Book review: The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime

Aug 10th 2011 11:00 pm |

Steven Riess, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York, 1865–1913 (Syracuse University Press: 2011)

The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime tackles a subject seemingly untouched by American historians. It tells the story of horse racing’s emergence as an urban sport and the rise of New York City as a central hub for racing in the United States.

By the turn of the last century, horse racing surpassed all other spectator sports in popularity. Fifty years prior to the New York Times declaring the “sport of the kings as the king of sports,” a newspaper in Brooklyn rated Thoroughbred racing ahead of baseball as the national pastime. However, its association with gambling made its very existence a fight even at the height of its popularity. That fight is at the core of Riess’s work.

Riess’s work demonstrates how a corrupt political machine and a thriving underground economy coupled with the “legitimate” interests of the elite to own, race, and bet on horses, made for a contentious atmosphere in the governing of the sport that ultimately led to its banishment in New York from 1911 to 1912. For the modern reader, it’s hard to imagine the depths of corruption that surrounded the sport during the era. As partisan and corrupt as our current politics might appear, nothing today can compare to the greed and lawlessness of the politicians during the period covered in this book. Many of the same politicians and city officials, who were brazen members of the corrupt political machine that ran New York, were intimately involved in racing and the gambling operations (both legal and illegal) that supported it.

Leaning heavily on newspapers during the era, Riess methodically details the rise and fall of New York racing from after the Civil War to the legislation that shut down racing in 1911. The book is split into twelve chapters. The early chapters looks at the rebirth of racing in New York with the opening of Jerome Park and the Brooklyn tracks. The middle chapters focus on the rise of pool rooms (illegal off-track betting facilities) and the actions by New York state to legislate gambling. Reiss dedicates a full chapter on racing in New Jersey and shows its influence on the New York racing scene prior to its outright ban by Jersey “reformers” in 1894. The final chapters begin with the passing of legislation that legalized wagering at New York tracks and led to what the author calls “The Glorious Decade of Racing” from 1897 to 1907. The last chapter provides a blow-by-blow description of the passing of the Agnew-Hart Acts that led to the complete shut down of New York racing in 1911 and 1912.

All of the book’s chapters could stand alone as individual articles and overlap a great deal. This organization can create some confusion while trying to construct a timeline of events but the organization is understandable. Considering the multitudes of story-lines, a strict chronological account would have been nearly impossible.

There are no other sources about racing during this critical period that come anywhere near the scope of The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime. The research is impeccable and it contains countless insights and details previously unknown to historians of racing. Riess’s work is complex and can be hard to follow considering the intricate webs of alliances that supported racing’s gambling economy on and off the track. But this complexity is not the fault of the author. The corrupt politicians, track owners, bookmakers, poolroom proprietors, and city officials made the world of racing and gambling a complex environment in which to operate and an even tougher one to explain over a century later.

The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime tells an important story about the foundation of the modern sport of kings. It is bold in its ambition and brilliant in execution. My copy is already showing the same wear of my frequently referenced racing books. It is a work that I will be returning to frequently in the coming years and one I highly recommend for any racing historian.

Sources, Notes, and Observations

I will be in Saratoga this weekend and, as always, I am really looking forward to the annual trek to one of my favorite places in the world. It will be a first time attendee at the Hall of Fame inductions at the Racing Museum on Friday.  Needless to say, I can’t wait.  Hope to see you there!

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in book review,New York gambling ban,New York racing history,thoroughbred racing history

One Response to “Book review: The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime”

  1. Ron Micetic says:

    Sounds like a great book. Can’t wait to add that one to my iPad reader,