“Betting in a general sense is not a crime..”

If you think that little of racing note takes place in New York in February these days, imagine a century ago, when, though home to a handful of racetracks, New York didn’t conduct racing in the winter. And in the winter of 1913, racing hadn’t taken place in the state since September of 1910.

But in those dark days of February 1913, glimmers of light dawned on racing for the first time in two and a half years, and in the last week of the month, the sport made headlines every day.

On February 22, a seminal decision was upheld by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn in the case of Mr.  Paul Shane, arrested in June of 1912 at a meeting of the United Hunts Racing Association at Belmont Park. He was charged with bookmaking; he had, it was claimed, made several oral bets and asked those with whom he wagered to show him “memoranda” of their bets. While oral betting was OK, writing anything down with regard to a bet was prohibited.

The Court upheld the November 1912 decision of New York State Supreme Court Justice Townsend Scudder, a decision that set the stage for racing to come back to New York.  Shane asserted that he was neither a professional gambler nor bookmaker, and that he had broken no laws. Justice Scudder had agreed, saying, according to the Times,

I hold that the Legislature in inserting in 1910 in Section 986 of the Penal Law after the word ‘bookmaking’ the words ‘with or without writing,’ did not intend to make betting on horse races a crime, but did intend to deal with that form of professional gambling as “bookmaking.”

Such an information [in Shane’s case] fails to set forth the chief element of the crime of bookmaking as defined by the courts, in that, among other things, it fails to charge the defendant with the public quoting and offering of odds, with the solicitation of bets, with inducing the public to take chances with him in any scheme of odds, and with effecting with his method any passing of money or property.

When the racetracks had closed in 1910, it was because the directors of racetracks could legally be held liable for any gambling happening on track grounds, a situation that Scudder also addressed:

It is erroneous to say that any Director could be held liable under these conditions under the present law. Section 973 of the Penal Law must be strictly construed. This section prohibits the keeping of race tracks used for gambling, and no Director could be convicted of keeping a race track used for gambling unless it was proved that he had guilty knowledge that the place was not once, or twice, but continually used for gambling in the form of bookmaking, and that he had taken no effective means to stop it.

The issue was not betting—“betting in a general sense is not a crime,” according to the article–the issue was bookmaking, making a profit from taking wagers, and while that was still against the law, the decision of the Appellate Division opened the door for the return of racing to new York, absolving as it did the directors from responsibility for bookmaking on their premises.

The paper noted “a general feeling of rejoicing” in Charleston, where some New York horsemen were spending the winter, and in short order, the managers of the various racetracks in the metropolitan area would meet to discuss the re-opening of their facilities. Among the tracks under consideration for spring and summer meets: Belmont Park, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, Jamaica, Aqueduct, Empire City, and Saratoga, each of which was overseen by a different racing association.

“It would appear,” said the Times, “that the last bar to racing has been removed.”

Said Francis J. Pons, the manager of Palmetto Park:

 …the ruling meant much more than merely a resumption of racing. It meant a preservation of the thoroughbred horse and the calling of a halt on the wholesale exportations of the best horses to foreign lands.

Amen hallelujah!

To be continued…and click here for previous stories in the 1913 series…

Oral Bets On Track Upheld By Court.” New York Times, February 22, 1913.

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