A few years back when tracks had their own pools for simulcast races )before simulcasting got as big a business as it is today), we as horse-players got to shop for odds.
Bouncing from one television feed to another, seeing where we could get the most bang for our buck. It didn’t happen often but when it did, man it was a fun and exciting element to horse-playing. I know I am not alone in that line of thinking.
But imagine how much fun it would have been so many years ago when you could shop for odds from one person to the next. Standing in a betting ring, in your jacket, tie and hat, your cigar in your mouth and racing program in hand.
Sorry ladies, you weren’t allowed in the betting rings in those days.
Long before the eyesore of Saratoga Race Course’s current infield tote board burned the retinas of our eyes (my Lord, that thing is hideous), punters made their wagers with bookmakers, not automated self-service machines.
Leading the fray for better than 40 years was John G. Cavanagh; a conciliator of sorts for all matters wagering in New York.
Known as “Irish John,” he was the architect of The Cavanagh Special, a deluxe train of up to eight Pullman cars, diners and a day coach or two.
Sporting a boater instead of an engineer’s cap, Cavanagh and his train ride north carried almost exclusively bookmakers and their assistants. Owners, trainers and professional bettors would travel in kind, up to and often exceeding 600 travelers at a time.
They’d get to the Spa city around eight or nine o’clock on the Saturday evening prior to the meet’s start which was usually on a Monday. They were often warmly greeted. Onlookers, gamblers and tourists would cheer their arrival as bookmakers, gamblers, et. al. marched to their hotels to the sounds townsfolk’s cheering and a band playing in the streets.
Bookmaking hadn’t been formally adopted in the States until the early 1870s when first introduced to English race courses in 1840.
By the 1880s it was commonplace and bookies thought of themselves on a par with Wall Street Brokers, viewing the track as no different as the Stock Exchange. In the papers they’d advertise themselves as Turf Exchanges.
The top books formed a group that would gain control of all betting at state tracks and called themselves the Metropolitan Turf Association. They sold buttons as if they were seats on the stock exchange, and were just as hard to get and almost as costly to acquire.
Cavanagh led the group. He handled any and all disputes. He decided who could and could not join the association and his power was absolute. His Cavanagh Special, was a veritable stamp of approval.
At Saratoga the betting ring was near the finish line. A circle of stalls, raised, and with chalk boards at the top would serve as encouragement to get a patron’s attention (read: money) as the sheetwriters and pay-off men took care of business.
On the chalkboard the bookie would have his name, the horses for the upcoming race and beside them would be their odds, which changed frequently.
The sheetwriter took the bets and marked it in the bookmaker’s tabs. The pay-off man did precisely what his name indicates, should the bettor have won his race.
Things didn’t always go that smoothly of course but invariably at day’s end, with torn tickets littering the betting ring and grandstand, the bookmakers had ample reason to smile.
Two weeks ago, with the help of my local librarian, I located an absolute gem of a book. Such is Saratoga, authored by Hugh Bradley, was lent to me for a three week stint and it is a first edition copy, printed in 1940. The thing is 70 years old and it’s in my hands.
I ask you to indulge me, if only for a moment, in sharing a couple of stories about some characters found in that book.
Virginia Carroll: Known for his eccentricities as well as his skill and daring as a bookie, he once was angered by a punter who pointed at his selection for a race with his umbrella.
“The fat, red-headed Mr. Carroll reached down from his stand, sized the umbrella and threw it as far as a rage-inspired arm would permit,” Mr. Bradley wrote.
He turned to his sheetwriter and ordered him to give him five umbrellas to his one on the man’s selection.
Fred Burton: Supposedly coined the phrase “All horse players who play stable information must go broke.” He was particularly hard on himself if he let a favorite go off at odds longer than he should have.
One day, after losing more than he cared to, he went to John Morrissey’s Club House for dinner. He sat at the table, ordered a thick steak with expensive side dishes. The meal came and sat before him. For two hours he didn’t touch a morsel. He paid the check, tipped the waiter and left. All throughout those two hours, barely uttering a word, the waiter revealed the only thing Burton moved was his lips.
The waiter said Burton kept repeating again and again: “Starve, you sucker. Starve!”
Bill Cowan: Arguably the biggest bookmaker (financially speaking), he was a genius with numbers and known for his polished mannerisms. It was reported his backer (and silent partner) was Robert H. Davis, owner of the 1914 world champion Boston Braves.
The story goes that Cowan came to the Spa a quarter-of-a-million in the hole after the New York season. During the course of the month he made it back and another half-million more; a $750,000 race meet.
Then he lost it all – ALL – at the subsequent Belmont race meet. When he died in the late 30’s however, he was still quite wealthy.
Charming lot, aren’t they?
There were mighty bouts of bettor versus bookie though out the years and arguably the most famous (and certainly the most frustrating to bookies) was a gambler named George E. Smith.
But he never went by his given name when making his bets. He was nicknamed Pittsburgh Phil by gambler William “Silver Bill” Riley to differentiate him from the other Smiths that also frequented Riley’s pool halls.
Pittsburgh Phil was a thin, young man with an artistic appeal about him. He worked as a cork cutter. In his prime he maintained an organization which cost close to a thousand dollars a day to get information on horses and to place his bets.
The bookies hated him because they feared him. So they’d follow him. He was cool and daring. Smart and not difficult to trace. He usually outmaneuvered them all. The bookies wanted to learn what he’d learn so they could cut the odds. They rarely did. He frustrated them all.
Bill Cowan once said he paid more money out to him than any other player.
When he, the cork cutting gambler, died his estate was reportedly valued in the millions, although my research offers different amounts on stated his fortune would have been valued at better than $79 million today.
After he died the Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil were published. They are often used today as core betting rules. Writer and blogger Jessica Chapel published them on her blog and are – without question – worth every moment of your time in reading. (note: pretty much all of Jessica’s writing is worth reading; I’ve been a fan of hers for about four years now).
In 1939 New York voters had overwhelmingly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that allowed pari-mutuel wagering. That following spring it was a state senator named John Dunningham who implemented legislation that would oust the bookies.
In 1940 pari-mutuel wagering returned to New York. There were 23 states that already had them in place. They were a much more modernized version of their ancestors.
There were 307 machines installed, manned by 450 men. In the grandstand alone were 72 machines. The cost was $220,000.
Saratogians adjusted and the money came rolling in. Over 7,200 people walked through the turnstiles wagering greater than $260,000 on the opening day card.
Women were allowed to bet with the tote and racing officials credited their wagering as part in parcel to their increase in handle and attendance.
At the end of the first pari-mutuel season, Commission Chairman Swope noted that a whopping $103 million was bet, with attendance up 30% and a record 281,377 people attending the races at The Spa.
The bookies were gone, except for the back rooms of laundromats and bars, and pari-mutuel wagering has been here to stay ever since.
Bibliographical Sources Used for Research:
– Bradley, Hugh, Such Was Saratoga, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, N.Y.
– Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop,
Ganesvoort, NY 1966
– Hoatling, Edward Clinton They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 1995