What Killed Pittsburg Phil? 1905

Jan 27th 2009 04:58 am |

I recently stumbled across an interesting site (www.fultonhistory.com) that has thousands of pages from New York state newspapers as well as other historical documents and images. It is difficult to navigate but worth the effort once you figure it out. In doing my usual searches, I came across a fascinating article on a familiar topic.

Image: George E. Smith (aka Pittsburg Phil) circa 1890s. Image from Tod Sloan by Himself published in 1915. Sloan was a jockey and a friend of Pittsburg Phil. He devoted an entire chapter to him in his memoir.

Pittsburg Phil, the founding father of horse players, died in February 1905. A month before he died the Utica Sunday Journal picked up a story from the New York Sun. It seems word began to spread about the failing health of the famous gambler whose exploits in the betting ring were well documented in the New York press. The story presents a theory behind his demise:

“…Those who know Pittsburg Phil best said that his nervous system has been shattered because of the intense strain and worry caused by his extensive operations on the turf. The noted plunger has never given vent to his feelings, whether winner or loser, at the racetrack. He has never been demonstrative, but has always possessed a cool, phlegmatic demeanor, which is a singular characteristic of some of the biggest turf speculators. The case of Pittsburg Phil, in some ways, resembles that of another famous plunger of his day, Michael F. Dwyer. Both of these men have won and lost thousands without showing outward signs of excitement.”

NOTE: Micheal F. Dwyer and his brother Phil Dwyer, former butchers, ran a successful racing stable and became well know for the exorbitant prices they paid for quality horses starting in the 1870s. Their huge investments paid off with major success at the track – winning the Belmont Stakes five times. They were also part of the investment group that built the Gravesend Racetrack in Coney Island, New York. Like Pittsburg Phil, Mike Dwyer’s exploits in the betting ring became legendary.

“The story has often been told of how Dwyer once made a wager of $40,000 on one of his famous racehorses and lost; he saw his horse beaten in the last jump and looking at his split second watch, cooly remarked:

“‘That was a fast run race’

Note: A $40,000 bet in 1900 equates to approximately $975,000 in 2008 dollars

“Today Dwyer is a physical wreck. He has been practically helpless for a number of years, yet he still clings to his old love. One day last summer, when he had been driven all the way from Gravesend to Morris Park, the veteran suddenly felt a desire to see the big betting ring.

“‘Take me down so that I can see the books’ he said to his faithful attendant, and forthwith they literally carried him to the scene of bustling speculation under the big grandstand. Dwyer looked at the big crowd for several moments listening to the [talk] of the layers and their runners and then turning to his attendants, said in a husky voice:

“‘I’ve seen enough! Take me back! Its the last time I shall ever go to the betting ring!’

“Pittsburg Phil has suffered fully as great a strain as Dwyer. But he has been more fortunate than the veteran horseman in that he made a fortune. Phil received a hard blow when the Jockey Club refused his entries two years ago and also revoked the license of his jockey, Willie Shaw. He protested his innocence vigorously but all to no purpose until one day last summer the stewards relented. The plunger by then was in poor health and had practically given up heavy betting. He visited the track now and then for an outing and put down a small wager out of mere force of habit but that was all. He said he could not stand the strain.”

NOTE: Phil’s involvement in the game as an owner was fought by the Jockey Club who didn’t think he would run his horses honestly considering his primary occupation as a gambler

“Men who have watched the career of these two plungers say now that if they had given vent to their feelings they would have probably escaped ill health

“‘It was inward suffering that hurt them,’ said a leading bookmaker recently. ‘They lost without a grimace and won without a smile. Other men let out a roar when they drop a bet and dance for joy when they cash and all of them are in robust health. They let off the steam which does them good. It is a fearful strain in the nerves to keep under control all the time.”

Interesting that the legend of Pittsburg Phil lauds him for keeping his cool but here the author claims it was the strain to stay calm that killed him. Phil died a month after this article was published. One year later, Dwyer died in dire circumstances because of substantial gambling losses.

Both men live in the lore of racing’s colorful era in New York before the gambling ban in 1908. They both had honors paid to them posthumously.

In 1916, a horse called George Smith, the birth name of Pittsburg Phil, won the Kentucky Derby. A book published after his death The Maxims of Pittsburg Phil – remains in print over one hundred years later. Many of the gambling angles it articulated for the first time ring true to this day.

New York racing honored the Dwyer Brothers when they renamed the Brooklyn Handicap the Dwyer Handicap in 1918 (now known as the Dwyer Stakes).


“Pittsburg Phil’s First Bet”, The Utica Journal, January 15, 1905. Accessed at Fulton History

“Phil Dwyer Dies as Suburban is Ended”, New York Times, June 19, 1917

Full-text of Tod Sloan by Himself is available at the Internet Archive

Check out previous posts about Pittsburg Phil:
Obituary of Pittsburg Phil, 1905
Pittsburg Phil Immortalized in Stone

Really enjoyed the article over at Mary Forney’s blog about lost racetracks.

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

Filed in famous gamblers,Pittsburg Phil,Pittsburgh Phil,thoroughbred racing history

10 Responses to “What Killed Pittsburg Phil? 1905”

  1. Cangamble says:

    I remain cool win, lose, or draw. Maybe I should start letting it out a notch.

  2. rwwupl says:

    I have my own method of “Letting off steam” win or lose, but never in public. It involves “Turning the page”.

    The emotions have to be there if you are not ill.


  3. Mary Forney's Blog says:

    Great article! Do you ever hear the term “plunger” any more? I think we should bring back some of that old time race jargon! Thanks for the excellent post.

  4. suebroux says:

    >> his nervous system has been shattered because of the intense strain and worry

    What a way to go …

    Good post!

  5. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Mary I am on board with bringing back “plunger”.

  6. […] Excerpted from “Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil,” by Edward W. Cole (1908). For more information on Pittsburgh Phil, visit Colin’s Ghost: The Horse Racing History Blog. […]

  7. alan toner says:

    truly the best plunger the racing game has seen.shame he had to die so soon.

  8. Yes the strain of shortheads and garrison finishes, plunges you into the depths of deep despair. Controlling emotions take their toll…..PRINCE

  9. […] after his death in 1905 (you’ll find some of his maxims here).  He was described as “the founding father of horseplayers.” Phil was said to be worth 5 million dollars at the time of his death.  He was born in […]

  10. Nestor Danyluk says:

    True legends!

    Must add a minor correction, though. The Dwyer was once the Brooklyn Derby. The Brooklyn Handicap is still run today (Birdrun beat Drosselmeyer in this years running on 6/10/11). The Dwyer will be run on 7/2.