Aug 14th 2013 11:05 am |
Originally published 2009
Updated and republished 14 August 2013
I received an email a few months back from Jim McKenna of Carlsbad, California. He wrote to me about his great-grandfather, Patrick “Pack” McKenna (pictured, circa 1890), a well-known New York-based handicapper who started playing the races in the 1880s and became somewhat of a celebrity in racing circles for the remainder of his life. After a number of email exchanges, a phone conversation, and a series of interesting sources kindly sent to me by Jim, I put together this article about his ancestor who, like Pittsburg Phil, is one of the founding fathers of modern horse players.
“Pack” McKenna was described in newspaper accounts as one of the “original handicappers”, “the oldest and most successful of the betting handicappers”, and “the best known handicapper on the American Turf.” According to census records, “Pack” identified himself as a “real estate broker.”
Family lore tells us that McKenna and his brothers did indeed have a real estate business but “Pack” spent most of his adult life at the racetrack. His name appears in newspapers for the first time in relation to his chosen vocation starting in the mid 1890s. By that time, it seems that McKenna had already accumulated a significant bankroll playing the races. As early as 1894, “Cad” Irish, a long time friend of McKenna, was being identified as the “old original handicapper” — a moniker that would eventually be attached to “Pack” as well.
In the 1970s, McKenna’s son wrote a history of his father and offered some insight into how he became such a successful horse player:
“…before 1900 no past performance charts were ever published and solid info was hard to come by. Pack overcame this by having men posted at the start and the finish as well as the quarter poles. From this information the running of the race was reconstructed and he was able to prepare his own charts which were most helpful and permitted him to be successful. The charts were substantially the same as those published in the papers today.”
It is difficult to identify the “inventor” of racing charts but one thing is certain: “Pack” McKenna and his partners in New York were compiling the objective data that we take for granted today and using it to gain a significant advantage at the track in the 1890s and possibly earlier.
The family account has supporting evidence in an article published by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1899. In the article, the author wrote, “The handicappers of the Botay, McKenna, and Irish type made their money 10 years ago when handicapping or ‘doping’, as it was more generally called, was confined to a select few. Then they frequently secured long prices against horses which should have been odds on favorites. Now, almost every patron of a race track carries his dope book, and when a horse wins at a long price it is because his true form has been hidden or the jockey is not a fashionable one.”
In another article written in 1900 also from the Brooklyn Eagle: “Of the betting handicappers, Irish, Botay, and McKenna have been very successful. It is not an unusual occurrence for one of these men to spend several hours doping out a single race.”
[“Doping” was a term used to describe handicapping in the 1890s. “Dope” was slang for information into the 20th century.]
Much of the advantages Pack McKenna and his associates gained in the 1890s were lost when other gamblers began to understand the value of objective information in their wagering. The Daily Racing Form began publishing chart books in 1896. By 1900, the New York Evening World and other newspapers had started to publish race charts that included running lines similar to the ones likely being produced by gamblers like McKenna. In 1905, the Daily Racing Form provided past performances for the first time. Much of the “doping” done by a small band of handicappers starting in the 1880s was now being offered to anyone who made a small investment in a Racing Form or daily newspaper.
Even though his advantage as a handicapper lasted no more then 15 years, Pack McKenna spent most of his adult life at the races. His gained a level of notoriety and skill that made him a familiar and successful character on the east coast racing circuit and beyond. For nearly sixty years, until his death in 1939, “Pack” McKenna was a horseplayer.
Image: The well traveled “Pack” in Havana, Cuba. Late 1920s
He lived much of his life in Bay Ridge, New York, in close proximity to the New York tracks, but spent a great deal of time on the road following the races. In 1908, like all those associated with racing in New York, he was effected by the enforcement of the Hart-Agnew Law that banned bookmakers from tracks. In fact, “Pack” McKenna was involved in one of the first arrests under the new law at the Gravesend Racetrack in Coney Island.
The account of the arrest was captured by a New York Times reporter under the headline “Bettors in Check”. The incident occurred between McKenna, who the Times called “one of the oldest and most successful of the betting handicappers, and George Cafferata, identified as a “professional betting man” and former “bookmaker.”
According to the article:
“…When McKenna approached [Cafferata] on the lawn and asked what he would lay against Simon Pure in the Steeplechase, Cafferata made answer, ‘Two to one.’ ‘I’ll bet you fifty,’ said McKenna, and Cafferata answered, ‘You’re on.’ Then a policeman placed the surprised Cafferata under arrest for betting in violation of the law.
“‘Hold on,’ exclaimed McKenna to the policeman, ‘if it is wrong, the bet don’t go. It’s off, Cafferata.’ And Cafferata agreed that it was no bet.
“The point was too fine for a sleepy policeman doing extra duty on his day off, and he took Cafferata along. He hesitated a moment when someone suggested that McKenna be arrested, too, for relieving Cafferata from the bet, on the ground that it was the same in purpose as compounding a felony, but the policeman said that was not included in his orders…”
The ban did little to deter “Pack.” It seems he spent a great deal of time in Maryland during the New York ban. He continued to travel with his old pal “Cat” Irish and developed an influential group of acquaintances in the Washington D.C. area that included Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, and Ed Walsh, a member of the Senators board of directors.
Image: Photograph of “Pack” McKenna with Ed Walsh (from unidentified Maryland newspaper, circa 1930).
In 1916, a dinner was held for McKenna at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. to celebrate a perfect 7 for 7 day he had picking winners at Bowie. It was attended by Griffith and Walsh as well as other influential Washingtonians. By that time, his circle of friends included influential men within the business and political worlds, among them Tom Brahany, personal secretary to two U.S. presidents.
In 1919, he wrote an article for the Washington Post about handicapping. The biography accompanying the article included this description: “P.J. (‘Pack’) McKenna probably is the best known and the most successful handicapper on the American Turf…He has in his private library a more extensive collection on turf data then perhaps than any other man who goes to the races.”
In 1921, he became such a figure among the New York horse set that an article about the meet at Aqueduct reported his absence from the track: “The many friends of “Pack” McKenna will be glad to learn that he is convalescing nicely in the Brooklyn Hospital from a serious operation…He was one of the original handicappers. His genial personality, his keen insight into racing conditions and his true Americanism gained for him many staunch friends. They have missed him during his illness and will be glad to greet him on his return to the turf.”
Another New York paper, in 1921, falsely reported his death. The article said that McKenna “…called the office of the National Form Sheet to indignantly deny that he was dead. ‘Now I may not be a Man o’ War,’ chuckled good-natured Pat. ‘but I feel as frisky as a two year old. The Lord being willing, I’ll be out at Laurel this afternoon trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.'”
Family history tells us that McKenna lost a significant amount of money in the crash of 1929. Evidence that his investments and income, by that time, were in the “legitimate” arena of stocks, bonds, and real estate (love the irony there!). In spite of this loss, he continued attending the races throughout the 1930s.
To the end, “Pack” maintained his race records in two large steamer trunks that teemed with notes that only a true horse player could appreciate. Even when he could no longer go to the track, his grandson, who was ten when his grandfather died, remembers him hovering over his notes and charts at the dining room table. He studied and maintained his “dope” until the end.
He died at his daughters home in Douglaston, New York in 1939.
A letter written by a friend from the Hotel Pershing in Miami, after receiving news of McKenna’s death, says a great deal about a life well lived. In the letter to Pack’s daughter, S. Winter wrote: “Every one I meet at the races, and he had more friends than any one I know, speaks of him with loving kindness and regrets his loss. He had such a wonderful disposition and sense of humor….Let it be a consolation to you and all the family to realize the love and respect that all had for him.”
So much for the image of the degenerate horse player — “Pack” McKenna was a class act all the way.
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
I want to thank Jim McKenna for sharing the outstanding research he has done on his great-grandfather. All the images used here are from Jim’s private collection. “Pack” McKenna is an important but forgotten figure in the history of racing — I am thrilled to be able to share his story here. I will post the article “Pack” wrote for the Washington Post and more on the origination of race charts, past performances, and other subjects that I uncovered while researching this piece in future posts. I find the history of playing the races during the era of “Pack” McKenna, Cad Irish, and Pittsburg Phil to be tremendously fascinating.
Obituaries for “Pack” McKenna appeared in:
Binghampton Press, February 6, 1939
The Blood Horse, February 11, 1939
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 1938 (the longest of the obits)
The Morning Telegraph, February 7, 1939
THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!