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Depression America Goes To The Horses

Faced with a deepening depression, most Americans of the 1930s looked for way to reduce risk in their lives. Many withdrew their savings—if their bank hadn’t yet failed—and buried they money in a mattress or a coffee can in the back yard. Some postponed marrying, or having children, for years. They dropped out of college and held onto whatever job they could find.

Others choose risk over caution. With everything in life feeling like a gamble, these Americans began taking chances that they never would have considered in prosperous times. So it’s not surprising to read, in a 1935 Post article, “The Betting Boom,” that racetrack gambling had become one of America’s few booming industries that year.

The author, Bryan Field, told how talk of higher tax revenues and employment enticed several states to legalize race-track betting. In the past three years, he wrote,

the number of states having racing and betting has risen from seven to twenty-seven, with more getting ready to leap on the band wagon. At the moment of writing, several other states have racing and betting measures in process of passage.

In the same period of time, the money handled in legalized wagering has risen to about $500,000,000 annually. [Roughly translated into 2011 money: $7 Trillion!]

Racetrack wagering had dropped in states where it had been permitted for years. All this recent growth, Field said, was in states that had recently legalized betting.

It is in such places that Old Scrooges and Happy Charlies alike have unearthed the tin can from beneath the brickwork in the cellar and put rainy-day money into circulation.

Taking an average of eight horses to a race, we get approximately 120,000 Thoroughbreds in action in 1934, as against a fraction of that number theretofore. There are only about 10,000 Thoroughbreds available in this country, so they have to be run over and over again—practically worn to a frazzle—in order to make up the number of horses indicated above.

Since 1932, when the inflationary expansion of racing began suddenly, the number of days of racing given has increased to almost 2000… The number of races in 1934 approximated 15,000.

Inevitably, this army of novice gamblers attracted crooks and con men. In 1930, they built a scheme around a little-known rule at the Kentucky Derby, which allowed an owner to nominate a horse for the race with no intention of actually running the horse. The scheme backfired in a most satisfactory way.

Rear View of the Machinery of the Tote

Rear View of the Machinery of the Tote Which prints and delievers your wage ticket and adjusts the odds in the same operation

Virtue scored something of a triumph when a sorry nag named Dick O’Hara ran true to form and finished last in the Kentucky Derby of 1930; for the fact that he ran at all caused the utter rout of a ring of Chicago slickers who thought they had a foolproof shortcut to fortune.

They almost had—if it hadn’t been for Dick O’Hara’s owner, the late Stanley Joyce.

Though Dick O’Hara was one of the worst of the season’s two-year racer crop, Joyce had nominated him for the Derby, partly for a gag and partly for a bit of publicity. It cost only twenty-five dollars, and no one expected that the horse would run, since it would take $500 just to place his name in the starting box and a lot more for the jockey, the trainer, and so on.

The nomination of such a hopeless candidate inspired the slicker’s dream—a lottery pegged on the Derby, plus a super-special come-on. Every ticket bearing the name of a horse which even started in the Derby, regardless of how he finished, was to win fifty dollars. And they instructed the printer to run off the vast majority of the tickets with the name of Dick O’Hara.

The lottery took Chicago like wildfire. Clerks, scrubwomen, janitors and other small-time gamblers snapped up chances on this cinch to win fifty dollars. But gradually, as news of the scheme spread, it became apparent that nearly everyone’s ticket was on the unlikeliest starter of them all.

The story got to Joyce. Furious that his horse should be used as a means of swindling thousands, he ordered the beast taken into seclusion, away from possible tampering; put his name in the starting box, to the unbelieving horror of the lottery-syndicate leaders, and ran him in the Derby—last, but in the field.

It was said that Joyce had operatives who watched the ringleaders and forced all who could be cornered to pay off.

Others of them also ran—away.

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  • Ima Ryma

    The Great Depression was a time
    When gambling on horse racing ’twas
    A golden stretch for doing crime.
    Suckers abounded for outlaws.
    Dick O’Hara was a race horse
    Named to the Derby as a joke,
    Who would not run and so, of course,
    I rigged the game to con the folk.
    A sure win just if the horse ran.
    The bets poured in as I forecast.
    A joke on me messed up my plan.
    The horse did run and came in last.

    My crime did not go the right way.
    I was the one who had to pay.