Maxims of ‘Pack’ McKenna, 1919

Mar 4th 2009 01:00 pm |

Last week, I posted an article about one of racing’s original handicappers. “Pack” McKenna spent nearly 60 years playing the races and is credited with being one of the first to compile the kind of information that has become familiar to all modern horse players.

Image: “Pack” McKenna in the 1930s.

Something I left out last week was that McKenna was mentioned in The Maxims of Pittsburg Phil for his prowess at the track. Those of us interested in the history of racing know the name Pittsburg Phil. Why? Because three years after he died, a writer by the name of Edward Cole published Maxims based on conversations he had with the gambler. Pittsburg Phil was well known in his time but it is safe to say he would have been relegated to the dust bin of history had his Maxims gone unpublished. I hope in some small way I have used this forum with its relative small audience to shed a little light on the fabulously fascinating character of “Pack” McKenna who, if he had befriended an ambitious writer and died young, may have lived on in the lore of racing like Pittsburg Phil.

One thing I mentioned last week was an article that “Pack” wrote for the Washington Post in 1919. It is outstanding essay on handicapping by a player who spent most his life at the track and witnessed monumental changes in all aspects of the sport but especially those related to gambling. Of the limited historical trail that McKenna left, nothing gets to the spirit of the man like his article for the Post. Since it is the closest we get to Pack’s perspective on playing the races, I have used it, in the spirit of Edward Cole, to compile the “Maxims of ‘Pack’ McKenna”:

They say figures don’t lie, but let me tell you – a good horse has, many times, a good laugh at figures.

We can all tell a good horse when we see one, but it takes handicapping to tell how good he is.

It is by the discovery of our errors that real progress is made.

Remember that it is a sport we are figuring on, and that we are in error if we do not keep this ever in mind.

The unexpected is liable to happen in all sports, and in none so much in racing.

Many arrive at conclusions hastily and enter them into their calculations, which then become of doubtful value, for when a horse defeats his field easily it is no simple matter to tell how much he had in hand.

All hands and the cook can see the winners, while the losers, in a measure, are ignored; yet it is in those very winners that the most mistakes are made, due to haste in placing a value – too high or low – upon their victories.

You are on the right track when you seek to discover why the also rans were not there at the finish. Conclusions can be reached with a much better chance for accuracy than through the easy winning route.

The real purpose is to call attention to how really important it is to have some reasonably definite idea as to the standing of the losers, and don’t forget that most all good movements start from the bottom up, not from the top down.

It is accomplished by observation, and observation, and then more observation, bearing in mind that the best of them, are liable to be beaten in any part of a race, often at the start and sometimes before.

Take care of the losers and the winners will take care of themselves, not forgetting that the world going with the successful abandons the hindmost to the devil.

Reformers are created through the downtrod. I have a leaning that way, and, like many of our professional reformers. I think it is profitable to give my attention to a study of the more or less unsuccessful horses.

Broadly speaking, it would look good policy and sportsmanlike to pay heed to both elements [winning and losing horseplayers] with a leaning to the ‘unlucky to lose’ contingent, for they have a lot to unload and they might be right. At all events, with them it is the oft-repeated declaration that the right horse was beaten and the wrong one won.

Handicapping, and racing in general, is somewhat “a comedy of errors.” Continuing in this way, it is an error to think you are going to make a fortune.

When the time is at hand to be on a pleasure bet – be out for the sport more than the profit, but, of course, with an eye to seeing a chance here and there.

Racing is the one great sport in which you can have your fun with the chance of being paid for it in the bargain

There are so many things to like about McKenna’s “Maxims.” From a bettor’s perspective, much of what he lays out is what we now call trip handicapping. Keep in mind, when “Pack” was playing the races, gamblers were many decades away from easily accessible race replays so being a trip handicapper took a remarkable capacity for observation. But what is more important, in my opinion, is the love of the game he exudes here. Unlike Pittsburg Phil, who was sent to an early grave by the stresses of the track, it seems that McKenna lived a long life by keeping things in perspective. For Pack McKenna it was (and is) a “sport we are figuring on” and the “unexpected is liable to happen” and it is “an error to think you are going to make a fortune.” In other words, have fun first and maybe make a buck or two while doing it.


P.J. ‘Pack’ McKenna, “Observation Biggest Handicap Essential”, Washington Post, January 19, 1919

I appreciate all those who linked and commented on last week’s article on “Pack” McKenna. Pack’s great-grandson, who shared his excellent research with me, was happy with the article which was the best feedback of all.

Some things of note this past week:

I was struck by some of the odd and outlandish betting strategies laid out in a 1976 article from the Los Angeles Times linked from Equidaily this week. Definitely worth a look if you missed it.

Thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant research and writing from Valerie over at Foolish Pleasure in her article “Sally Gardner: The Horse Behind the Photograph”

Steve Haskin posted the chapter from his book on John Henry about trainer Phil Marino who died this past week.

News from Turkey arrived on the passing of Manila – the late Joe Hirsch called him, along with Round Table, the best American turf horse he ever saw. Watch his win over a stellar field in the 1986 Breeders Cup Turf

I loved the move by Theregoesjojo in the Fountain of Youth on Saturday. One of the things I look for when I am hunting for a Derby horse is one that can accelerate on the turn. Jojo made a strong move on the turn and sustained it though the stretch. Hope he runs in the Florida Derby.


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