Theodore Walton: The original racetrack “Plunger”

Feb 23rd 2016 02:07 am |

headline_Plunger_Walton_obitRace fans reading about the exploits of big-time gamblers in daily papers at the turn of the 19th century were likely familiar with a gambler named Theodore Walton.

A typical mention of Walton during the heyday of Pittsburg Phil can be found in 1899, when the Daily Racing Form’s Gossip of the Turf section, in describing the departure of noted gambler/bookmaker Riley Grannan for England, reported “he is likely to figure as the most unique American personality seen on the British turf since the palmy days of ‘Plunger’ Walton.”

Back when Grannan and Pittsburg Phil were famous on the racing scene for their wagering, “Plunger” Walton’s days had long passed but you can’t tell the story of the former without the latter. Looking back from 2016, Walton’s place in the colorful history of famous public gamblers over one-hundred years ago has been forgotten. While today we might refer to Pittsburg Phil as the founding father of big-time horseplayers, in Phil’s day that title belonged to Walton.

According to news accounts, Mr. Walton was the first gambler to be called “plunger” as it related to betting on horses. According the Leslie’s Weekly in 1895, the term plunger in England referred to a person who inherited a great fortune but then blew it on frivolous things. That same article – as far as we can tell – included one of the longest descriptions of “Plunger” Walton to ever appear in print. Here is how it recounted the career of Walton many years after he had disappeared from the public eye:

The plunger in America…has rarely been a man of fortune. As a rule our plungers have been adventurers who have undertaken the perilous task of beating the betting-ring for the fun of the thing, and out of love for the excitement which accompanies most games of chance. What is more, they have usually secured the capital they used in their attacks on the book-makers from the book-makers themselves, and in misfortune it is seldom that any of them has had the right to rail against fate and complain that he had been undone of what was actually his own.

The first conspicuous plunger of this class, and the man to whom the title of ‘plunger’ was first given, was Mr. Theodore Walton, sometime of Philadelphia and sometime of New York. Mr. Walton had been a successful hotel-keeper, and was a business man of good training. It was when he was keeping the St. James Hotel in New York that he began the career on the turf which attracted to him much attention…

His methods were simple and at the same time complex. He had an idea that there was information to be had about the horses that were to run, and as a business man, in the coldest way in the world, he set about buying this information and, when it seemed to be well founded, paying for it with a most prodigal hand. It was thought that at one time he had in his pay men in every considerable stable in the country, and these men were supposed to keep him informed, and doubtless endeavored to do so, of all the important happenings to their employers’ horses.

With this kind of information as his guide he speculated on a scale previously unknown in America, and for a season or so he had most uncommon success. The jockey who successfully rode a horse on which Mr. Walton had great wagers would receive a present from the “plunger” much larger than his fee from the owner of the horse, and nearly all of them tried hard to be in the good graces of this new factor in the racing world. These methods did not tend to make Mr. Walton popular with race-horse owners, who, not unreasonably, complained that Mr. Walton had more control of their horses than they had themselves. But he went on for season or so without any serious backset, and then, sighing for new and richer world to conquer, he went to England. In England he applied the same methods he had used at home.

They were most novel there, and for little while he was successful. But it was not for long. Horse-owners would not put up with Mr. Walton’s interference, and this culminated when the late Sir John Astley scratched horse that Mr. Walton had heavily backed just before those entered in the race were called to the post. It may be said here that it has never been considered good form for an outsider to back a horse so heavily in the books that the price is reduced and the owner is prevented from getting fair wager on his own horse. However, for the first season in England Mr. Walton’s career was sensational and in measure successful.

Speaking of it, Davis, the great English book-maker, is reported to have said: “It makes no difference; it will all come back to us.” And so it did, Mr. Walton’s plans the next year all miscarried, and he left England before the season was over so broken in fortune that he has since not amounted to anything whatever on the American turf, where also it had become impossible for him to put again in operation the methods he had previously employed. On the turf, at least, he is now never heard of save in reminiscent way.

When the above was published in 1895, Walton had left the racetrack scene and quietly slipped back into the hotel business. He reappeared in the newspapers a few years later in reports over a dispute he had with creditors in Philadelphia. While in court over the dispute, he was quoted as saying: “I want the newspapers to stop calling me ‘Plunger’…I have not been to the racetrack in fifteen years.”

He died in 1911. His obituary alluded to a few of his eccentricities including a twenty-one day fast he endured to cure his rheumatism and a vegetarian diet that he claimed would ‘ward off death forever.’ As interesting a life he led as a businessman, Civil War veteran, and amateur culinary scientist, Walton’s brief career as an extravagant horseplayer made him famous in his time. The New York Sun dedicated much of his obituary – published on 11 April 1911 – to his life on the racetrack including this tale of the day he spit the bit as bettor:

“The story has been printed that the reason [Walton] left the track ‘for good,’ as he put it himself, was that one day while he sat calmly in an English grandstand with his wife. The horse which he had backed and which in the stretch seemed the money [winner] was beaten in the last stride by a nose.”

“‘Well, let’s be moving back to the hotel,’ he said to his wife so the story goes. ‘That nose cost me 200,000 [pounds].’ The amount he lost on this last bet probably has been stretched by the racing raconteurs who have told this and many more stories about the Colonel’s bets since that day about twenty or more years ago. But it is certain that he was one of the most fearless, if not the most fearless plungers the racecourses on either side of the Atlantic ever have known.”

News & Notes

“Plungers of the Turf,” Leslie’s Weekly, 1895 October 17

“Plunger Walton is Dead,” The Sun, 1911 April 11

There are few available sources related to “Plunger Walton.”  My interest in the subject came when reading an article by John Hervey in the Daily Racing Form archive where he mentioned “Plunger Walton of Philadelphia.” This, of course, sparked my interest. When I started my research, I came across a post on Derby Trail (the forum launched and moderated by the great Steve Byk) where someone named “Calzone Lord” shared his research in 2011. If you would like to read the related post from Derby Trail, I suggest you take a look here

IKEIt’s been a few months since I checked in here. My last post about my visit to this year’s Travers came soon before I became a father for the first time. Isaac “Ike” Martin arrived on October 22nd. He is a Triple Crown baby just like his mom (1978) and dad (1973). Needless to say, he has kept us busy but we are so very happy to have him here. I can’t wait to take him to Delaware Park this summer!

From the Coming Soon Department… Late last year, I received an email from a lifelong Kelso fan who had in her possession an unpublished memoir written by someone very close to the 5 time Horse of the Year. I have been working for many months (when I can find the time) getting it ready to publish at Colin’s Ghost. Hope to post it sometime in March.

Excited about the lead-up to the First Saturday in May…if you are looking for a way to follow the prep races leading up to the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, sign-up for Derby Prep Alerts from our friends at Hello Race Fans.

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

Filed in betting ring,gambling,horse racing,horse racing history,origins of handicapping,Pittsburg Phil,Pittsburgh Phil

6 Responses to “Theodore Walton: The original racetrack “Plunger””

  1. Ron Micetic says:

    As always, Kevin, great stuff. Very much looking forward to the Kelso article. I’ve always loved the great long running, weight carrying geldings such as Extermintor, Forego, Roseben, Armed, and of course 5 time horse of the year, Kelso. I have several Kelso programs if you are looking for something to illustrate the piece.

  2. Sandy Small says:

    As an old and avid horse player I most enjoy your stories. As a 10 year old I picked the triple crown starting with Jet Pilot because jets were just coming in and I liked the name. Challenged by my Grandfather to pick the next two races I then started to read. In those days the Mirror and News cost about 3 cents. Any way Faultless and Phalanx followed and I became the family guru. hooked for life. There is a story about the Beiber brothers starting with nothing parlaying it in to a substantial amount at the old Empire track only to lose it all on the Dempsey Firpo fight. After it was over Phil complained to Isidore who replied why gripe we only lost $20 bucks. If you can research it the story would make interesting reading to my fellow horseplayers.
    Best Regards,
    Sandy Small

  3. Owen says:

    Good notes on Plunger Walton. My own interest in “Plungers” led me to write a 3 page bio on Joseph Yeager, “Boy Plunger”, which I would be happy to share with you if interested. It’s the only full bio of Yeager that’s been done.

  4. Marlaine Meeker says:

    Good read and good to have you back. Congrats on your Triple Crown winner. But does this mean that the next TC winner won’t arrive until Ike’s first arrives? Looking forward to the Kelso posts as any of your future posts. Thanks for not forgetting racing’s past.

  5. jobe says:

    Great story. Is there a book about these great plungers?
    If not, you should write one

  6. MRO says:

    3 triple crown babies in a family must be a good sign. Congratulations!