign from the board. George Gould, Morris K. Jessup, and others held an emergency meeting and decided to discontinue information services and special wires to poolrooms, though messages about horse races were still permitted.
Many New York poolrooms were crippled and closed. One big gambler stormed: "We will get the odds and the results some way, don't make any mistake about that. As long as there is racing there will be poolrooms there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with butter." Henry Stedeker, oldest bookmaker in New York said: " the company has sent out racing news in the past and made a great deal of money out of it. Personally I do not belive it would serve any purpose if the company did abandon its racing department for if the rapid distribution of news should be stopped, people would bet just the same, taking ticker or morning newspaper quotations for the settlement of bets.
"I will not say that the directors of the Western Union are not sincere in the cutting off of the New York rooms, but it appears that the company is distributing news to out-of-town rooms just the same. I think that the demand of 50,000 or more people who can not go to the race-tracks, but who still wish to bet, will not be unsupplied so long as the Western Union is a business enterprise."
When the North started its house cleaning, the South stirred uneasily, though it had little comparable untidiness, except in St. Louis and New Orleans. The movement was largely religious, spurred by hallelujah-shouting, hell-fire evangelists whose sermons against sin and gambling nightly packed their meeting tents. The reform wave, though sincere, attracted rabble-rousing demagogues as well as the honest politicians who put anti-saloon and antihorse-racing planks into their platforms so effectually that a number of Southern states went dry and almost all of them made racing illegal.
Maryland and the District of Columbia were infected by New York sharpies. After one race at Bennings in the District, the Baltimore World inquired, " do not the bookmakers own and control Bennings body and soul? The Washington course is owned and maintained by New York horsemen and bookmakers. They are in racing for profits. Is it any wonder then that the public are duped when they have a right to expect only fair treatment?"
Congress answered that promptly by doing away with racing in the District of Columbia.
Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri were next in line. In St. Louis, Prosecuting Attorney Joseph W. Folk had sent a number of graft-taking councilmen and members of the St. Louis House of Delegates to prison, so when he sought the state governorship, corrupt politicians and gamblers raised $100,000 to back his opponent, Harry Hawes. CAT is supposed to have added $300,000. Folk was the target for newspaper mudslinging, while the Jefferson Club, to which he belonged, attacked him "from ambush and lurked for him with unsheathed knives in dark places." Folk won by rallying his party in rural districts, and his victory was hailed by independent Democrats and the reformminded all over the country. The Memphis Commercial Appeal called it "the most superb victory in the annals of recent politics." When Folk came in, racing went out. The Delmar Jockey Club, run by bookmakers, arrogantly flaunted the new law, whereupon Governor Folk ordered the state militia to close it and took legal steps to appropriate its property for the state.
Louisiana was, inevitably, hit by reform sentiment. "Sitting Bull" Bush, an old con man and Mississippi River three-cardmonte sharp, ruled the roost among the gamblers in New Orleans until his direction of the Crescent City Jockey Club became so scandalous that respectable citizens pressed authorities to close the track. Then at the two big tracks rival bookmaking factions began feuding. Alarmed by the clamor of merchants who claimed that they were losing the money that went to the tracks, and by the evangelical disposition of the press and the demands for reform, the state of Louisiana prepared to pass an anti-racing law. The gamblers closed ranks and fought it with every weapon at their command, but race-track gambling was banned in the state (which gave it right back to the illegal handbookmakers).
When Texas joined the reform parade, the racing brethren built a track at Juarez, a mile and a half from the international border, where bookies could operate safely and telegraph and telephone reports to U.S. poolrooms.
The struggle to make racing verboten in California was long and hot, mainly because the president of the Pacific Coast Jockey Club, Thomas H. Williams, along with the political machine of the Southern Pacific Railroad, was hard to beat. The Emeryville, Tanforan, and Ingleside tracks near San Francisco were either owned or controlled by tiVilliams, who did not brook competition gladly and "throttled and practically suppressed racing at the Santa Anita track, Los Angeles."
In the election of 1908 candidates for the state legislature had to declare whether they would support an anti-horse-race-betting law. During the campaign by the president of the YMCA, supported by editorials in the Los Angles Express, betting was defeated, and in 1909 Governor Gillette signed the bill to outlaw it in the state. VVilliams tried to circumvent the law and keep the horse players happy by going over to oral betting, and the Supreme Court of California, in a test case, upheld it. For two seasons Williams and Emeryville carried on until the legislature passed a bill that ended even this form of betting.
After January l, 1911, when an anti-race-track law became effective in Florida, gambling was permitted at tracks in only six states: Maryland, Oklahoma, Montana, Kentucky, Virginia, and Utah. Montana had only one track, at Butte, and the racing season was just thirty days. Racing was legal in Utah, but betting was not in Salt Lake City.
Kentucky, where horse racing was honored and indigenous,did not prohibit betting but did clamp down on bookmakers and poolrooms. The incomparable Colonel Matt J.Winn, more than anyone else, checked the reformers and saved racing for his state. The man who put the Kentucky Derby on a par with the World Series saw that the one hope was to make betting on horses respectable.
At Churchill Downs, where he was in charge, Winn found some pari-mutuel machines that had been shoved into the storeroom a quarter of a century before. His lawyers disinterred an almost forgotten act that permitted pool selling under particular conditions. Winn thereupon booted the bookmakers out of Churchill Downs and installed the pari-mutuel machines, supporting them with state sanction by having a law enacted that gave the state a slice of the pari-mutuel revenues.
The equipment Colonel Winn had rescued was a quaint mechanical contrivance originally invented by Pierre Oller, a Parisian. In contrast to the slick complicated modern "tote" it was simple and primitive. Each booth had racks of tickets numbered from 1 to 12 (depending on how many horses were entered in a particular race), each number representing a horse. Behind the ticket seller's chair was a large blackboard, and whenever a fan shoved a bet through the wicket and got a ticket, the man running the register "recorded" the bet by tugging a string connected to the matching number on the board. On big days scores of these contraptions were needed to "ring up" the thousands of bets. They were cumbersome, they were not 100 per cent accurate, but they did save racing in Kentucky.
The drive against race-track gambling was nowhere more intense or lengthy than in New York. In 1887 the Ives Bill was passed in Albany to "improve the breed of horses" and see to it that racing was limited to five designated months each year under the sole aegis of track officials. Seven years later it was amended:
Section 10.-- No law shall be passed abridging the right of the people to assemble . . . nor shall pool selling, bookmaking, or any kind of gambling hereafter be allowed or authorized within this state.
Track owners beat a hurried path to Albany and succeeded in putting through the Percy Gray law. This effectually made racing in the state the monopoly of a jockey Club with seven stewards. Four of these were to be "respectables," men of prominence interested in giving horse racing a good name, who also formed the state racing commission. The "respectables" tightened their monopoly on New York racing when the law gave them permission to decide what tracks might come into being. The Jockey Club further had power to rule off any track jockeys, owners, or stable hands found dishonest in its dominance.
In order to keep the fans happy and the monopolists rich, bookmaking was permitted at the tracks and only regarded as wrong if members of the jockey Club or allied racing commissions profited directly from it. Punishment might be imposed "by civil action against the bookmaker," but no losing player seems ever to have taken advantage of this proviso.
With the legality of gambling at the tracks secure, the racing interests went after off-track betting and saw to it that it became a crime punishable by as much as five years in prison.
The New York Jockey Club was the same club that owned and operated Bennings in Washington and managed to have a duplicate of the Percy Gray law passed by a Congress that was "half crooked and half asleep." President Benjamin Harrison vetoed the bill with the words, "I return without my approval the bill to prohibit book-making and pool-selling, but on the contrary expressly saves from its prohibitions and penalties the Washington Jockey Club. If this form of gambling is to be prohibited, and I think it should be, the penalties should include all persons and all places."
In New York the Jockey Club was urged to do something to clean up racing. When it replied that it did not officially acknowledge betting at the tracks, sincere fans felt that it was a slap at their intelligence, as they knew perfectly well that the club members had proprietary interests in race tracks and that every track in New York took privilege fees from bookmakers.
Charles Evans Hughes campaigned in 1906 against William Randolph Hearst for governorship of New York and won a whacking victory on a reform platform. Immediately after he took office he was flooded with letters and telegrams asking him to live up to his campaign promises with a program of reform legislation.
In 1909 the state legislature made it illegal for anyone to state the current price odds on horses, seek bets on horses and locate himself in a more or less permanent position, and to set down in writing or the like any bets on horses.
The horsemen had too much at stake to accept complete defeat. Led by two millionaires. August Selmont and James R. Keene, they fought to have some of the more stringent antigambling regulations alleviated. The court of appeals sustained oral betting, among other changes that were achieved. This involved payment of money away from the track and at a future time and only worked for fans well known to the bookies. It did not bring the general public back to the tracks. Since gate receipts were all that accrued to the track owners during the 1910s, the racing focus shifted to Canada. By World War I, American horse racing prospered in Canada, throve in Kentucky, barely endured in New York, and was outlawed in most states.
The minor deflation at the end of the war induced thousands of Americans to sell their Liberty Bonds and use the proceeds to gamble with stocks. The speculative fever mounted and with it the urge to gamble in other ways. Racing interests saw that the time was ripe to bring racing back to the people.
Thomas E. Bourke, a Chicago newspaperman, was the first to succeed in reviving racing. In 1921 he got control of the Hawthorne course and opened it under the oral betting system. The sheriff made short shrift of that by arresting the bookmakers at the track. The Bourke coterie took a new tack the "option system." This was in fact a qualified mutuels arrangement. The payer bought a ticket (a "certificate," said the track) from a cashier that gave him the privilege, if he won, of buying the horse he had bet on. If the owner of a certificate decided he did not want the horse - and none of them ever did he received his money back plus the winning price odds on it. This, said the track, was a prize for opting the horse that copped the race.
The option system withstood every legal argument and assault hurled against it, and race tracks began to multiply in the Chicago area till the state of Illinois decided to make on-track betting legal and to exact a fee from the tracks for this right.
The craze for automobiles in the 1920s was indirectly responsible for the birth of new tracks and the renaissance of betting. Americans were bursting with prosperity, buying cars madly, driving for pleasure, and finding the roads awful. States needed money for road building and, looking at Kentucky and Maryland which had a nice take from their pari-mutuels, decided that this was a good way to get it. Illinois, Ohio, and many others legalized that system in return for a percentage of every dollar wagered.
The boom in real estate made Florida winter headquarters for racing in the 1920s. In New England, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachussetts sanctioned racing and gambling at the track, bringing the total up to nineteen states.
During the 1920s horse racing everywhere was conducted under more rigid and honest standards than had ever before prevailed. It became the paramount job of the racing judges to see that every horse was ridden to win. If not there was the possibility of a fine, suspension, or the danger of being ruled off the tracks forever after.
Horse racing, despite the insidious persistence of off-track gambling interests, became a cleaner sport than most. There remained what Life reported as part of a $30,000,000,000 gambling business, citing: "A stranger in almost any United States city can quickly find a horse-race bookmaker by making discreet inquiries of bellhops, elevator men, barbers or bartenders, or by hanging around the news stand where racing publications are sold." Even the most inveterate horse players ruefully admit: "No bookmaker ever goes to the Old Ladies Home to visit his mother except in the biggest and flashiest Cadillac money can buy."