The Great Racetrack Gaper


“The Poolroom King,” Peter De Lacy, a top gambler who dressed like a banker, said he considered all betting evil, but if people were going to gamble, it was no worse to do it in poolrooms than at racetracks. “If Phil Dwyer bars Western Union’s operators from the track, as he threatens to do,” De Lacy told the press, “we’ll send in messengers to bring out news of each race. But I don’t take any stock in Dwycr’s bluff. We defy the Dwyers.”

Dwyer was not bluffing. As the spring meeting began, he disconnected all telegraph wires out of Gravesend except one that served the newspapers.

Western Union then rented the old Sleight’s Hotel just outside Gravesend’s entrance and strung in lines. Once a well-known inn, Sleight’s was now a rickety, three-story shell with an old-fashioned cupola overlooking Gravesend’s starting post and home stretch. With what they could see from this vantage point, supplemented by the reports of Dc Lacy’s messengers shuttling in and out of the gates, Western Union telegraphers managed to meet their clients’ needs with few delays.

The Jockey Club president countered by transforming the track into a fortress garrisoned by 130 private policemen under the personal command of Robert A. Pinkerton, who with his brother, “Big Bill,” headed Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. Until now, newspaper accounts had featured fleecy prose hailing Gravesend’s racing as “spirited,” “delightful,” “splendid,” “positively brilliant.” Then, on the season’s fifth day, the news from the track shifted dramatically from the sports pages to page one. “TRACK A PRISON,” screamed the New York World . “ THOUSANDS PENNED UP ON BROOKLYN RACE COURSE. PINKERTON SLUGGERS CLUB INOFFENSIVE CITIZENS .”

The Pinkertons locked the gates, according to the World , after some eight thousand people had passed in “as guileless as the wide-mouthed shad which the Spring tides sweep into the fishermen’s nets.” The World and the Herald castigated the Jockey Club president as “King Philip, The First” and called the Pinkertons “hybrid policemen” and “chuckle-heads.” Both newspapers recounted in horrendous detail the pitiful appeals of patrons to be let out of the track. “I must get to New York,” one old gentleman shouted. “I have an important engagement.”

“I don’t care a damn about your engagement. Nobody can leave this track,” said the guard. “Them’s my orders.”

The Herald quoted one “big fellow” who begged, “I am ill; I need a doctor. I’ve just had a hemorrhage.” The Pinkertons were unmoved. A woman with a sick baby pleaded to get out, “but the guards were merciless.”

Said an outraged Englishman to an American friend: “You call this a free country, do you? And yet I’m told when I come in here that I can’t leave until ii certain hour. That’s not liberty. It’s tyranny. Wc wouldn’t stand it on the other side.” The World told of a KciHuckian who drew a big horse pistol and walked out grandly while “every Pinkerton in sight sought shelter.” The newspaper added that “the hammering of Pinkerton clubs on other men’s heads sounded like the popping of firecrackers on the Fourth of July.”

The New York Times and the Sun , which were against gambling, called these charges “absurd.” The persons most eager to leave the track, the Times said, “were almost without exception employees of the gambling syndicate or Western Union,” which company “ought to be called to account for violating anti-gambling laws.”

When the locked gates halted direct smuggling of information, the syndicate undertook fancier measures. Its telegraphers in the hotel cupola had a clear view of the paddock but not of the finish line, so operatives inside the gates performed as “horses”: each one held a placard bearing a number corresponding to an entry in each race; after the official results were posted, they galloped across the paddock in the order in which the horses had finished. The watching telegraphers duly transmitted the results. The Pinkertons soon began chasing the horses, who in their scramble to escape were not always able to flee in the proper sequence; transmitting correct results was a problem. Some poolroom agents now equipped themselves with hollow wooden balls; they stuffed these with papers on which were scribbled odds, jockeys, and results; then they flung the balls over the fences, hoping that associates outside would retrieve them. But the Pinkertons patrolled so vigilantly that few balls fell into the hands for which they were intended; some of them struck bystanders on the head, the Time reported, and at least one man was knocked insensible.

The track remained in a state of siege during the rest of the spring meeting. Fighting flared now and then at the gates. The Pinkertons roped off the paddock and continued to chase ball throwers. When the gamblers’ telegraph lines suddenly went dead, the bookmakers claimed sabotage and offered a $5,000 reward for capture of the saboteur.