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the sport of kings and the kings of crime

11 august 2011

I left Lone Star Park after six races on a Friday night last spring; the remaining events on the card were maiden special-weights races and claiming races so cheap owners would practically have to pay to get a claimed horse carted away. The crowd, as usual, consisted of about a hundred guys my age or older, pencils in hand, hunched over their racing forms. But as I was heading to my car, I passed a steady stream of young people filing into the park, and passed many more in their cars on the way in. This sport has life in it yet, I thought, if they can get teenagers out for the back end of a nondescript racing card.

Until I reflected for a moment and realized that all these teenagers were flooding into the park to hear a post-racing concert by some country artist I'd never heard of. I suddenly felt even older than before. Not only is thoroughbred racing moribund, but the only way tracks can remain open is to offer up some attraction totally unrelated to racing. How long before one of my favorite sports ceases to exist in my vicinity?

At that point, I hadn't yet read Steven Riess's new book The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime. If I had, I'd probably have taken a longer view. Horse racing has had a long and extremely inconsistent past in the United States, and the best extrapolation one can draw from it's history is that it's likely to have a long and inconsistent future.

The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime is a curiously-produced book, somehat at odds with itself. The text is standard academic history. Marked by Riess's customary thoroughness, a meticulous exposition of the legal, economic, and social history of racing in New York City and environs unfolds across its 350 pages and another 80 of footnotes and index. There are some handsome black-and-white period illustrations – engravings and photographs – and the book is larger in shape than the typical university-press monograph. At $45.00, it's expensive for a hardcover, but not outrageously so; for a university-press title, it's positively cheap. Clearly Syracuse has an idea that the book will find a market among those who collect anything to do with racing, or just horses in general. The book as physical object speaks to a continuing American love affair with the horse, despite the vagaries of the sport that Riess discusses.

But I hope it isn't unfair to this exemplary work of history to point out that it lacks both a compelling narrative and an incisive thesis. The thesis of the book really amounts to "a bunch of stuff happened in this order," and the events related soon take on a repetitive, swarming sameness. Between 1865 and 1913 in New York State, racetracks opened and closed. The sport itself was sanctioned, banned, sanctioned again, and banned again, in a dizzying cycle. Laws to regulate racing and its attendant gambling were passed, repealed, and passed again in different forms. Money was made and lost (Riess offers several tables and charts to show how much, and when). A parade of Tammany crooks and racetrack crooks and just plain crooks kept a stranglehold on the money that passed out of bettors' hands, making sure that just enough of it returned to the bettors to keep them coming back to lose more.

When I was a kid in 1960s Chicago, a moral certainty of American sports was that, unless you were in dissolute Las Vegas, you had to be at a racetrack to lay money on a horse. This state of affairs seemed so natural that I assumed it had ever been thus. Not so, Riess demonstrates. For one thing, for substantial periods of American history, in many states, you couldn't bet on races anywhere, and many states had no racetracks at which to place a bet. (This has been intermittently true of Texas for much of its history; when I arrived here, there were temporarily no racetracks. Current tracks, including Lone Star, were built only after state law was relaxed in 1987 to permit wagering.)

For another, the system of racetrack wagering and downtown bookies was itself an artifact of regulations like the Ives Pool Act of 1887, which permitted bookmaking at New York tracks, but outlawed bookmaking off-track. If that sounds like a Prohibition-era measure, it certainly was. Earlier arrangements had sometimes allowed betting and sometimes prohibited it altogether. Proscription of off-track bookmaking reflected a class dynamic. Riess quotes an early commentator: "An entertainment cannot be popular and select at the same time" (29). By sanctioning on-track bets and outlawing off-track, lawmakers hoped to limit access to gambling to the middle and upper classes who could afford it. Working men and women, unable to take afternoons off to go to suburban tracks in person, saw their horse habit criminalized.

Riess shows how betting flourished under three dispositions during the late 19th century: auction pools, where tickets on individual horses go to the highest bidders (thus favoring the rich); totalizator systems, which automatically calculate odds relative to the bets laid by other bettors (but were oddly unpopular for a long time, perhaps because of their impersonality); and books, where the odds are set by professionals whose livelihood depends on balancing winners against losers (always popular, especially with smaller bettors). The first and third of these systems are today largely unheard of; I hadn't heard of the antiquated "auction-pool" system till I read Riess's book. But bookmaking off-track was healthy when I was a child, alongside tote betting on-track. The coming of OTBs and simulcasting has made bookmaking, in this country at least, a lost art.

The wonder of it is that bookmaking survived at all, because laws like the Ives Act were meant to extinguish it. But of course, like the prohibition of liquor, prohibiting OTB just drove it into the open closets of the "poolrooms," named for the auction pools they'd once hosted. Placing a bet on a nag, in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, was as difficult as getting a drink there 20 years later: you had to elbow aside a huge crowd of other customers to lay down your money.

Hence Riess's double title; horse racing was for many years inextricable from organized crime. Perhaps it languishes today because an element of the forbidden has been lost? There are so many things one can gamble on in 2011: casinos everywhere, Internet poker, fantasy football and baseball, real football and basketball, OTB in many states, simulcasting in many others. Not that long ago, horse racing had an edge of illegality about it, a pleasant scent of tobacco and old men and lead pencil. Now the track seems just another big-screen device to detach people from their money, and the grandstand just another concert venue.

Riess documents one epoch in the variable fate of racing in two American states (though the subtitle only mentions New York, New Jersey proves intimately linked to the Empire State in terms of racing history). The book is more valuable as documentary source than as story or cultural commentary. It's probably a book I will keep, as source material for an understanding of sport, culture, and economics in America. But unless you have an inordinate love of racing or a completist's attitude toward sport history, you're unlikely to find it of great reading interest.

Fortunately, though the kings of crime have largely faded, the sport of kings, despite "its ups and downs" (355), retains a hoofhold in the American imagination. Steven Riess helps racing keep that status awhile longer.

Riess, Steven A. The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse racing, politics, and organized crime in New York, 1865-1913. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011. xxi + 446 pp. $45.00 cloth.