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The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime

Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York, 1865-1913

Steven A. Riess

Publication Year: 2011

Thoroughbred racing was one of the first major sports in early America. Horse racing thrived because it was a high-status sport that attracted the interest of both old and new money. It grew because spectators enjoyed the pageantry, the exciting races, and, most of all, the gambling. As the sport became a national industry, the New York metropolitan area, along with the resort towns of Saratoga Springs (New York) and Long Branch (New Jersey), remained at the center of horse racing with the most outstanding race courses, the largest purses, and the finest thoroughbreds. Riess narrates the history of horse racing, detailing how and why New York became the national capital of the sport from the mid-1860s until the early twentieth century. The sport’s survival depended upon the racetrack being the nexus between politicians and organized crime. The powerful alliance between urban machine politics and track owners enabled racing in New York to flourish. Gambling, the heart of racing’s appeal, made the sport morally suspect. Yet democratic politicians protected the sport, helping to establish the State Racing Commission, the first state agency to regulate sport in the United States. At the same time, racetracks became a key connection between the underworld and Tammany Hall, enabling illegal poolrooms and off-course bookies to operate. Organized crime worked in close cooperation with machine politicians and local police officers to protect these illegal operations. In The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime, Riess fills a long-neglected gap in sports history, offering a richly detailed and fascinating chronicle of thoroughbred racing’s heyday.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations and Tables

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xxii

It has only been since the late 1970s that historians finally recognized the importance of sport in American history, and they subsequently produced excellent books on the subject.1 However, they barely recognized the prominent role of horse racing in the nation’s history. Thoroughbred racing was the first major sport in early America and, following the Civil War, was one of the three great American spectator sports, along with baseball and boxing, long before people...

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pp. xxiii-xxiv

This project has seemingly taken forever to complete. I would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped the project along with a Summer Research Grant in 1992. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) showed unusual patience in granting me three sabbaticals for my work on horse racing. I also received four research grants from the Committee on Organized Research dating back to 1990 to purchase microfilm copies of the New York Morning Telegraph...

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1.The Rise of Horse Racing in America

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pp. 1-15

Horse racing was the most important sport in early America, even if not permitted in certain colonies because of concerns about gambling. The sport provided the emerging upper class with a means to demonstrate prowess, manliness, and self-confidence; display wealth; and certify social status. Racing developed in the last third of the seventeenth century, although there apparently was a race as early as 1607 when the Jamestown town council banned...

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2. The American Jockey Club and the Rebirth of the New York Turf

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pp. 16-45

Northern racing was virtually moribund from the mid-1840s through 1861, even though an 1854 New York State law permitted the formation of turf organizations “to improve the breed of horses.” In 1861, for instance, a one-day meet at the Fashion Course was the only race in the entire Northeast. However, one year later, though the Civil War was in full swing, there were twenty-four days of racing in the Northeast. Racing at Long Island’s Union Course...

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3. The Emergence of the Brooklyn Racetracks, 1879–86

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pp. 46-78

In 1879, Jerome Park, a snobbish and extremely popular haunt of the “400 Hundred,” started the year as the only thoroughbred track in the immediate metropolitan area. However, its monopoly was soon broken with the opening of two thoroughbred tracks in Coney Island, a distant resort in southern Kings County, which, over the next two decades, would become the national playground of America. The Coney Island Jockey Club (CIJC), which established...

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4. The Ives Pool Law of 1887

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pp. 79-100

The cornerstone of New York racing was, like everywhere else, the gambling, which in the 1880s was primarily with bookmakers. The 1877 Anti-Pool Law made the keeping of any room to record wagers or sell pools on human feats, animals, or elections illegal and was enforced mainly against the Jerome Park Racetrack, but racing circuits in the rest of the state encountered little interference. In the mid-1880s, reformers like...

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5. Politics and the Turf in New Jersey, 1870–94

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pp. 101-136

The Garden State was a major racing center in the post–Civil War era, highlighted by Monmouth Park, one of the most prestigious courses in the country. By 1890, there were six tracks in operation, five of which were profit-oriented proprietary facilities. The owners had powerful political connections, just like in New York City, and used their influence to advance and protect their racing...

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6. From the Board of Control to The Jockey Club, 1891–94

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pp. 137-174

In 1890, thoroughbred racing was so popular in New York that President C. F. Prince of baseball’s third major league, the newly established Players’ League, complained to his colleagues, “Horse racing, to all intents and purposes, has superceded the national game in popular favor in this city.”1 Although this statement might have been an exaggeration, New York remained the national center of racing, with huge crowds attending prestigious and lucrative...

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7. The Poolroom Business in Metropolitan: New York,1863–98

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pp. 175-213

All opponents of sports betting agreed that their biggest enemy was illegal off-track betting parlors, known as poolrooms.1 Poolrooms originated as betting rooms set up to take wagers on races at nearby tracks, often the night before the race, starting in 1863 when Dr. Robert Underwood established the first “poolroom” in the basement of the United States Hotel. The term first appeared in the...

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8. New York Racing under Attack, 1894–96

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pp. 214-234

By late 1894, there was a lot of momentum behind the efforts of reformers to end horse race gambling in New York State, especially since neighboring New Jersey had just closed its racetracks and Chicago’s prestigious Washington Park also halted operations. The antigambling coalition focused its attention on the meeting in September of the fifth state constitution convention, and the first since 1867...

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9. A Glorious Decade of Racing: The New York Turf, 1897–1907

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pp. 235-263

Metropolitan New York continued to be the dominant site of American racing at the turn of the nineteenth century. Between 1896 and 1905, the total gross receipts of the licensed New York tracks rose from about $500,000 to nearly $4 million, with total purses of $1.5 million.1 The city had two of the most prestigious tracks in Sheepshead Bay and Morris Park, the latter replaced in 1905 by the superlative new Belmont Park, and successful proprietary courses. There was also...

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10. The Gambling Trust and the Poolrooms, 1899–1913

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pp. 264-301

Public opinion makers, ranging from muckrakers to capitalists and theologians, from progressives to conservatives, all reviled off-track gambling. As much as critics took racetracks to task for their flaws, the turf did have its advocates for the positive contributions the sport made to promote the breed, provide employment, raise money for the state, and entertain fans, and even the on-track gambling that...

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11. The Demise and Resurrection of Racing in New York, 1907–13

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pp. 302-348

The future of American racing in 1907 was bleak outside of a few states. Only twenty-seven racetracks remained, of which eight were in New York. The other courses were in Arkansas (one), California (two), Kentucky (three), Louisiana (four), Maryland (one), Massachusetts (three), Pennsylvania (three), Washington, DC (one), and an outlaw track in Norfolk, Virginia. In addition, Canada had six tracks.1 Even in the Empire State, where the racecourses promoted...

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12. Conclusion: Racing, Machine Politics, and Organized Crime

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pp. 349-358

Horse racing was the oldest major American spectator sport, and one of the most popular, yet the turf’s success often hung by a thread because of its connection to wagering. Attending races provided an extremely exhilarating afternoon for people who wagered on the events, but without betting, people were not interested in watching horses run around the course. In the late nineteenth century, racetracks were the only places in the United...


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pp. 358-359


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pp. 361-412


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pp. 413-430


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pp. 431-446

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815651543
E-ISBN-10: 0815651546
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609858
Print-ISBN-10: 081560985X

Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 20 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Horse racing -- Political aspects -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Organized crime -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Horse racing -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Political corruption -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
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