02/20/2014 4:46PM

Outlaw tracks gave rise to winter racing

Fans stream into the old Guttenberg, N.J., racetrack, which held low-level races even in the harshest of winter weather.

The betting coup was set to come off just before Christmas 1891, allowing a one-horse trainer to get out from under his mortgage. In Bob Flaherty’s mind, the only thing capable of stopping his sure thing from winning was the blizzard forecast to slam the East Coast on race day.

But Flaherty knew that the prospect of a whiteout halting the card was laughable considering that his horse, Labor, was scheduled to race at Guttenberg – the outlaw New Jersey track atop a Palisades hillside notorious for running through all sorts of foul weather, no matter how perilous.
Plus, everybody familiar with the joint knew the gangsters in charge at Guttenberg had so much clout that they probably could buy off Mother Nature herself if they wanted to, just to make sure their betting factory kept cranking out races.

Given the track’s insider reputation and the benefit of hindsight, it was foolish for Flaherty to think he could ship a maiden who hadn’t won all summer at Sheepshead Bay across the Hudson River for an easy score against the Guttenberg locals. Flaherty should have been even more suspicious when, despite Labor being picked to win by numerous touts, he was offered 50-1 odds in the betting ring.

“The race was run in a blinding snowstorm,” The New York Times reported. “When a fog horn blew, the people in the glass hothouse that they call a grandstand knew the race had started. But of it they could see absolutely nothing.”

Neither, apparently, could the placing judges – presuming they weren’t in on the fix.

Knowing that Labor was superior to their castoff stock, the Guttenberg trainers allegedly sent ringers to the starting mark. On the first pass in front of the stands, the riders were instructed to allow the New York invader to attain a large lead. On the backstretch, the ringers galloped off the track.

Thinking he was cruising to an easy victory, jockey Snapper Garrison never knew what hit him when the real entrants – lurking on the far turn, obscured by the elements – blew by at the quarter pole. Labor struggled home last, trounced by Pliocene, an 11-year-old maiden.

“The scheme of the conspirators worked perfectly,” The Times recounted. “As the snow kept falling, nobody on the stands could possibly know what was going on.”

This tale of winter deception – like most skullduggery on New Jersey’s “frying pan circuit” some 120 years ago – is difficult to document and perhaps even apocryphal. The unregulated racing at Guttenberg and at least five other venues took place before the advent of result charts, racing commissions, and even The Jockey Club itself, which was formed in 1894 to help regulate the sport. The Thoroughbreds who raced once or twice a day were often unregistered or unnamed, and the jockeys, trainers, and owners were generally barred from licensure at more prestigious tracks.

But one long-forgotten fact is for certain: Guttenberg and its arch-rival competitor, Gloucester, were the pioneers of winter racing in the northern United States. A snow-obscured 1885 meet at Guttenberg predates by seven decades the oft-repeated claim that Bowie Race Track in Maryland was the forerunner of cold-climate racing, in the 1950s. Yet because these quasi-legal courses were considered so unsavory and disreputable, their existence was long ago whitewashed from the sport’s history.

Political squabbling over winter racing eventually shut down the sport in New Jersey for almost 50 years. But 21st-century horseplayers would recognize the 19th-century controversies that led to its demise: Callous treatment of Thoroughbreds as a “product” to churn betting handle, infighting between tracks over race dates, the daunting role of offtrack (in this case “pool room”) wagering, and rampant cheating fueled by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“As to the broad question of winter racing in New Jersey or any other northern state, this journal has never hesitated to characterize it in plain terms as an unmitigated curse, and a prostitution of the noblest of sports,” the publication Turf, Field and Farm editorialized in 1891.

“The so-called racing there was the veriest travesty on the sport,” The Times agreed two years later, after the Jersey tracks had been shuttered. “Jobbery of all kinds reigned supreme.”

But winter racing did not have to self-destruct the way it did, burdening cold-weather racing with a stigma that lasted far longer than the tracks that pioneered it.

“Guttenberg racetrack was not originally built as a gambling hell,” The Times eulogized in 1893. “It was [at first] an unpretentious place of eminent respectability.”

Idle winters

For most of the 19th century, Thoroughbred racing in America ceased when the calendar hit autumn. In 1883, New Orleans held what was a poorly attended January meet; it would be the better part of a decade before elite Northern stables embraced the idea of sending top stock south to race in the winter. Everyone else – horses and horseplayers – hibernated until spring.

In 1884, Brighton Beach Race Course in Coney Island raced into late December and its ownership contemplated running straight through winter. That plan was scrapped, but politically connected bookmaking tycoon Gottfried “Dutch Fred” Walbaum was intrigued by the idea of winter racing – it would provide betting fodder for his 10 New York pool rooms and East Coast bookie clients who paid for his telegraphed results service.

Walbaum secured the lease on a half-mile New Jersey trotting oval across the river from 100th Street in Manhattan. He evicted the driving club and renamed the new running-horse track after its neighborhood, Guttenberg (sometimes spelled Guttenburg). Walbaum formed the Hudson County Jockey Club, awarded himself unlimited dates, and stocked his board of directors with judges, assemblymen, and law enforcement officials.

New Jersey betting laws in the 1880s were constantly being overturned and rewritten. When wagering was illegal, tracks sidestepped the ban by buying off men of influence. With so many cops and politicians on the payroll, Walbaum and his crew “ran the county as absolutely as the Czar dominates Russia,” wrote author Steven A. Riess in his 2011 book, “The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime.”

New Jersey’s only other track in 1885, Monmouth Park, was a summer attraction whose racing rivaled the top-tier metropolitan circuit. But the horses Guttenberg courted were more blue-collar, and its winter meet was promoted as a way for small-scale horsemen to earn a living when racing everywhere else went dormant.

As the only game in town, Guttenberg was enthusiastically supported by gamblers – even though it was sometimes difficult to know who the horses were. The unsanctioned track routinely accepted entries like “the Gold Vase filly” or “the Virginia colt,” and owners who paid off the racing secretary were allowed to enter horses right up until the race went off. The races were largely sprints from four to six furlongs, but to appease breeders – by the 1880s, American horsemen already were concerned about short dashes devaluing stamina – heats of up to two miles were occasionally carded.

Daily purses were in the range of $3,000 for six races, and 30 bookies paid the rather pricey $100 daily fee for the privilege of setting up shop in the betting enclosure.

Running every day but Sundays, Guttenberg drew 3,000 people on weekdays and upward of 12,000 on Saturdays and holidays (Christmas included). It cost a buck to get in, and throngs arrived via the Weehawken ferry, a narrow-gauge steam train, or on rickety omnibuses. Within several seasons, Guttenberg management was considering “enormous passenger elevators, the largest in the world” to whisk racegoers straight from the ferry docks to the front gates.

“[Guttenberg is] the only spot or locality on the habitable world where horse racing has gone on without a single day’s interruption throughout an entire winter season,” the Lewiston [Maine] Evening Journal marveled (although the article later alluded to rare cancellations). “There has been racing at Guttenberg when the thermometer registered two degrees below zero, and when the snow everywhere save for the track itself was three feet deep.”

Guttenberg hired a sentry who remained awake all night and sounded an alarm at the first sign of snowflakes.

“At his prompt summons there issue from unexpected quarters detachments of men armed with shovels,” the Evening Journal reported. “It is no uncommon thing for half a hundred men, aroused from their beds at midnight by this watchman of the weather, to fight the falling snow increasingly until long after daylight or until it ceases.”

Guttenberg spawned imitators. Other “proprietary” New Jersey tracks were established at Linden, Elizabeth, Clifton, and Dundee, all strategically sited to siphon New York horseplayers.

The scions of the turf viewed the proliferation of low-class tracks like an infectious disease. But the sport lacked a central ruling body (sound familiar?), so the American, Coney Island, and Brooklyn jockey clubs tried to band together to bar any horse or human who competed for purses less than $500 on tracks less than a mile in circumference within 50 miles of New York.

The threat of banishment from the metro tracks did little to deter rogue horsemen, who now had year-round opportunities to make money on the other side of the Hudson River.

While concerns about integrity of the breed drove the sporting-class policies, the sketchy clientele whom the winter tracks attracted was what horrified the non-racegoing public.

“Nine-tenths of ‘the regulars’ that attend Jersey winter tracks are the hangers-on of gambling-houses and dives, frequenters of the pernicious pool-rooms of Gotham, and women of the streets,” Turf, Field and Farm scorned. “These races are patronized principally by the rag-tag and bobtail that cling to the outer skirts of the racing community.”

Game on at Guttenberg

Even though they were getting paid not to bother track officials, New Jersey police faced mounting pressure from church groups and the Law and Order League to raid the racecourses.

So, just for show – and with plenty of warning – the cops made ballyhooed sweeps at Guttenberg, cuffing scores of bet-takers on “keeping a disorderly house” charges.

“The bookmakers and officials arrested are just as quickly released on bail by a justice of the peace, who has established a convenient court in an unused stable just outside of the track,” the Evening Journal explained.

With an aura of invincibility, Walbaum poured profits back into Guttenberg. In 1889, he doubled the size of his course to a full mile, installing a state-of-the-art drainage system that rivaled newly built Morris Park in New York. Stabling for 800 horses was constructed, and a heated, glass-enclosed grandstand went up. Walbaum ordered 100,000 clubhouse badges printed and distributed for free.

Dutch Fred wanted to make a splash by running the first 2-year-old stakes of the year, so Guttenberg carded the Innovation Stakes as the track’s annual fixture on Jan. 1.

On Sept. 28, 1893, Guttenberg actually hosted a world-class race, a 1 1/4-mile match between retrospective champions Tammany (1892 Horse of the Year) and Lamplighter (who shared the 1893 older-male award). When the favored Tammany won by open lengths, his jockey was hoisted atop a horseshoe of flowers and paraded around the paddock while 15,000 strangers reportedly hugged and tossed their hats into the air.

But while Walbaum was putting a veneer on his dodgy betting factory, a winter racing rival emerged in southern New Jersey, aiming to undercut Guttenberg’s business by shifting the balance of power closer to Philadelphia.

William J. Thompson, the “Duke of Gloucester,” was an Irish-born saloon keeper who went from being a washed-up prize fighter to owning practically everything of value in Gloucester City, hard by the Delaware River on the Jersey side of the Pennsylvania border. He ran a hotel, casino, ferry, amusement park, trolley line, and a dump, and in 1890 he decided to turn the landfill into a three-quarter-mile racecourse and 5,000-seat grandstand.

Like Walbaum, Thompson stocked his staff with well-connected insiders (his starter was the speaker of the state assembly). He paid Philadelphia journalists not to write about the sorry quality of winter racing and to keep the names of politicians who frequented his dive out of the papers. At $250 per race, Gloucester offered half the purse money as Guttenberg, but the Duke slashed the price of admission to a quarter so the volume of low-level bettors would give a quantity-over-quality boost to his business.

“The contests were nearly always travesties, raced by horses that could win nowhere else, and fixed races were a matter of course,” Riess wrote. “There were races in which no owner instructed his jockey to win because they all sought betting coups by wagering against their own horses.”
Still, Gloucester was a starting point for some capable horsemen. Future Hall of Famers Sam Hildreth and William Burch saddled horses there in this era. James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, one of the most prolific trainers of the 20th century, got his start as a jockey at Gloucester, winning his first race three weeks after the track opened.

“I whipped and whipped, and I guess I won by a sixteenth of a mile,” Fitzsimmons told The Times in 1949. “I was the one that ought to have been whipped. Never did it much after that ... We raced at Gloucester all through the year, in every kind of weather. Sometimes it was so cold that they poured salt on the track to try and improve it a bit. Sometimes it was so cold that the reins froze.”

In 1891, Dutch Fred and the Duke engaged in furious one-upmanship: Walbaum paid Elizabeth and Linden to cede their dates to Guttenberg. Thompson tried to expand his empire south by securing a lease on the Ivy City course in Washington, D.C. Walbaum set his sights farther north, acquiring on-the-rocks Saratoga Race Course for a bargain $375,000 (he would remain at the helm of the Spa for nearly a decade). Both track owners were under indictment in New Jersey for gambling crimes at the time.

That same year, the Board of Control, composed of racing-industry bigwigs, was formed in New York to govern the sport. The board – the forerunner of the 1894 Jockey Club – had broad powers that covered licensing and dates, and its prohibitions against winter racing had sharper teeth. The Times editorialized that the board had the clout to stifle the “stench in the nostrils” emanating from Guttenberg and Gloucester. But the paper also acknowledged that the winter tracks still acted “superior to any organization that might try to regulate racing, or to keep its necessary attendant evils within bounds.”

The end, and winter revival

By 1893, winter racing dominated the New Jersey legislature. There was talk of sending out the state militia to stop it. Yet three bills favoring tracks were passed in quick succession: One permitted county and municipal authorities to license tracks, another clarified that tracks were not “disorderly houses,” and the third imposed only light fines for those who violated anti-gambling laws.

The brazen passage of pro-track measures only further enraged the public, and an anti-racing backlash swept the state. Thompson feared that all of racing would soon be restricted, so he had his pocketed politicians support a bill that would outlaw winter racing. The Duke’s gamble was that Gloucester could survive without the winter dates, but that Guttenberg would not.

Instead, reformers swept the legislature clean. The new regime, under tremendous public pressure, abolished all racing in New Jersey. Guttenberg, Gloucester, and Monmouth were abruptly out of business.

Thanksgiving Day 1893 was the final day of racing at Gloucester. A record crowd of 12,814 turned out to see the last performance of the longest race meet in American history: Excluding Sundays, Gloucester had run 590 consecutive dates.

“The horsemen are taking away the stock, and the hangers-on were to be found around the Gloucester saloons lamenting the fact that New Jersey was going to turn respectable,” The Times reported.

The new law caused a ripple effect. “The situation in New Jersey had an immediate negative impact on the turf in Chicago, where Washington Park closed up, and in New York, where racing was almost banned,” Riess wrote.

Still, other states, like Indiana, where a winter meet at Roby was under way, were banking on cold-climate racing. A legislative report predicted “it will become a universal custom in and about large cities,” and that Thoroughbreds racing in winter were subjected to no worse conditions than workhorses. “In support of this, it was suggested that all over the country horses used during the winter months in ordinary business engagements were subjected to hardships entirely unknown among the fleet-footed animals who are employed in winter racing and as tenderly cared for as human beings.”

But winter racing was shifting decidedly south and west to avoid the ice and snow. By 1900, New Orleans was the epicenter of November-through-March racing, and California tracks were starting to attract Eastern stables. Arkansas and Florida would not be far behind.

New Jersey remained dark during all seasons until Garden State Park came to life in 1942 and Monmouth reopened four years later. During this era, only Charles Town on the East Coast flirted with winter dates, closing as late as Dec. 21 in 1940.

By the 1950s, Bowie was regularly pushing back the start of its “spring” meet, and in 1958 the track opened earlier than ever, on Feb. 8. One week later, an 18-inch blizzard stranded 3,000 fans in the clubhouse. “When it snows, Bowie goes!” became the track’s motto, and its racegoers earned a grizzled reputation for overcoming adversities to make it out to the races.

This point was never more evident than on Feb. 2, 1961, when a train derailed near the track, killing six and injuring more than 200. Diehard fans smashed windows and scrambled over the dead and wounded in 15-degree cold, fearful of missing the daily double. “I saw people with blood all over them, standing there betting,” trainer King Leatherbury recounted to the Baltimore Sun almost 50 years later. “That’s what you call hardcore horseplayers.”

Winter racing had advanced as far north as Rhode Island by 1969 despite a rocky start: Lincoln Downs had to call off its inaugural January card after only two races when a pair of $1,500 claimers slipped and fell, prompting Steve Cady of The Times to wisecrack, “You can lead a horse to ice, but you can’t make him skate.”

Numerous states were soon vying for cold-weather dates, and even the tradition-bound New York Racing Association felt compelled to examine the possibility of winter racing. “I would hope the state doesn’t get too greedy,” NYRA Chairman Alfred G. Vanderbilt told The Times in 1970. “The season is long enough now.”

But the advent of offtrack betting meant a demand to create product to fill the winter months. Within six years, New York not only had year-round racing but had sacrificed a turf course at Aqueduct to install an inner dirt track specifically designed to withstand freeze-thaw cycles.

By the 1980s, the Northeast and Midwest were saturated with winter racing. In the 1990s, full-card simulcasting came into vogue, and some tracks no longer felt compelled to run in the winter when beaming in a televised betting product proved more cost-effective.

The 21st-century concept of racinos introduced another layer of complexity to winter racing – tracks funded by slot-machine and casino revenue are now legislatively mandated to run a certain number of racing programs, even if they’d rather not.

At some Northeast tracks where the racing slogs on through the winter, cancellations are frequent, and live winter racing seems like a burden or annoyance.

Or, as the Duke and Dutch Fred might phrase it, a snow job.