The Great Racetrack Gaper

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In the entire history of the turf there lias probably never been anything remotely resembling the 1891 spring and fall horse-racing seasons at the old Gravescnd track at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York. The extraordinary events that attended the meetings resulted from an economic squeeze play on the part of the Brooklyn Jockey Club, which operated Gravesend. Then, as now, off-track betting was illegal in New York state, but then, as now, it was a popular form of gambling. To keep local betting parlors aware of all the pertinent racing data—post odds, scratches, jockey selections, weights, and results—the Poolsellers Association, a syndicate of Manhattan bookmakers, telegraphed the information direct from the various tracks to the “poolrooms”; for this privilege, the association paid the management of each track S 1,000 a day. When in the spring of 1891 the Brooklyn Jockey Club suddenly decided to quadruple the rate, the bookies refused to pay. Somehow they would bootleg the information out of the track; the Jockey Club could go hang.

Thus began a spectacular running battle between Pinkerton’s Race Track Police, representing the Jockey Club, and members of New York’s remarkably picturesque Gay Nineties underworld, allies of the poolsellcrs’ syndicate. The gamblers were also supported by the Western Union Telegraph Company, which, counting the bookmakers’ association a valued patron, threw into the tray several dozen highly imaginative telegraphers.

The ensuing trackside scrimmages went on for weeks, and became so lively and exhilarating that the racing seemed dull by comparison. Indeed, the sports editors ol New York’s newspapers became so preoccupied detailing Gravcsend’s warlike side show that a racing fan was often hard put to find on the sports pages the simple facts about which horse had won each race. Each day at the track Pinkerton men, some in uniform, others in plain clothes, guarded the gates, locking them once the crowd was inside. But this was a little like latching the hen-house door after the fox had slipped through. For undetected in the crowd, disguiscd as pregnant women, ladies of fashion, gentlemen, or country bumpkins, were a number of gamblers, thieves, dips, touts, and ladies of the evening, allied with the bookmakers and loaded down with all manner of exotic signalling equipment.

As post times nearcd, they wigwagged semaphores and flags, waved umbrellas, walking canes, and handkerchiefs—one woman even waved a baby—to convey racing data to confederates outside the fences; these in turn passed the information on to telegraphers, who relayed it to the poolrooms in Manhattan, several miles away. Shoplifters brought carrier pigeons into the grounds, concealed in the secret pockets of their professional costumes; released with racing data tied to their legs, the birds took wing and headed for the betting emporiums. But beyond the fences, under the birds’ line of Might, marksmen lurked. The Pinkerton detectives were resourceful, too: they captured some of the pigeons inside the park, loaded the birds with incorrect results, and released them. Soon passionate cries of anguish were heard in the betting houses as operators realixed they had been paying off the wrong people, sometimes on horses that had run last.

Out at the track, meanwhile, clubbings, fights, and assorted strife swirled about the beleaguered gates. Frequently the crowd was treated to the stirring spectacle of a squad of sweating Pinkertons in full uniform flashing past the grandstand in pursuit of a fleeing poolroom suspect. All this added xest to the sport of kings; the Gravesend track was something like a castle under siege, with the Marx Brothers in the roles of invadcrs and the Keystone Kops manning ilie ramparts.

The conflict stemmed indirectly from the Ives Law, passed in iH??, which restricted legal beuing in New York state to racetracks. Naturally, the law made hutting with bookies more popular. Jn iMyy Manhattan had only four or five poolrooms, which operated behind barricaded doors equipped with peepholes. My iXyi, however, about sixty betting joints were running wide open. A few of them were pretentious and elegant, with mahogany furniture, gilt mirrors, and thick rugs. But most were big, barnlike places with dirty walls, cracked ceilings, and dusty windows. They ran three to the block in the Bowery as adjuncts to saloons, with dollar bets accounting for the bulk of business. All were packed with bettors six hours a day.

So popular had the poolrooms become, in fact, that the crowds at the tracks declined sharply; by iHyi, the daily fee the tracks collected from the Poolsellers Association did not make up for the loss in attendance.

The Brooklyn Jockey Club was controlled by Philip J. Dwyer and his brother, Michael, former butchers who had become interested in swift horses when they operated “the fastest meat delivery wagons in New York.” Now they owned a celebrated stable of race horses. Phil Dwyer, the club’s president, had a droopy mustache and a greater interest in money than in sport. Operating a racetrack in the red made no sense to him, and so, shortly before Gravcsend opened its 1891 spring season, he met with poolroom representatives and upped the daily fee to $4,000. The syndicate would not go higher than $1,600.