Mar 6th 2013 08:35 am |
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.
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
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!