Pittsburg Phil, the most famous man in racing, 1898

Jun 29th 2011 09:45 pm |

In this past Saturday’s edition of DRF Weekend there was another solid historical article from author Ryan Goldberg about Pittsburg Phil. Ryan contacted me a few weeks ago about the piece, and I was glad to see that he found information on my site useful.

I especially appreciated his mention of Pack McKenna. As you might remember, I have published a few pieces about Pack using information and resources given to me by Jim McKenna, the famous gambler’s great-grandson. If you haven’t read Mr. Goldberg’s article, be sure to check it out. It’s available online and is a wonderful addition to the historiography of Pittsburg Phil.

Image: A rare shot of Pittsburg Phil in action. This image appeared with an article titled “Remarkable Plungers on the American Turf” in a now hard to find publication called the Illustrated Sporting News, October 1903

Over a century after his death, the ideas of Pittsburg Phil continue to resonate. Goldberg’s article did well in connecting the dots between Phil’s handicapping methods and the ideas found in the current canon of horseplayer literature. The content found in the works of Tom Ainslie, Steve Davidowitz, Andy Beyer, and Harry Ragozin confirms that the betting angles that made Pittsburg Phil the greatest horse gambler of his generation still ring true.  This is especially impressive when you consider the momentous changes that have taken place in racing over the last one hundred years.

Reading Goldberg’s article this weekend inspired me to visit some of the materials I have collected over the years about the founding father of modern horse players. In the last year, I have come across one piece in particular that I found especially useful in shedding new light on Pittsburg Phil. It comes from one of the most comprehensive sources I have ever found about racing during the turn of the nineteenth century.

This image of Pittsburg Phil that appeared in this past weekend's DRF was likely published for the first time on page 295 of The American Turf in 1898

The American Turf: An Historical Account of Racing in the United States with Biographical Sketches of Turf Celebrities was published in 1898 by a New York publishing house called The Historical Company. The book’s editor, Lyman Horace Weeks, specialized in ambitious historical publications during this period. From what I have found, he wrote extensively about genealogy, but his works covered everything from judicial history to an early history of the automobile. Lucky for the modern day historian, horse racing was the subject of one of his historical works.

The profile of Pittsburg Phil from The American Turf offers evidence to the depth of his popularity in his time. Looking back over a century ago, it is difficult to imagine that a gambler was one of the most recognizable names in racing but that is indeed what is implied in this selection from The American Turf published in 1898:

Among the thousands who have been conspicuously identified with racing matters in this generation no one, perhaps, has come more prominently to public attention than Mr. George E. Smith, who is recognized far and wide under the name of “Pittsburg Phil.” His experiences have, to a remarkable degree, constituted one of the most romantic sides of racing affairs in this generation. Could his biography be recounted in full, it would be most interesting reading, and full of suggestiveness as illustrating the opportunities that the turf affords to a young man of capacity and dash…

…In a little more than fourteen years he has risen from a comparatively humble station in life to a position of unquestioned prominence and influence in racing circles. During this brief period he has become one of those gentleman connected with racing in the United States who are known throughout the country. This had been a remarkable achievement for more reasons than one. The majority of men who are identified with racing interest are rarely heard of outside of racing circles. Here and there one appears, who stands out from the ranks of his associates with unusual prominence. Something exceptional in the the individual is necessary to the attainment of this result, and it is for this very reason that the career and operations of a man like Mr. Smith are justly regarded as of special value…

It should also be noted that Pittsburg Phil’s profile from The American Turf appeared in a chapter titled “Owners and Trainers,” among W.C. Whitney and John Madden. This takes on special significance when the book also had a chapter called “Men of the Turf,” that included, among others, those prominent on the “speculative side of racing.”  While he made his fortune as a gambler, he aspired to be  more than that. If he ever had the opportunity to page through The American Turf, he must have felt some sense of pride in the company he kept among its pages.

Sources, News, and Notes

The American Turf: An Historical Account of Racing in the United States with Biographical Sketched of Turf Celebrities, edited by Lyman Horace Weeks (The Historical Company, New York, 1898).  This book is available in its entirety at the Internet Archive.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in famous gamblers,handicapping,horse racing history,Pittsburg Phil,Pittsburgh Phil,thoroughbred racing history



One Response to “Pittsburg Phil, the most famous man in racing, 1898”

  1. lb says:

    There is also a rather comprehensive interview (in three parts!) with James McGill, Phil’s nephew that was in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. He also now has a wiki page.