The Great Racetrack Gaper


Had the Pinkertons scrutinized the barouche more carefully, they might have noticed that the coachman wore an unusually tall silk hat and that he kept his seat on the box while members of the party visited the betting ring or viewed the races. They returned to the carriage now and then, ostensibly to refresh themselves. This continued daily until five days before the season ended, when Pinkerton and his men raided the coach. The picnicking group was headed by Joseph W. Frost, an electrician and president of the Automatic Fire Alarm Company, 317 Broadway. He was accompanied by his wife, Eliza, and their ten-yearold son; Frost’s brother, a onetime Indian agent and now manager of a Washington, D.C., hotel; a Mrs. C. A. LaViIIe; and the coachman, C. S. Pearsall, who, not entirely by coincidence, was a telegrapher.

It developed that Joseph Frost had arranged with the syndicate to supply complete racing information from Gravesend to Western Union for $1,000 a day, and he had succeeded in doing so for six days. Pearsail’s tall coachman’s hat had a hole in the center of its top the size of a half dollar. Inside the hat was a small electric light powered by batteries concealed in the coach. Under his clothing Pearsall wore a network of wires that connected the light with the batteries and with a telegraph key hidden on the coach floor.

Members of the party brought him information on odds, jockeys, and the like from the betting ring. The finishes Pearsall observed himself, simply by standing up in the carriage. He sent a running story by operating the key with his foot, causing the light in his hat to go on and off in Morse code. The telegraph operator in the hotel tower could not see the finish line or the posted odds, but he had a fine view of the top of the coachman’s hat. Somehow or other the Pinkertons were tipped off, and suddenly one afternoon Robert Pinkerton himself leaped into the carriage and dragged Frost from it. During the struggle, Mrs. Frost screamed, “Turn that man loosel” and hit Pinkerton (he said later) on the head with her parasol. She claimed that Pinkerton had grabbed her by the throat and choked her. As the party was led away, Frost bellowed, “You’ll suffer for this, as I have the Western Union Telegraph Company and ten million dollars at my back.” The bookmakers left their stands and shouted in excitement. Bettors abandoned the ring and shouted encouragement to the Frosts. One man jumped over the fence, snatched off his coat, and, directing his ire at die Pinkertons, yelled, “Come on and hang ‘em!” The crowd in the ring shouted, “Lynch ‘em!” “Lynch ‘em!”

Fortunately, nobody was lynched, and the carriage episode became the final act of “the Great Battle of Gravesend” as public spectacle. Thereafter, De Lacy and his cohorts resorted to more subtle strategems.

By instituting or backing a number of lawsuits during the decade following 1891, De Lacy secured several lower court decisions holding the Ives Law unconstitutional. Since that law had declared that the only place a man could get down a legal bet was at a racetrack, these findings had the effect, temporarily, of making all betting a crime in the state. Thus, in 1893, De Lacy secured the arrest of Phil Dwyer, by then a millionaire who controlled most of the racing in the metropolitan area, but the charges were dismissed in the higher courts. Meanwhile, track managements were bringing pressure on the police to close the poolrooms. De Lacy’s own place was closed in 1893, but at the turn of the century the tenacious “Poolroom King” was still plaguing racetrack managements with arrests and lawsuits.

The man who came close to wrecking thoroughbred racing in New York state was not De Lacy, however, but the reform governor—and future presidential candidate, Secretary of State, and Chief Justice—Charles Evans Hughes. His administration outlawed all racetrack betting, and that closed every established track in the state after the end of the 1910 season. But racing interests got this law repealed in time to resume in 1913, and the sport of kings has thrived ever since.

Not, however, in Brooklyn: old Gravesend Racetrack, which closed with the others, failed to re-open in 1913. Brooklyn was changing from a center of sport to a “city of homes,” and the land was later sold for real-estate development.

In the past few years, urged on mainly by New York City, which hopes for increased tax revenues, some members of the state legislature have made serious attempts to legalize off-track betting. They have not succeeded to date, but the idea refuses to die. It is possible that after all this time Peter De Lacy may eventually win his point.