The Obituary of Pittsburg Phil, 1905

May 20th 2008 01:01 am |

If you are a horseplayer you should be familiar with Pittsburg Phil. His handicapping methods and approach to playing the horses laid a foundation for all handicapping books that followed.

The “maxims” of Pittsburg Phil were originally compiled three years after his death (1908) by turf writer Edward Cole in a book published under the title: “Racing maxims and methods of “Pittsburg Phil” (George E. Smith) : condensed wisdom of twenty years experience on the track from the most successful speculator in the history of the American turf from the only personal interviews ever given by the famous horseman.” One of the early editions of the book (possibly the first) was published by a place called the Prosperity Institute! No kidding.

Take a look at the Railbird blog for a list of Pittsburg Phil’s maxims. It is amazing how many of his handicapping ideas have withstood the test of time about money management, class angles, horse for courses, trainer and jockey considerations, pace handicapping, etc. In addition, he lays out a number of ideas related to maintaining a good state of mind while at the track, for example: “The minute that a man loses his balance on the race track he is like a horse that is trying to run away.” One gets a sense from the obituaries that Pittsburg Phil was one cool customer.

The New York Times and the Digital Newspaper Collection at the Library of Congress have obituaries available online of the great horseplayer (including one under the headline: “The Wasted Life.” A negative obituary…imagine that). I have provided citations to some of these online sources at the bottom of the page.

Here is one of those obituaries published in The Los Angeles Herald, February 2, 1905:


“George E. Smith, better known as Pittsburg Phil, died yesterday at Asheville, N. C. The famous turf plunger, fever-stricken, passed away at the age of forty years.

“Bookmakers who have been questioned agree that none of the big bettors of today and none of the students of the race tracks can be classed with the late Pittsburg Phil. They give credit to Phil for being the greatest player the ring has ever known.

“Much money as he has won from them they delight in telling of his amazing plunges and of the tricks he played on them.

“Wrought up by the ruling passion that has made his name a byword on every race course in this country, the great plunger picked winners in phantom races, as he lay delirious and near death’s door at the sanitarium at Asheville.”

“‘Pittsburg Phil’ was the coolest and most calculating man the American turf has ever known. No man could ever discern from his facial expression or action whether he bet a cigar or a fortune on a race.

“Sphinx-like he would watch his favorites come down the stretch. If he won there would be as little trace of animation on his stoic face as there would be signs of disappointment if he lost. No one could read his mind, his hopes or his fears.

“Just before his death there was reaction in Asheville. As he lay upon his bed of fever he wildly called upon his horses in imaginary races, pleaded with them, cried to them and then fell back upon his pillow weakened by his frenzy shouting words of victory.

“Men who have marveled at this once self-possessed man recall how he lost $285,000 up to the last three days of the Saratoga meeting in August, 1902. Two days before the meeting closed he won heavily on his own horse, Brunswick, at 6 to 1 to show. The next day he went through the betting ring and played Belle of Lexington and won enough to almost put him even. That same afternoon he plunged heavily on Charley Ellison’s Skillful at the good odds of 20 to 1 and cleaned up money enough in the three days’ play to net him $290,000. Even that winning affected his stone-like face no more than if it had been so many cents.”

NOTE: To put that amount of money in perspective, $290,000 would be the equivalent of winning 7 million dollars in 2008!

“The dead plunger started his career in a saddlery shop in Pittsburg by playing the horses in the poolrooms. He soon began attending the races and gradually worked himself up to a notch where he was looked upon as one of the wisest men on the turf.

“Several years later he branched out as an owner and had in his employ the well known jockey Willie Shaw, whom he picked up at New Orleans. Phil owned such good horses as Chilton and Brunswick when he was in his prime. He was known as the bookmaker’s enemy.

“He leaves a mother and a sister, Pittsburg Phil was a visitor at Ascot last year.”

See and read the original at Library of Congress


There are a number of places online to find highly entertaining primary sources about Pittsburg Phil. The digital archives of the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times will produce hundreds of hits. The Library of Congress Digital Newspapers Project is another good source.

Here are a few citations related to the obituary of Pittsburg Phil:

“PITTSBURG PHIL” IS DEAD OF CONSUMPTION; Famous Race Track Plunger Expires at Asheville. VAIN SEARCH FOR HEALTH George E. Smith, Who Started Life at $10 a Week, Once Won $87,000 on a Single Race”, New York Times, Feb 1, 1905.

Hopkinsville Kentuckian, March 9, 1905

Pittsburg Phil, Noted Plunger, Passes Away, The San Francisco Call, February 2, 1905

Remarkable Career of Pittsburg Phil, Washington Times, February 2, 1905

The Wasted Life, Washington Times, February 2, 1905

Looking for a good inflation calculator? Here you go

Filed in famous gamblers,Pittsburg Phil,Pittsburgh Phil

3 Responses to “The Obituary of Pittsburg Phil, 1905”

  1. How can I find out information about his birth, and his family. My great great grandmother was his aunt.

  2. Matthew H. Davidson says:

    ALL links to LOC “Resource Not Found.” ???

    A nice piece would be Famous [& Infamous] Horseplayers of History.

  3. Suzy Hilson says:

    For Robert Beatty – Pittsburg Phil was my great grandfather’s brother. (His name was William C. Smith.) Most of what I know I learned from the N.Y. Times archives and other online sources. I am curious how you are related (which side of the family?). His mother’s name was Eliza & his father was Christian.