The Great Racetrack Gaper

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During that summer, while the track was idle, Dwyer had a sixty-five-foot-high wooden fence built, which completely blocked the view from the hotel’s cupola. The fall meeting was due to open on September 15. A day or so before the opening, the Herald reported a rumor that the syndicate would fly a balloon over Gravesend on each race day, with observers, operators, and a telegraph station in its basket. The poolsellers never actually used the balloon, but the strategy they did employ was perhaps even more spectacular.

At 3 A.M. on opening day, heavy wagons loaded with lumber, men, and tools rolled up to Sleight’s Hotel. The lumber was carried to the hotel’s cupola and the carpenters went to work. The World described their efforts: No circus tent ever went up faster. Ten feet into the air, then a staircase and a landing. Ten feet higher, another staircase, another landing. Another ten feet, another staircase and landing. The carpenters paused for breath.

It was daylight now and the Dwyer forces rallied in a hurry. A group of carpenters set to work to raise the fence still higher. Ten feet more, and the huge structure began to tremble with the weight of the workers. A breeze blew in from the bay and the men’s hats flew off. They climbed down, glad to be on earth again. They looked across at the Western Union tower.

“Give her another story,” commanded the [tower] foreman. The carpenters hammered and knocked together another staircase and ten more feet of altitude. The tower was now forty-two feet above the cupola and its top platform seventy-seven feet from the ground.

Western Union installed four wires and a half dozen operators in the new tower, the World reported, and stationed a guard at the door. In the gamblers’ camp an air of triumph prevailed. Peter De Lacy walked about “with a quiet smile and remarked that he was content.” He magnanimously handed a tendollar bill to some Gravesend employees and told them to “go blow it” on pie and milk. Racing Manager M. J. McKenna of Western Union “looked pleased,” the Sun recounted, as did “Little Abe” Hummel of Howe & Hummel, lawyers for the Poolsellers Association. From Manhattan, reports were arriving that De Lacy’s own poolroom was packed and that business was booming in all the betting places. Racing information was said to be coming in fine.

“The Brooklyn Jockey Club owns the racecourse,” De Lacy declared, “and has the right to withhold its news if it can. But I don’t think the effort will be a success. We need that information and we’re bound to get it.”

But Sleight’s Hotel was so situated that, even from their tower, telegraphers could not see the track’s finish line; in close races they had to guess the winners. Nor could they observe odds and scratches, which the management was now posting under the judge’s stand. When Western Union offered twenty-five dollars to the first person to get the information for each race through to the hotel, racegoers having no connection with either the syndicate or the telegraph company began to fling rubber balls filled with racing data over the fences. But the patrolling Pinkertons foiled most of these efforts.

The detectives also increased their vigilance over those admitted to the track. One day they noticed a tall young man in a close-fitting gray coat behaving strangely near the betting ring. He would button and unbutton his coat, raise and lower his hat, hold his pink sporting sheet at various angles, mop his brow, and bow in different directions. Sure enough, he was signalling post odds to a man seated in a tree outside the grounds who was apparently cooling himself vigorously with a palm-leaf fan. Actually he too was signalling, in Morse code, to observers in the tower. At about that time, the Sun reported, a carrier pigeon fluttered out of the grandstand’s second tier; catching sight of it, the crowd roared, “There it goes!” “There it goes!” Unfortunately, the message it bore had been insecurely fastened to its leg; as the bird circled overhead before streaking for its coop, the paper dropped into the paddock.

By the time the second day’s racing began, telegraph lines had been strung from barns and trees, with sending stations on some flat-topped stumps. The syndicate was reportedly paying $100 a day to a farmer named Young for the use of his two big locust trees as observation posts.

That night the Jockey Club’s carpenters increased the height of the fence that stood in front of Farmer Young’s trees. Next day the telegraphers climbed still higher, and the Gravesend carpenters appeared with more lumber. Lowering his binoculars, the man in the nearest tree shouted down to his telegrapher, “The horses are going to the post for the second race, and the Dwyers are building another fence!”

The World reported that one tree sitter received his signals from a baby, in the care of the “most innocent-looking woman in the grandstand.”

The woman did not look like a regular, and certainly the baby didn’t. It was a golden-haired, chubby little thing. When its mother—or alleged mother—secured the scratches and betting odds for the second race, she went down to within a few feet of the track, spread her shawl upon the ground and proceeded to amuse the baby.