One of the real joys in writing for this site is doing the research. It is amazing the historical trails that can be followed via the internet. As someone who remembers doing research before the web, it is astounding what can be discovered while sitting on your couch. If you have ever had microfilm-motion-sickness, you understand the luxury of researching on the internet
A few days back, I was poking around in my usual way and landed on the search terms “racetrack riots.” I had been searching for a particular incident when runners for local pool rooms and race track security clashed in Chicago. That is an incident I’m sure to revisit in a future post but I began uncovering accounts of horseplayer riots that were equally fascinating and bizarre.
A found a handful of horseplayer insurrections at tracks in Europe and North America. The most recent one of significance in the United States (that I could find) was at Roosevelt Raceway in 1963, when players demanded and then rioted in efforts to get refunds on their daily double tickets after a mass pileup eliminated six of the eight betting interests. Fifteen people were arrested and the head of track security died of a heart attack during the altercation. Reports called the riot the “worst in harness history.”
In 1975, horseplayers rioted at a harness track in Canada called Richelieu. Like the riot at Roosevelt, it also came as the result of confusion over an exotic bet (referred to as a “gimmick” in the article). When a statistical coincidence resulted in a $58.50 mutuel on a straight win bet and and the exact same $58.50 on a quinella payout in the eighth race, horse players smelled a fix and showed their displeasure by causing $50,000 in damages.
A riot in Europe took place at a track in Vincennes, France in 1930 when five trotters were left at the gate at the start of the first race. Punters “wrecked the grandstands, raided the bars, and continued rioting until assured that entrance money and all bets would be refunded.” When it was decided that bettors would be refunded, “the mob quieted and began lining up at the various gates to get their money back.” Nothing like the promise of a few bucks to transition a riot to an orderly queue.
Interestingly, most of the horsplayer riots I came across occurred at harness tracks (i’d love to hear some theories on this?).
With the exception of clashes between bookmakers and police found in the early part of the century, the most significant incidents I found at a thoroughbred track occurred at Suffolk Downs. The first was in 1944, and the second, in 1945, described this way by the the Associated Press:
“Police reserves were rushed to the Suffolk Downs horse track late Saturday as an angry crowd of spetators rushed the stewards stand and smashed the equipment in protest against a disqualification.
“The disturbance began as the number of the favorite, Johnny jr., was hauled down a winner of the co-featured $5,000 Commonwealth. Windmill, owned by Mrs. T. Haskos and A. Spilos was declared winner after Johnny jr., was disqualified for fouling.
“One spectator climbed into the stewards pagoda, when two policmen grabbed him, about 100 booing spectators swarmed on the track, one of them hurling a bottle through the door of the official stand. A shower of bottles followed and the stewards huddled on the floor, holding chairs up for protection. Police prevented a group from overturning a tractor used to harrow the track. After 45 minutes, track police called out the reserves with tear gas and riot guns and the crowd was dispersed.
“The jockeys’ scale was smashed in the riot, a policeman’s motorcycle sidecar was set afire and an attempt to burn an awning opposite the finish stand was frustrated.
“The eighth race, final event of the Suffolk season, was called off because Massachusetts law does now allow horseracing after 7 p.m. It had been delayed as the crowd roamed the track.”
I love the last line here: Are we to assume that if the riot ended before the 7 o’clock curfew the 8th would have gone off as planned? Times sure have changed – I have to think that an incident like this today would bring about a Congressional hearing and calls for the banishment of the sport.
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
Thanks to the Horseplayers Association blog for mentioning and linking to my site last week in their piece about takeout. Also, a thanks to John Pricci who was inspired by the HANA post to write an article at Horserace Insider about Colin and the “good old days” when tracks had dress codes. I wonder what the rioters were wearing when they tried to burn down the steward stand at Suffolk back in the “good old days”?
A new set of letters to a new horseplayer are up at the Hello Race Fans site including one that I wrote. Check it out!
Happy Holidays everyone! Thanks for reading!
Filed in thoroughbred racing history