Vintage Horseplayer Whine

Apr 5th 2008 06:05 pm |

An anonymous NYT writer describes the perils of playing the ponies circa 1919

One thing you can say about the modern horseplayer is that he or she is never short on opinions. Ask a bettor how they would improve the game and you are sure to get an earful. An article published in the New York Times in 1919 titled “Betting on the Races Then and Now” proves that the nature of the horseplayer hasn’t changed much. The unattributed piece explains in detail the frustrations of making a simple wager when betting on horses was “illegal.”

Before reading the article, here is a little context:

David G. Schwartz in Roll the Bones, his comprehensive history of gambling published in 2006, wrote of horse racing:

“…in the 1880s several states responded to complaints about rigged races by banning bookmaking…The boom years of the 1860s and 1870s had brought a glut of racetracks, and in the 1890s tracks began to close, while several states banned racing itself. By 1908, the number of tracks in the United States had fallen to 25 from 314 a scant 11 years earlier. New York, which outlawed betting but not racing in 1908, effectively hobbled the industry. By 1911 there was no racing at all in the state.”

The dark days in New York lasted until May 30, 1913, when racing returned and the”oral days” of race betting began. Dorothy Ours in her biography of Man ‘O War described the loophole that made gambling possible again. Ours writes of the New York law that banned gambling, “Did the law prohibit casual bets among friends? No, it did not…” so instead of bookmakers selling betting tickets to clients “…each bookmaker at the track made verbal agreements with hundreds of ‘friends'”. Ridiculous, right? Well as crazy as it sounded, it worked…sort of…with the assistance of a less then vigilant NY police force.

The article that appeared in the NYT in 1919 illustrates racing’s “oral days” era and the many headaches of making an “illegal” wager. Placing a bet in 1919 required a “hell or highwater” determination. While we remember the great horses, jockeys, and owners of the era, after reading this article we might want to consider a monument to the era’s horseplayer. Has there ever been a monument built for a multitude of anonymous law breakers? I doubt it but considering their role in keeping our great sport alive during the period it would be well deserved.

Here is a substantial chunk of the article with an editorial comment or two (link to the full article via NYT site is at the bottom of the page) [this is a bit on the long side…I had a hard time paring it down]:

From the New York Times, August 3, 1919.

“Betting on Horses, Then and Now :
Following the Sport in New York is Difficult, and the Odds Are Shorter Than in Old Days but the System is Little Change — Advantages of Pari-Mutuel Method”

“Betting in horse races is forbidden. In Kentucky and Maryland one may back one’s choice by the pari-mutuel route, but not so in any other State. Elsewhere the sport of kings and the king of sports has been legislated out of existence”

“That is to say, it has been legislated theoretically out of existence. Actually it has only been handicapped, to use a racecourse term. Actually the only consequence of prohibitive laws has been much the same as the prohibitive law against beer: it has resulted in a poorer product.”

My comment: That last one is a great line! Remember that 1919 was the first year of prohibition.

“Betting at Jamaica, when the races were in progress there, and at the Empire City track later, has not been so different in methods from the days of twenty-five years ago in New York when betting was in its heyday. Presumably it will be so at Saratoga. The chief difference is that the bettor makes his own slip, the bookmaker declining to take the chance of recording a wager. Further, the present system requires a sublime credulity and an implicit faith in human nature.”

My comment: The concept of racings “oral days” is a bit misleading. Bets were recorded on paper but not by the bookmaker.

“In the old days the bettor did not make the slip, but neither did he receive any record of the wager. The bookmaker, who sat on a high stool, and held a slate on which were written the names of all the entries and the odds he offered against them for each position, entered in ink on a pad in front of him the badge number of the bettor, the amount of the wager and the odds.”

“Let us suppose that a man nowadays, a man not identified with racing, nor a follower of the ‘ponies’, and therefore not acquainted with the sub rosa bookmakers hereabouts, fares forth to one of the tracks around New York with the intention of backing his judgment or his luck. In the betting shed he sees groups of men standing about the posts. They look like idlers. They have no slates, no pads, none of the paraphernalia of gambling. But if he approaches one of these men and offers to confide in his care a bank roll of $50 or $100, more or less, it will be accepted with alacrity. The stranger has opened an account. He is now in a way to bet all or any part provided it is $2 or more on the horse of his choice. In return for his money he received some blank slips of paper.”

“No bets will be accepted in the betting shed. The law is specific and extremely verbose about accepting wagers in a stated place, and the ‘bookies’ interpret that literally to mean under cover anywhere. the bet must be placed in the open”

“When accepting the bank roll, the bookmaker indicates a spot where he or one of the men idling with him can be found later. Just before the race begins the stranger finds one or more of the group at the appointed spot, and himself writes a slip, which he confides to the layer of odds”

My comment: ‘The layer of odds’ is a foreign concept to the modern ear as we are so used to the pari-mutuel system where the odds are calculated based on amounts wagered. Who employed the ‘layer’? I would assume it was the bookmaker.

“If the bet is large enough to be of consequence, if the bettor wins, and is a stranger, he must wait in most cases until the next day to collect. He must then journey again to the track, find the man to whom he gave his slip, and ask for his money. As a rule, this patience and perseverance is rewarded. He collects.”

“But the consequence of this underhanded method of playing the races is that the man who plays gets much worse odds. The odds are, in the slang of the track ‘greedy’. They are ‘short'”

“The reason is not altogether to the bookmaker’s discredit. In an elder day, when the whole field of starters was chalked on a slate or blackboard, and the bettor could see the odds against all the horses, the chances were that all the entries would get a play. Nowadays, when the word goes through the paddock or the lawn that certain horses are being backed practically all the betting concentrates on them. In a race with a dozen starters, for instance, not more than half a dozen will receive any play; only half will be backed to win or get the ‘place’ or ‘show’ and the consequence is that the restriction of the field, so far as the wagers are concerned, make for a restriction of betting odds.”

“Loud have been the wails of players about the stinginess if the layers at racetracks around the New York. Comparison has been made to the extremes disadvantage with the generosity of the odds paid by the pari-mutuels at Latonia and Churchill Downs. But an examination of the conditions brings forth some excuse for the bookmaker here.”

“The volume of betting is greatly decreased by the circumstances here, and this is another reason for less favorable odds. He who make a wager violates the law, even though all possible technical precautions may be taken, and that acts as a deterrent. And many there be who would violate the law without compunction, when reasonably assured about the technical precautions, if the bookmakers were willing to take chances on any and all comers. But occasionally there have been men who could not, if they would , foist there bank rolls on any one of these enigmatic idlers about the posts in a the betting shed. They have been known to try in vain to open an ‘account'”

My comment: A terribly awkward paragraph. I think what he is trying to say is that since gambling is illegal not as much “juice” is being pumped into the system making the bookmakers more “short” with their odds.

“In town the precautions are even more rigorous, for of course you can lay a bet on the races in town, provided you haven’t the opportunity to go out to the track. In town you must have a face-to-face acquaintance with the bookmaker or must have an introduction from a sterling man-to-man acquaintance. The ‘books’ are of two kinds. A few are said to be bold enough to maintain poolrooms, with direct wires (telephone wires, for the most part, because the telegraph companies have suffered too severely at the hands of the law to relish these contracts) over which the results of the races are flashed to a questioning and impatient clientele. Getting into the poolrooms is extremely difficult.”

My Comment: The “poolroom” here has nothing to do with billiards. They are so named for the betting “pools” they offered gamblers. Western Union made a substantial amount of money carrying race signals to poolrooms in the 1890s but were forced to relinquish the market in 1904 amidst the flood of public disapproval of racing. After 1904, a number of less then reputable companies took over the signal of “racing news.” I can imagine that by 1919 the poolrooms were forced underground making them a less then ideal outlet for wagering. The more common type of off-track gambling is described below.

“Most of the books in New York are handbooks. Let us consider the operation of an imaginary example: The layer of odds is in touch with employees in certain office buildings, janitors they may be, or elevator boys, or messengers and for a percentage of the sums bet these men take custody of the amounts wagered by the men in that building and turn them over to the bookmaker with slips showing who placed the money and what horse is to ‘carry’ it”

“The players in this case know nothing of what odds are to be offered against the horses they choose. As a rule, the bookmakers accept as authentic the betting odds published the following morning in a newspaper which devotes especial attention to sports. But some of them have arbitrary rules limiting the odds they will lay, such as 20 to 1. There was the case not long since, of three men who had united in a group to play the races daily for small sums. Among the acquaintances of these men it was known as ‘the pikers pool.’ There came a day when but $3 remained in the bank. One dollar was bet on Gleinpner, and was lost. Another was placed on Mountain Rose, and Mountain Rose also lost. The last dollar in the pikers pool was placed on Crepuscule. And Crepuscule won at 30 to 1.”

“But even while the three pikers were congratulating themselves there came a sad disillusion. The handbook maker would pay but 20 to 1. It was ‘house rules’. The layer of odds was adamant. The three pikers were compelled to accept the piker return on bet.”

“These handbook makers do not depend solely upon their touts and compradors in office buildings. At certain hours they may be found at certain places, in barrooms – for barrooms are still open, despite the law, just as betting is still maintained, despite law – or in office building foyers, or in hotel lobbies. Their ‘clients’ know where the bookmakers can be found, and place their money personally with verbal instructions. In such cases the betting is actually oral. And after the races are done, the bookmaker posts himself at a certain spot, and pays off such of the players as have won and are known to him personally. But as a rule he distributes the next morning, among his office building touts, plain manila envelopes containing the money intended for those whose judgment or luck has prevailed against gargantuan chance.”

“How different the pari-mutuel system! Pari-mutuel betting is legalized, and has the merit of eliminating the bookmaker, who has long been recognized as the chief evil of the racetrack, just as the saloonkeeper has long been recognized as the chief evil of the liquor traffic. It has been said that this country had no drink problem, only a saloon problem. In the same way, it may be said that the racetracks have no gambling problem, only a ‘bookie’ problem.”

“The pari-mutuel system is the joy of the race fan. It pays by far the best odds, and manipulation is eliminated. There is no bookmaker to demand the lion’s share of the money, however the race may go. All the money paid in, except for the racing association’s expenses, goes to the winners. It is the system in effect at Churchill Downs and Latonia in Kentucky, at Pimlico and Havre de Grace in Maryland.”

“But everybody concedes that betting on the races in New York nowadays has more punch to it then 2.75 beer”


I ended up quoting the majority of the article but if you would like to read the original go to article at NYT archive.

Filed in bookmakers,horse,illegal gambling,Pari-mutuel,poolrooms

3 Responses to “Vintage Horseplayer Whine”

  1. Eddie C says:

    Just seeing your blog today as it is linked in Crist’s new blog at DRF.

    This article mentions Havre de Grace in Maryland as a race site in the early 1900s. What track was there?

  2. KMartin says:

    Eddie C — Thanks for reading. Yes there was a track in Havre de Grace and many of horse racing’s greats ran there — including Man o’ War! I will do a brief history of the Havre de Grace track with more details on this blog this week.

  3. Eddie C says:

    Great stuff, looking foward to it!