A Bookmaker’s Operation, 1937

Mar 6th 2013 08:35 am |

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Among the pages of the Turf & Sport Digest from December 1937 is a valuable description of a bookmaking operation at the end of an era. It was written just prior to the widespread adoption of the pari-mutuel system in New York, the last significant place where bookmaking was tolerated at America’s racetracks.

In 1939, New York legalized pari-mutuel betting, a move that ultimately put an end to the “legal” racetrack bookmaker in the United States. The description found in an article about famed bookmaker Tim Mara is one of the last to describe the on-track bookmaking business in the United States before it completely disappeared in the 1940s.

Here is how author Edward James described Mara’s operation:

[Mara] pays a daily fee averaging $90 to the track owners. He also kicks in a few dibs per day for ‘stationary’ to one John Cavanaugh, whose ‘stationary’ consists of cardboard slips listing the horses, blank sheets and pencils. In reality, Cavanaugh is the arbiter of disputes, and the one-man supreme court in wagering matters around the New York track.” [More about Cavanaugh below]

The crew of Mara’s book…is typical of most book crews in operation. A bookmaker uses from five to eight assistants who are paid from ten to thirty dollars a day. At his side is the sheet-writer, who records all his bets. Then there is the cashier, who looks after the payoffs and all the cash transactions, and a ticket-writer, who keeps track of bets from credit customers.

Many bookmakers use a bet-caller, who breaks down the money bet and the odds and reports the badge number of the bettor for identification. This gent bawls out a bet on the sheet writer like this, ‘War Admiral, 90 to 100, badge 2643.’ Mara does not use a bet-caller. He is not averse to hearing the sound of his own voice and feel of crisp bills in the palm of his hand.

There also are two or more ‘outside men’ working for each book. One of them is a quick moving fellow who dodges from book to book checking on rival bookmakers’ shifts in odds; the invasion of wise money, and other items of information that are whispered into the ear of the man on the high stool.

Another ‘outside man’ is the one who lays off for the book. He acts as an agent in unloading unwieldy horses and shops for the best prices among the other bookmakers. These scouts have devised a simple form of wig-wagging, which had been in use for many generations of bookmakers….”

That’s quite a crew under the employ of a single bookmaker in the late 1930s. Maybe it’s time to bring bookmaking back to American racetracks under the guise of “job creation”? Sure, the business of gambling maybe have been a bit crooked back then but could it be any more crooked than gambling controlled by politicians and their minions?

John Cavanaugh: The Ring Master of New York Racing

According to the Turf & Sport author, John Cavanaugh made his money selling ‘stationery’ to New York bookmakers in 1937. His title, according to the Daily Racing Form, was “Ring Master.” However, it’s safe to say, this wasn’t an officially sanctioned position.

One of the most telling pieces of evidence about John Cavanaugh comes from a 1936 article about a proposal to legalize pari-mutuel betting in New York. The article focused on John Dunnigan, the Democratic majority leader of the state senate, who used the shadiness in the bookmaking business to make his case. Here is a quote from the Daily Racing Form on April 29th 1936:

Senator Dunnigan, in urging the senate to favorable consideration of his amendment [to legalize pari-mutuels], said that he was convinced that if it was passed New York state would derive a much greater revenue…

…Senator Dunnigan further charged that a certain individual, who he described as a ringmaster at the tracks, was at present getting over $100,000 a year in fees from the bookmakers. “What I want to know,” Senator Dunnigan explained, “is how many more are collecting unjustifiable salaries when the state should be getting this money?”

Later, Senator Dunnigan described the individual mentioned as being “John Cavanaugh.”

As I said, there was no official “ring master” in the betting circles at New York tracks.

I did find the Senator’s case for getting rid of bookmaking interesting, the state wanted the “unjustifiable” money being paid to Mr. Cavanaugh. These days, that money is collected by the state in the form of inflated takeouts.

Read the full article here, and a response from Herbert Swope, the chairman of the racing commission, who had his own take on Mr. Cavanaugh’s “job.”


Edward James, “Hidden Percentages,”  Turf and Sport Digest, December 1937

“Constitutional Amendment,”  Daily Racing Form, 1936 April 29

“Favors both Mutuels and Books,”  Daily Racing Form, 1936 May 2

I’ll be back next week with the first of Colin’s Ghost Triple Crown posts for 2013…

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in betting ring,bookmakers,New York racing history,Pari-mutuel,parimutuel wagering,Tim Mara

8 Responses to “A Bookmaker’s Operation, 1937”

  1. Warren Eves says:

    Guess I’m dating myself with this item but as a senior turf writer I felt compelled to recall my weekends at Aqua Caliente. Former trainer Art Lerille, Jr., and his wife Letty, used to make the long trek from Pasadena down to the border oval. I was writing for the Pasadena Star News back in those days, doing the 1-2-3 selections for those weekend cards. The guys in the newsroom like Maury and others followed every race as they did their daily editing chores. I usually rode with Lerille because he had a newer vehicle when we made the long trek to the border. What I will never forget was those hand books out on the racetrack apron where I could get a set price on a horse. And, they offered 1-2-3 betting. Talk about being ahead of the curve, it was John Alessio who was offering the 5 & 10. I can’t tell you how much money was sent across the border on a weekly basis on that popular bet. There was something magical about getting a set price on a horse. I think it was the fact you didn’t have to watch those blinking lights on the tote to see what price you would wind up that made it so magical. Here’s the twist. I seldom won those bets. But guess what, it was the rush and the set price that made the experience what it was. I think we have lost a great deal of that on this side of the border. This is why I have castigated the stagnated thinking we currently have at Churchill Downs. What a windfall it could be if they were to offer bets on any and all colts nominated for the Kentucky Derby. The folks who run the Twin Towers unfortunately have elected not to listen to the fans. That’s why you don’t find me investing one penney in their current Futures wagering pools. It’s an insult to the player who thinks he or she might have a live sophomore. Take me back to the days when I could walk out on the apron at Aqua Caliente and make a fixed wager. That’s what horse racing could be if we had executives who knew what it takes to get the betting juices going.

  2. Don Reed says:

    E.J. Kahn Jr.’s “The World of Swope… A Biography of Herbert Bayard Swope” (1965) might be worth your while.

    I got a laugh about the vision of someone today trying to assert, in response to a government official’s remarks, as Swope had done, that “Racing started off well this year. The sport has been good & clean…”


    Warren, we’re hallucinating if we thing that the executives of Cover Your Ass Downs will be innovative enough to bring the sport back to the level of even a passing resemblance to the success that Swope and others had enjoyed.

    The only way these glorified soda jerks from time to time succeed is when they stumble over & into good things. Given the intelligence that it takes to remember that one’s shoelaces are tied, this is their primary alternative method of survival.



    “A maiden runner… escaped from Turfway Park & went running through the streets of Florence, KY.

    “Joseph The Catfish… making his first start… ditched his jockey… & leapt over a barrier into the horseman’s parking lot… ‘chased by outriders on ponies, the trainer, who had commandeered a vehicle… & others on foot.’

    “Joe whizzed through traffic lights on Houston Road & got as far as the ramp to southbound I-75, [which was where] Turfway outrider Steve Peterman apprehended the colt, bringing them both crashing to the pavement.”

    New name for Steve Peterman: “Catfish Hunter.”

    (Paulick report 03/06/13; heavily edited)

  3. Larry McClelland says:

    Warren, enjoyed and reading your post and look forward to some more recollections of Aqua Caliente. What a place for some photographs as I was trying to conjure up the scenes in my head, must have been fun.

  4. P. Weller says:

    As the grandson of a notable bookmaker (Kid Weller) I enjoy reading about the early days of horse racing and the involment of the bookmaker. From what I have found out my grand dad was one of the best.Unfortunately I never met him, so what I know has been handed down by people who did know him. My many thanks for the articals that I have received. It is hard today to realize just how smoothly the system worked and the amount of money that was put into play on a daily basis. P.Weller

  5. Marie says:

    Any idea whether this John Cavanaugh was the son of a similarly named man, also involved in some way on the NY racetracks in the 1890s?

  6. Diana Tierney says:

    Dear Marie,

    John G. Cavanagh (“Honest John”)was my great grandfather. He was active in the betting rings as far back as the 1890’s. He had been orphaned at a young age and made money by selling pencils at the Brooklyn racetracks. Later he worked in the mechanical department of the Brooklyn Eagle. After that he established his stationery business which I imagine catered to the bookmakers market. He died in 1937. He had been arbiter of betting for many years. He was also president of Robinson Amusement Company which owned the New Brighton Theatre in Brighton Beach Brooklyn.


  7. Arne Lang says:

    It’s odd that Diana Tierney and I would choose to chime in on the same day. Yes Marie, the person referenced in the Turf and Sports Digest article is the same John Cavanagh that operated on the New York tracks way back in the 1890s. His last name was frequently (mis)spelled with a “u.”

    A very interesting man with little formal schooling who became very wealthy, donated heavily to Catholic charities, and reportedly collected and read every book he could find about Abraham Lincoln. His obit appears in the Nov. 24, 1937 issue of the NY Times. I found the notion that Cavanagh was earning $100,000 a year strictly from his racetrack operations far-fetched. My goodness, adjusted for inflation that would be about $17 million.

    I’ve read that Barney “Kid” Weller came from Cincinnati and that in retirement he ran an apple farm in Oregon. Can you confirm this, P.W.? In his heyday, Weller ran the “Big Store” at Saratoga in partnership with Joseph Ullman.

  8. Marie Oxx says:

    Hi Arne,

    I think it far-fetched too. I believe he disputed the accuracy of that figure of $100,000, saying that it didn’t take all the expenses of the job into account, but I can’t find the reference at present. Mind you, to run a racing stable of any scale, as he did for a time, would have gone through money too. Thanks for the information about his obituary which I was not aware of.

    I was interested to see the reference to the racing charity in the obituary notice. I think he may have supported many racing people through it, including my namesake Charlie Oxx, who died in 1922, and whose funeral was arranged by Cavanagh.