The state of Florida racing, 1930

Jan 12th 2011 05:02 pm |

Hialeah prior to the days of legal wagering in Florida, circa 1930 (National Turf Digest)

Col. Walter Moriarty, the flamboyant founder of the National Turf Digest, had every reason to promote and sell the sport of racing. When he founded his popular racing publication in 1924, wagering on the sport was legal in limited locales throughout the United States.  And, bookmaking, an easy target for the morality police of the era, was the common form of wagering where racing existed.

By 1930, Moriarty and his editorial gang understood that the “evils” of bookmaking stood as a significant and effective talking point used by gambling opponents. Moriarty recognized the potential of the pari-mutuel wagering systems being employed in parts of Europe and Australia at the time and did all he could through the pages of his magazine to push for the legalization of racing via the new modern system. During the 1920s, he had few kind words for bookmakers and praised the mechanics of wagering via the pari-mutuel machine

In 1930, Moriarty authored a piece in the National Turf Digest titled “The Truth about Florida Racing” where he exposed the hypocritical nature of the enforcement of anti-gambling laws in the state and wrote in great detail about the closing of Keeney Park in Pompano Beach. More importantly for the historical record, he documented the method of wagering at Hialeah Park racetrack prior to the legislation in 1931 that made pari-mutuel racing legal in Florida.

Winter racing in the State of Florida seems to have become the catspaw of various cliques of unscrupulous politicians, and except for the meeting now in progress at the Hialeah racetrack, near Miami, is in a very bad condition.

“Racing is not legal in Florida, and no system of wagering as yet devised has met with the approval of the constituted authorities. At Miami betting is conducted by means of envelopes, upon which the player writes the name of the horse he wishes to play, the odds as quoted by the layer, and signs his name for identification purposes. The payoff is made directly after the race is run, with no money being shown at any time in the procedure.

“This system is no more legal than the others in use, but is winked at by officials, and thus the Miami meeting goes along on even keel…

Moriarty concluded his article by arguing the importance of racing in the state and the inevitability of legalized wagering there. He also cautioned against legalization with strings attached, a prescient warning considering the current state of racing and its unfortunate connection to state politics (case in point via Ray Paulick ):

Florida must have a racing bill soon. It is certain to come. But the political situation is so involved and so full of chicanery that the law may work against the best interests of the sport. Racing has always suffered from political interference. Reformers want their fingers in the pie, and prove pestiferous even under the best of conditions. Racing in Florida is in a bad way, although the Miami meeting [at Hialeah] has been very successful.

“If the best minds in Florida can get together, arrange to pass a law legalizing wagering on horses, and then put the enforcement of this law in the hands of capable and conscientious commissioners, we may yet see the grandest sport of all a success in a State which is ideally situated for a winter sport.

Unfortunately, the author and publisher Colonel Walter Moriarty never witnessed the running of a “legal” race in Florida. He died in a car crash in California the same year that pro-racing legislation passed. The first “legal” race in Florida came on December 26, 1931 at Tropical Park in Coral Gables. The legalization of racing paved the way for the installation of one of the first pari-mutuel systems in the country at Hialeah Park in 1932, a facility that had been successfully conducting a race meeting via  the envelope method of wagering described above. Here is film footage of opening day at Hialeah in 1932 (note the emphasis on the new pari-mutuel machinery):


Colonel Walter Moriarty, “The Truth about Florida Racing”, National Turf Digest, March 1930

Florida Gets Legal Betting on Horse Races, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1931 June 4

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Filed in Florida racing,Hialeah Park,Hialeah Park opening day 1932,Pari-mutuel,parimutuel wagering,thoroughbred racing history

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