- Historic Sites
The Great Racetrack Gaper
The bookies had to get racing data from paddock to betting parlor. All at once some very shady characters began showing up at the entrance to the track
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
While the little one kicked its heels in the air, filled its little mouth with tiny fingers and said “goo-goo” the young woman waved a green parasol up and down before its delighted eyes. It didn’t make any difference to the baby that each motion of the parasol was a Morse Code dot or dash. And Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Pinkerton stood twenty feet away at the judge’s stand and didn’t suspect a thing. This little by-play was repeated after the second and third races. Then the new fence and a rainstorm broke up the combination.
Meanwhile, at one entrance the gatemen were challenging a woman. One grabbed at her clothes and a pigeon squawked. “Why,” said a detective, “she’s got enough pigeons on her to stock a good-sized loft. That dress has pockets all the way down. We know too much about shop-lifters to be fooled by a game like that.”
Nevertheless, the poolsellers’ lawyers estimated that fully a hundred pigeons were smuggled into the track that day. The Jockey Club reportedly hired “Snapper” Garrison, an unemployed jockey with a reputation as a champion pigeon shot.
Despite such efforts, signallers continued to infest the grounds. Red, white, blue, yellow, and green handkerchiefs fluttered from many points. The Pinkertons hustled a half dozen men out the gate for twirling their mustaches and walking sticks in a “suspicious” manner. One of them charged that he had been degraded when paraded in custody before the grandstand, and announced that he would sue.
The track management further confounded the poolroom forces by concealing the names of entries until twenty minutes before post time for each race. A printer named Eagan was employed to run the information off on slips of paper, using a portable press set up at the track. “The crowd lay in wait for the messengers who distributed the slips and rushed upon them with much scrambling,” the Herald reported.
Gradually, it seemed, the cops were beating the robbers. Conditions at the betting places in Manhattan were dismal. Crowds melted, and the bettors who did come complained loudly of the poor service. At De Lacy’s own place, the announcer said at 2:42 P.M. , “They’re at the post at Brooklyn.” It was thirty-two minutes later when he got the word, “They’re off at Brooklyn!” One place had the horses running in the stretch for two minutes. Some betting rooms posted signs, “Not Responsible For Errors In Weights And Jockeys.” All this encouraged the antigambling Times to headline its lead story: “ POOL MEN BEATEN AT LAST .”
But the poolroom forces had a few tricks left. The next afternoon a pole was set up near Gravesend’s lower turn, its top poking above the fence like the head of a great serpent. A telegrapher climbed on spikes to the crossarm near the top, took off his hat, and bowed solemnly in the direction of President Dwyer’s box. Then he hauled up a telegraph key and fastened it to the pole. “In three minutes,” the Herald reported, “he had a little telegraph office in operation, ninety feet in the air. He was a facetious little man as well as a bold one. No sooner was his shop in order than he pulled a national flag from his pocket and nailed it bravely to the top of the pole.”
That night workmen planted another pole in a yard east of the track. It stood 120 feet high. When its telegrapher reached the top the following day, he was greeted by his colleague atop the shorter pole on the lower turn, who snatched his flag from the mast and waved it around his head.
At this point, the Pinkertons began to raise their own poles within the grounds. Each carried a great spread of canvas, like the mast of a sailing ship, which effectively blocked the views from the poles outside. Even so, the pole sitters returned to their perches on the days that followed, although the Pinkertons were certain they could see nothing of value. Pigeons had been cleared from the grounds, ball-throwing had ceased, and no signallers were in sight.
Still there was a leak somewhere. “By some mysterious means,” said the World , “whether by necromancy, juggling or what, the ‘pool rooms’ yesterday seemed in their normal condition. Betting was in full swing on all the events at Brooklyn. Jockeys, with the exception of the first race, were listed. No one seemed to know how the information from Brooklyn had been obtained.”
Robert Pinkerton and his men managed to unravel the mystery before the fall meeting ended. What they discovered was proclaimed in these World headlines: “ ELECTRICITY IN THE HAT. THE MOST INGENIOUS SCHEME YET FOR OBTAINING RACING NEWS .”
“Every afternoon,” the Herald explained the next day, a “handsome barouche, drawn by a pair of spirited horses, whirled a party of ladies and gentlemen to the lawn just above the betting ring. The driver parked his vehicle at a spot near the track, and the party seemingly turned themselves to enjoying a holiday. They had lunch and wine and cigars in plenty and seemed bent on nothing but enjoying the sweets of life.…”