Sep 20th 2012 09:00 pm |
One thing we take for granted today is the indisputable order of finish posted at the end of races. Prior to the 1940s, when the use of photo technology to determine race results became widespread, it was up to track officials, sometimes referred to as placing judges, to post the order of finish.
What I find most surprising in doing research in the time before the photo finish camera is the lack of disputed results during the era. It seems that the vast majority of judges were honest and their determination of a winner was (for the most part) beyond dispute. So my interest peaked when I came across a botched (and likely corrupt) judgement on a race winner while researching the old track at Gloucester, New Jersey.
Less then a month after the christening of the Gloucester Race Track, a strange thing happened after the final race on September 25th 1890. On that day, everyone but one man saw a horse named Asa win the sixth race. That one man happened to be the track’s placing judge.
Here is how the Philadelphia Inquirer described it on September 26th 1890 under the headline “Row at Gloucester: Asa wins the last race, but it is given to Rosa Pearl”:
There was lively times on the Gloucester race track yesterday. Six races were on the card and all were well filled and nearly five thousand people were present. Five races had been run and nothing had occurred to mar the afternoon’s sport. The day was fast ebbing away, but the early rising moon which was high in the heavens helped to brighten the twilight when the sixth race was called. There were eight starters in this event and Rosa Pearl was a hot favorite at odds of 2 to 1. The talent fairly dumped themselves on Rosa Pearl, but there were others who backed Slumber and Leontine at the same odds and Asa at 4 to 1…
…When the horses finally got away Slumber was in the lead and came by the stand closely followed by Rosa Pearl. On the back stretch the latter took the lead, but coming around the last turn the horses were nearly all together. As they neared the finish it was seen that Rosa Pearl was not in the first bunch. Slumber was leading to within a hundred yards of the finish, when Hazlett ran Asa up. Right at the finish Asa led Slumber by half a length and crossed the finish line that far ahead, with Leontine third, a neck behind Slumber.
Before the number of the winning horses were hung up it was announced that Rosa Pearl had won, with Slumber second and Leontine third. Upon hearing this several representatives of the press went into the judge’s stand and assured Judge Nelson that he had made a mistake; that Rosa Pearl was no better than fourth, and that Asa had unmistakably won the race, Judge Nelson was plainly rattled, and he replied to the newspaper men with a torrent of abuse, but he didn’t hang out the winners. He sent for Jockey Hazlett first. When Hazlett appeared Judge Nelson said:
Is your name Hazlett?”
“Did you win this race?”
“Yes, sir; I won it by half a length,” replied Hazlett.
“You’re a —– liar!” yelled Judge Nelson, shaking his fist in the jockey’s face.
“That’s very strong language for a judge to use,” replied Jockey Hazlett as he came down from the stand.
The crowd surged around the judges’ stand, and was only kept from breaking down the surrounding pale fence by the presence of a score of policemen. The excitement was intense, and remarks which were not at all complimentary were hurled at Judge Nelson’s head. In the meantime, at least twenty reputable gentlemen assured Captain Nelson who remained obdurate. He was very much excited when he finally ordered the figures “4, 8, 1” hung up, giving the race to Rosa Pearl, Slumber and Leontine. Then there was a big howl from the crowd, and the holders of Rosa Pearl tickets rushed to get them cashed.
The holders of tickets on Asa lingered at the track until long after dark, and there were some exciting scenes under the grand stand. There was one free fight, which was promptly nipped in the bud by the officers. A well known man about town who stood to win $2250 on Asa had a long talk with President W.J. Thompson, and the latter was told that the matter would be taken to the Bookmakers’ Association. The owner of Rosa Pearl was so sure that his horse had lost that he instructed Superintendent Sommers to give up a bet which he held. The backers of Asa made an effort to find Jockey Bergin, who had ridden Rosa Pearl, but he had been smuggled from the grounds as soon as he came from the weighing room. Judge Nelson was asked to send for Bergin, but he flatly refused.
Judge Nelson was much incensed at the people who disagreed with his decision, and he intimated that they were influenced more or less by having money on the race. The judge was very hot when he excitedly asked:
“Does anyone doubt my integrity? I have had more experience than any of you, and I am more competent to judge.”
Everybody disagreed with Judge Nelson. None doubted his integrity or his long experience, but here was a race decided against fact. It was not a question which called for a man of a long experience to decide. It was a question of sight, simply put as which horse had finished first. There wasn’t a man within sight of the post that agreed with Judge Nelson, and a well known man about town, who heard Judge Nelson’s remarks, said:
Yes, Judge Nelson’s experience has been so lengthy that his eye-sight has worn out.”
A few weeks later, the Executive Committee of the South Jersey Jockey Club ruled in the Rosa Pearl case and stated:
The evidence is of so conflicting a nature that the committee does not feel justified in interfering with the decision of the presiding judge.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the “conflicting evidence” consisted of “two Camdenites, who stood in the crowd beyond the judge’s stand, and both of whom wore spectacles.” Those who claimed that Asa had won included reporters from six newspapers and jockeys who rode the race including the riders of Asa and Rosa Pearl.
The level of corruption as it happened at the Gloucester Race Track is difficult to fathom. Somehow, the track stayed in business for three years even though most acknowledged that the racing there was not honest. Gloucester’s reputation as a crooked track lived on for decades before it finally faded from the sport’s memory. It is fitting that any physical signs of the old track in Gloucester has long been stripped from the New Jersey landscape.
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
“Row at Gloucester,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 September 1890
“Nelson is Upheld,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1890
For more information on the Gloucester Race Track, see the article I posted a few weeks ago
For an excellent overview of photo finish camera technology, check out the outstanding essay in Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments. The first photo finish camera was ranked number eight on the list.
Thanks for reading!
Filed in thoroughbred racing history