Racetrack plunger Riley Grannan, 1869-1908

Jun 29th 2009 12:00 pm |

“It’s all a joke; it doesn’t amount to anything.”

These were the last words of Riley Grannan as he lay dying of pneumonia in Rawhide, Nevada. Grannan was a gambler and bookmaker, who won and lost his fortune multiple times playing the races.

Image: Sketch of Riley Grannan from an 1895 newspaper article

The name Pittsburg Phil lives on in the lore of racing but, during his day, Grannan’s fame matched and, at times, superseded that of the man known today for his Maxims.

Grannan – the son of a poor tailor – was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1868. While his early history is muddled, according to an article in the San Francisco Call in 1899, he left home when he was 12 years old. While working as a bell boy at a New Orleans hotel, he secured his first position as a spotter and runner for a prominent bookmaker. The 1899 article reported:

“[Grannan’s] first regular start toward his present position was when Botay, who is well known, especially in the West, as a man who ‘ran a shoestring up into a bankroll’, gave him a position, and when he was 20 years old [1888], branched out as a full-fledged bookmaker, bent on a mission of enlightening the racing world.” 

He didn’t exactly enlighten the racing world but he quickly became a well know character at tracks across the country. His betting activities, during the peak of his fame, were as much a part of race reporting as the races themselves. By 1894, his name appeared frequently next to those of the gambling ring’s biggest “plungers” — the term used to describe gamblers who wagered wild sums on racing during this era.

Image: Headline from San Francisco Call, December 1894

An article in the Salt Lake City Press in 1895, compared Grannan with Pittsburg Phil:

“Physically these two race track sights are much alike and the similarity extends to their mental structures. Both men are usually reticent. They seldom speak and then only a word or two. Each keeps to himself and never indulge in that cheapest of race track privileges – giving tips to his friends…” 

“…Smith keeps available cash on hand to the tune of $250,000. That is the sum he invests in the betting business. Everything he makes above that figure he invests in conservative, interest bearing stock and bonds. If a long streak of reverses should wipe out that $250,000, he says he will quit the betting ring and retire to his outside fortune.

“Grannan has no similar anchor to windward. When he goes broke he is broke in dead earnest. Outside of the money he has on hand, the only investment he ever made with the hundreds of thousands he owned, is a $10,000 house in Paris Ky., which he gave to his mother…

“…Smith is the better business man of the two, but Grannan is the biggest plunger. That is the only difference between these two young men.”

Image: Sketch of Pittsburgh Phil and Riley Grannan,”The most famous plungers the world over,” 1895

While most reporting on Grannan during this period documents him placing bets, he continued to book bets as opportunities presented themselves. Taking money on – what he believed to be – vulnerable favorites was a trademark of his bookmaking activities.

It was this method that made him part of the lore connected to the match race between Domino and Henry of Navarre in 1895. His actions in the gambling ring before the great race were described in a number of newspapers over the years. Here is one of those reports from 1896:

“When Henry of Navarre and Domino ran a match race at Gravesend, Grannan, who was very intimate with Byron McClelland, then owner of the former horse, did some of the most phenomenal plunging ever seen in the east. 

“Mounting his box he took off his coat and announced that he was going to bet his last dollar on Henry of Navarre. Then he chalked up a point better odds on Domino than was offered by anybody else in the ring and invited the public to come on.

The betting ring at Gravesend in Coney Island, New York. Circa 1895

“Mike Dwyer sent in $10,000 which Grannan took, Ike Thompson handed over $10,000 more, then came another $10,000 from Mr. Dwyer, after which two $5000 bets were handed up by a commissioner said to represent James R Keene, owner of Domino. Thousands of dollars more in small bets came in but Grannan never winced, never once cut the price.

“In all he took in $62,000 and that represented all that the people had to bet, for it was still fifteen minutes before the race when the young plunger took in his last bet. It was the first time that easterners had been bet to a standstill and Grannan did something then that he has never done since. He hurled sarcastic remarks at the crowd and invited them to come and break him. It is the only time that anyone can remember when Grannan lost his temper.

“The race resulted in a dead heat, and though Grannan had to pay half the face value of every ticket he issued, he won some $15,000 on the race after all.”

His daring during the match race brought with it scrutiny from the racing press. An article in the New York Daily Tribune implied something untoward about the way Grannan took action against Domino [read more about press reaction to the result].

Like Pittsburg Phil, Grannan was targeted by racing officials. He was banned from New York tracks in 1896, accused of bribing a jockey. He temporarily relocated to Europe during this period.

In 1898, he returned to the United States but appears to have avoided the New York tracks, visiting mainly the mid-west and California. 

A 1901 article declared that the days of big bets had passed and referred to Grannan as one of the last of the great plungers.

Two years later, in 1903, a St. Paul newspaper reported this:

“With the old spirit, to dare all in one plunge. Riley Grannan, in many respects the most spectacular plunger the American turf has known, placed his all—$18,000—on O’Hagen, at the Crescent City track, New Orleans. His judgment, for once, proved at fault. Andes galloped home ahead of O’Hagen. Today Grannan is a wreck, financially and physically. He is confined to his room with an illness so severe that his recovery is doubted. Whether he regains his health is not, the turf will never see his face again, he says.” 

In spite of this promise, Grannan did return to the track, starting a bookmaking operation in New Orleans. He also formed the Riley Grannan Co., Ltd., a tout business that advertised in southern newspapers.

It is not clear, what finally drove Grannan from the track once and for all, but it is fairly certain that sometime in 1903 or 1904, he did indeed walk away.

He borrowed money from track acquaintances and opened a saloon in the gold mining town of Rawhide, NV. Like all towns that sprang up in Nevada during the gold and silver boom, it was a rough place.

While not yet 40-years-old, he had already lived many lifetimes, full of wild highs and desperate lows. It finally caught up with him in 1908:

“…after a night at the gaming tables Grannan, a heavy loser and broke again, went forth to a round of dissipation at the resorts of the town and contracted pneumonia which brought an end to his life in the world…” 

Before his body was shipped back to his childhood home in Kentucky for final burial, his remains sat on an express wagon at the rear of the saloon he purchased just a few years prior. Surrounded by a “rough, unkempt crew” — his friends bid him a final farewell.

W.W. Knickerbocker, a defrocked minister, delivered a eulogy where he called his friend “…one of the greatest plungers that the continent had ever produced.” He said Grannan was “…as placid and gentle as I have ever seen…absolutely invincible in spirit [and] a ‘dead game sport.”

While Grannan’s death bed proclamation implied a life wasted, most horseplayers can appreciate Grannan’s tale as a life well lived.

This post took me much longer then expected. The amount of material that can be found about Riley Grannan is astounding. It is surprising that so much detail can be found about a gambler in a relatively small sample of newspapers. Below are the main sources I used but there is much more at the Library of Congress’s Historic American Newspapers: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

“Betting Rings Doomed,” New York Herald Tribune, September 23, 1894
“Grannan in Luck,” San Francisco Morning Call, December 29, 1894
“Career of the Premier Plunger,” Salt Lake Herald Sunday, September 29, 1895
“Smith and Grannan,” Salt Lake Herald, July 19, 1896
“Rilery Grannan Again Wins Fame and Fortune,” San Francisco Call, July 16, 1899
“Days of Big Best Past, St. Paul Globe, April 15, 1901
“Plunger Riley is Broke,” St. Paul Globe, January 20, 1903
“Riley Grannan Dead,” New York Times, April 4, 1908
“A Word of Eulogium of Riley Grannan,” Bourbon News (Paris, KY), April 17, 1908

For a more detail account of the Henry of Navarre and Domino match race, check out this excellent post by Teresa at Brooklyn Backstretch 

The photograph of the Gravesend betting ring is from Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground (Rutgers University Press: 2002)

In a final twist in the story of Riley Grannan, the eulogy delivered in Rawhide by his friend W.W. Knickerbocker was published soon after he died. It was digitized as part of UNLV’s digital history project about southern Nevada. Read it here: http://digital.library.unlv.edu/boomtown/dm.php/snv/4593

Nevadaweb.com also has a page about the famous eulogy here: http://www.nevadaweb.com/ghp/riley1.html

Plan to do more about Riley Grannan in the future – this is a pretty long post but it could have been much longer.

The lives of gamblers like Pittsburg Phil, Pack McKenna, and Riley Grannan are fascinating. One of these days, I am going to create a Horseplayer Hall of Fame website. Considering that horseplayers have been the glue that has held the sport together, it seems appropriate that they should have their own Hall of Fame (even if it is virtual). Let me know if you have someone you would like to nominate.

Hope everyone enjoyed Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta this weekend. It will be great if we ever get to see them head to head. Would love to see one (or both) in the Delaware Handicap (unlikely, I know).



Filed in famous gamblers,gambling,Grannan, Riley,thoroughbred racing history

7 Responses to “Racetrack plunger Riley Grannan, 1869-1908”

  1. SaratogaSpa says:

    Fantastic Post. I nominate Tim Mara for consideration

  2. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Wow you did a lot of research on this.
    I was not aware of plunger Grannan out west.

    It took me a couple of readings to understand
    the nature of these high rollers.
    To have a bank of $250,000, well that was just enormous in their day.

    Love the picture of the bookies on their stools.
    Horse racing needs to get back to the basics because the parimutuel system is not working well for their customers.

    Very enlightening. Mr. Colin's Ghost. 😉

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post…as usual. Great research. Love the articles that focus on the characters from horse racings past. J.M.

  4. Matthew H. Davidson says:

    Beautiful, just on time. Your piece is “right upstairs” as the sports used to say. Their like is both a shining example and a *rebuke* to our risk-averse age, and the pygmies who inhabit it. Then again, the “bite” then was only 5%, compared with 15% today [around in 50% in Germany !!!]. Hit big at an NYC track and you owe three entities [city-state-federal] *plus* whatever you declare on your income tax—and you’d better: Once they know you’re *in action* they ARE watching you. Get a good tax man who specializes in wagering clients in your area, varies state-to-state. Words to the wise.

  5. Mary Grannan says:

    Riley Grannan was my GG Uncle. He was a colorful character. I ennoyed reading a of the information.

  6. Mary Grannan says:

    Riley Grannan was my GG Uncle. He was a colorful character. I enjoyed reading the article.

  7. R.E.A. says:

    It turns out that through my great grandmother, Lucille Grannan who was born in Minnesota is related to Riley Grannan. I am amazed by this man! Would love to know more about him and his lineage in my family.