history of racing, horse racing and gambling, james madden, king james, laws preventing betting, legislation forbidding gambling, metropolitan handicap, moral crusades, new york tribune, oral betting, racetracks in america, racing and gambling, repressive legislation, sam hildreth, skirting the law, sport and gambling, the appeal newspaper
[The following is a further installment in a series about important events in racing during 1911. Some of the themes and troubles are remarkably familiar today.]
The more things change ….
A hundred years ago, times were bad. Gambling had been outlawed in most places where racing was conducted, and the sport was on the ropes. Farms were closing, and horses were being shipped abroad by the boat load. Some even became plow horses.
The legislation banning gambling had been focused at the racetracks, and much of the cleansing zeal of the time was whipped up by publications such as The Appeal, a crusading broadsheet out of Minnesota that ran a story with the headline “Racing is Now Greatest of Our Gambling Evils” and a subhead that “Americans Bet Huge Sum of Three Hundred Millions Yearly on Horse Races.” That piece appeared on 28 Sept. 1907, the year before the worst of the anti-gambling legislation was enacted.
From the reports in newspapers of the time, the restricted activity at the racetracks did not happen in a single blow. It was incremental, and as the racetracks found ways to stay open, the legislators looked for ways to close them down short of outright seizure of property, which apparently was illegal.
Making it worthless, however, was not.
Among those who first were grazed by the bullets of the righteous gunslingers and then shot point-blank were race touts. Not a crowd who tend to be loved even by bettors, people selling race selections were open to prosecution, as seen in this note from the New York Tribune of 14 May 1909:
Albany, May 13.— The Court of Appeals will take a recess on May 21 and reconvene June 1, when it is expected a decision will be handed down in the case brought against John G. Cavanaugh and Christopher Fitzgerald for alleged violations of the Agnew-Hart anti-racetrack gambling laws, in distributing advance information sheets as to racing on the Brighton Beach track last July. The appeal is by the people. The court heard arguments yesterday. It is contended that the disposal of the information was a violation of the new anti-racetrack gambling laws.
The indictments and prosecutions created by this dubious legislation were used to intimidate the thousands of people accustomed to attending the races and were the means to keep them in line.
Amazingly enough, there was racing.
The same issue of the Tribune noted above also carried a large story about the renewal of the Metropolitan Handicap won by Sam Hildreth’s King James over James Madden’s Fayette. Both Hildreth and Madden were owner-trainers who managed to persevere through this troubled time.
The Metropolitan Handicap “recalled the days before the passage of the Agnew-Hart law” and showed the “effort being made to build up the sport once more without organized betting and also without police censorship.”
The police were prominent among the crowd, however, to make sure the laws were obeyed.
The Tribune reported that people attending the races were
disposed to wager, and prices were quoted by the so-called memory brokers without any interference from the authorities. W C Cowles, District Attorney of Nassau County, was on hand with a number of detectives, while Sheriff Foster, with twelve deputies, was also at the track to see that the law [was] not violated. As Belmont Park is situated in Nassau County, outside the city limits, no policemen in uniform were present. The detectives and the deputy sheriffs walked about in the big crowd on the lawn, and reported that so far as could be seen, the law was observed to the letter. Under a decision of the Supreme Court, oral betting is not a violation of the new statute, and consequently there was no interference with those who quoted prices and bet among themselves….
That might sound like a scene out of a futuristic movie where people wander around and quote odds to each other, but it was almost feasible as some kind of shorthand method of betting. The people who instigated the anti-gambling legislation were not pleased, however, and our next installment will discuss the results.