Through the last week of February 1913, racing fans waited with hope. Earlier in the month, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had upheld a 1912 New York State Supreme Court ruling that a man making a private bet at a racetrack was not breaking the law, and that race track operators could not be held responsible for gambling taking place on the tracks under their authority.
It was that managerial responsibility that had led to the tracks closing in September of 1910; the ruling appeared to remove the last barrier to a return of horse racing to New York State after a nearly three year absence.
But the sport’s leaders proceeded with caution: racing executives waited to hear from their lawyers, and the Jockey Club wouldn’t make a statement until they’d heard from the race track managers. (As August Belmont, Jr., was both a racetrack operator and a Jockey Club steward, he was apparently in the solipsistic position of waiting to hear from himself.)
By February 26, though, the Daily Racing Form felt confident enough about racing’s re-birth to run a headline declaring “Momentous Day In East” atop an article in which The Herald asserted,
It is now a settled fact that admirers of the sport can safely attend the races without running the risk of being charged with breaking the law and the next logical step on the part of the racing associations is to open their gates and invite the public to again flock to their grounds and view the equine struggles which are so necessary to demonstrate the superiority of the race horse over the merely ornamental one.
Recapping the legal case, the Form noted that the unanimous ruling favored “a person who desires to risk his money on the conclusion in his mind that one race horse has more stamina and speed than another.”
Judge John J. Graham, attorney for Paul Shane, the man who had been accused of illegally gambling, declined to speculate on the effect of the decision on the future of racing in the state but did acknowledge that he would “not be surprised” to see racing resume. He is quoted as saying, “’The great success which attended the meetings held last year by the United Hunts Association, and the Piping Rock Club, showed conclusively that there is a strong demand for high-class sport even though betting of all kinds is absolutely barred, as was done at these meetings.’”
On the same day, the New York Times reported that August Belmont, Jr. (perhaps after a colloquy with himself) summoned the Jockey Club’s stewards to a meeting to discuss re-opening the state’s racetracks. Two issues, the article said, were on the table: whether to wait until the Court of Appeals upheld the decision on oral betting, and whether oral betting alone would permit the sport to be profitable.
Aimed at bookmakers, the 1908 Hart-Agnew Law stipulated that any written form of betting was illegal, while oral betting was deemed within the scope of the law. Racing patrons could continue to bet among friends, but the money paid by bookmakers to the tracks would be lost, a significant loss of revenue. One possible solution? A new form of betting popular overseas. Wrote the Times, “…bookmaking still stands forbidden, but it is thought possible that betting might be conducted under the ‘Pari mutuel’ plan in vogue on foreign race tracks.”
In vogue, perhaps, in Europe, pari-mutuel betting wouldn’t come to New York for several decades.
Nonetheless, optimism reigned, as the Times declared “that there will surely be racing is the feeling.”
On the 27th of February, the Jockey Club held a “private conference with newspaper men,” announcing that legal advisors had given racing the go-ahead. “It now remains,” wrote the Daily Racing Form, “for the clubs and men interested to get together and arrange a subscription fund,” in order to fund the functioning of the tracks. Racing would almost certainly begin on May 30 at Belmont, followed by a meeting at Saratoga, with dates at Empire City and Aqueduct to be determined.
Not all the news was good, though: the two Brooklyn tracks, Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay, were not likely to survive. “It is said that [they] can not remain much longer without being cut up into building lots. There is not much expectation of either reopening again for racing.”
Still, a “give me liberty or give me death” feeling emanated from one track official, who likened the judicial decisions to the vanquishing of tyranny:
All we need…is the same measure of liberty inside the track gates as on the street. We don’t ask for special privileges or exemptions. If the public is not in danger of arrest for doing on a race course what they may do freely and with impunity in any other place in this great state, and if our directors are not liable to arrest because of something which is perfectly legal and of which they have no knowledge, anyway, then the tracks in this state will open, and a great public sport will be revived. It is not unlawful or criminal to bet, but under the system of persecution aimed at racing in this state people would be imprisoned if they bet on a race track. The Appellate Court’s decision has destroyed that oppression. Therefore the revival of racing is at hand. (“New York Racing In Sight”)
“A Momentous Day in Racing,” Daily Racing Form, February 26, 1913
“Belmont Calls Stewards,” New York Times, February 26, 1913
“New York Racing in Sight,” Daily Racing Form, February 28, 1913