Gambling (on The Weather) At The Races

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Nineteen thirty was an auspicious year for the fifteen-day fall meeting at New York’s Belmont racetrack. Gallant Fox, the “Bear from Belair,” had just become the second horse ever to win the Triple Crown, and William Woodward hoped his classic three-year-old would go on to make himself the richest racehorse in American history by winning the Belmont’s Lawrence Realization. Also scheduled was the $125,000 Futurity, the horse race with the highest purse in the world and host to a group of talented two-year-olds including Equipoise, Epithet, and Mate.

The Westchester Racing Association’s president, Joseph Widener, and its secretary, John Coakley, were especially eager to provide their bettors with clear skies and fast tracks. They took the highly unusual step of hiring a professional rainmaker to keep the clouds away.

Even by racetrack standards, George Ambrosius Immanuel Morrison Sykes of Burbank, California, was an unusual person. He believed the earth was flat, estimated that the sun was thirty-three hundred miles away, and called himself a “minister of Zoroastrianism.” He had created a World Order of Zarathustra, opposed to free love, meat eating, prohibition, vivisection, and other evil practices. And he also operated his Weather Control Bureau.

Using his own special collection of “radio apparatus, antennae, and lightning coordinate grounds, cloud attractors and directors, integrators, and precipitators,” Sykes claimed he could control the weather through a process he called meteorolurgy, backed up by hydrolurgy (radio), thermurgy (temperature), pneumaturgy (wind), and ballisturgy (explosives).

The Belmont contract awarded Sykes cash every day rain clouds stayed away from the park, one thousand dollars for each clear day during the week, and twenty-five hundred dollars for each of the two Saturday meets that included the Lawrence Realization and the Futurity.

On the other hand, Sykes would pay the track two thousand dollars every day rain fell.

Sykes moved to Belmont Park and secretly set up shop. The New York Times described the scene: “He has placed [his machinery] in the old grand stand at the south corner of the park and has a sort of substation at the northern end, a wooden building with five sides, each 10 feet wide and 7 feet high. This structure has no windows, but gets light through a vent in the roof. Both buildings are covered with intricate wiring and are carefully guarded.”

“Nothing but bolts and bars and dozens of padlocks on the several doors confronted the hawk-eyes of the press,” W. J. Macbeth wrote in the Herald Tribune .

“The rain-control machine is very hush-hush,” Audax Minor noted in The New Yorker . “Both the negative and positive sections, which are interchangeable, are under guard.

“Then, too, there’s the big fivepointed star strung with radio aerial wire and festooned with ornaments from discarded brass beds and springs from box mattresses. The star always faces the way the wind blows.”

Monday, September 1—Opening Day—brought clouds, but the track stayed dry and fast. In the fifth race Balko ran six furlongs in 1:09 2/5, setting a track record as twenty thousand spectators cheered.

On Tuesday, however, a heavy thunderstorm broke during the third race, making the track a sloppy mess for the rest of the program. Sykes was already one thousand dollars in the hole.

On Wednesday, Belmont Park was still muddy from the previous day’s rain, but the sky was clear. For the next eight racing days, the Associated Press Racing Chart regularly reported, “Weather Clear; Track Fast.”

All this sunshine drew fine crowds. On Saturday the sixth, twenty-five thousand spectators watched Gallant Fox triumph in the Lawrence Realization. With lifetime earnings of $317,865, Gallant Fox was now the nation’s greatest winning racehorse. Sykes, gambling on the weather, wasn’t doing badly either—he was forty-five hundred dollars ahead.

Nevertheless, trouble was afoot. In the middle of the second week, Sykes got irked at reporters who suggested the run of good weather was just a coincidence. He vowed to bring down a fierce thunderstorm upon Belmont Park the next day, just to prove his point. President Widener, a true horse fancier, explained that an important international polo match was scheduled then in nearby Westbury and begged Svkes to hold off.

To control the weather, Sykes used “meteorolurgy,” backed up by “hydrolurgy,” “thermurgy,” pneumaturgy,” and “ballisturgy.”

Sykes relented, saying the weekend would do just as well for his storm, but Widener also had to protect the BeImont’s interests for the Futurity.

“How about Monday afternoon?” track officials asked, and the rainmaker said he could wait that long.

That Saturday, Jamestown bested a strong field to win $99,600 in the Futurity, again before a crowd of twenty-five thousand. The AP Racing Chart listed the weather only as cloudy, with a fast track, but technically a few drops of rain fell during the afternoon.

“They were of no greater volume than ordinary Scotch mist, not sufficient … to drive society from the Turf and Field Club lawn,” said the Herald Tribune . But rain was rain, and Sykes had lost two thousand dollars.

The rainmaker didn’t care so much about his forfeit, he said, but he was still irate about those reporters who questioned his powers. The curious gathered at Belmont Park the following Monday to watch the great storm, scheduled between 2:30 and 4:30 P.M.

Threatening clouds gathered all that afternoon, but no rain fell. And reporters who went looking for Dr. G.A.I.M. Sykes found that the rainmaker had gathered up his equipment and quietly left town, seventy-five hundred dollars ahead of the game, with two days of Belmont racing remaining. (Both days were clear despite his absence.)

Maybe the alleged scientist was merely a good man laid low by sabotage. In a final column on Sykes, “Exit Rain-Maker,” W. J. Macbeth wrote that reporters, annoyed by the rainmaker’s constant secrecy, lured him away from his shack one afternoon supposedly to answer a phone call from President Widener.

“In his hurry and in a moment of thoughtlessness he forgot to adjust his bars and bolts and locks,” Macbeth explained in the Herald Tribune . “A renegade thereupon stole inside and, draining off the rain water from beyond the seven seas that feeds the storage battery of the Sykes weather control, substituted a pail of Harry M. Stevens’s Rhode Island clam chowder.”