HOW FRENCH POOLS SAVED CHURCHILL DOWNS AND THE KENTUCKY DERBY

In 1908, Churchill Downs faced the distinct possibility that the 34th Kentucky Derby would not be run and the racetrack would go out of business. Ultimately, Churchill Downs remained open and the Derby went off as scheduled, but only because of then-general manager Matt Winn’s last-gasp gamble on pari-mutuel wagering.

Winn, the executive who built the Kentucky Derby into the premier race in America, described in his book Down the Stretch the ominous situation he faced and how he went about solving it to keep both the racetrack and the Derby alive.

The president of Churchill Downs, Charles Grainger, had political enemies amongst what Winn called “The City Hall group” that ran Louisville municipal government in 1908. The City Hall faction of the Democratic party intended to punish Grainger–a leader of a rival branch of Democrats, who was a former Louisville mayor and owner of an iron foundry–by shutting down the Kentucky Derby through invoking a ban on bookmaking and sending in the sheriff to enforce it.

Winn decided to try to keep the Derby on schedule by replacing illegal bookmaking with pari-mutuel betting, also known as “French pools.” An 1878 amendment to a Louisville law that prohibited machine wagering on roulette wheels provided a loophole: “This act shall not apply to persons who may sell combination, or French pools, on any regular race track…”

However, City Hall and the sheriff persisted in their vendetta and contended that pari-mutuel wagering was illegal and would not be permitted. Churchill Downs then went to court and got an injunction to stop City Hall and the sheriff until the Kentucky Court of Appeals could hear the case (this court eventually sided with Churchill Downs’ right to conduct pari-mutuel wagering).

The next step was what Winn called a “frenzied hunt” to find pari-mutuel machines in time for the 1908 Derby. (Pari-mutuel machines had operated at Churchill Downs between 1878 and 1889, but were shelved after bookmakers complained about the competition.) Three machines were located and a fourth was cobbled together from spare parts. One was found in a storage room at Churchill Downs, another came from a pawn shop, and a souvenir hunter had one in his collection. Two more machines were shipped to Louisville from a racetrack in New York, as pari-mutuel wagering had been tried there in the 1870s but was abandoned when it proved to be unpopular.

After getting the machines in working order, which was no small undertaking, the next step was figuring out how to calculate payoffs, especially for place and show bets. The task was simplified to a great deal by the fact that the machines only took $5 bets. Flyers titled “Pari-Mutuels, How Calculated” were distributed on Derby Day 1908 and explained, for example, the mathematics behind win and place payoffs and how payoffs would be determined in the event of a dead heat. Winn had tickets printed on special paper and with a distinct emblem, along with his signature, to guard against forgery. (The illustrations shown below are (a) the cover page of the flyer handed out to attendees at the 1908 Derby and (b) the explanation from the flyer for calculating straight bets.)

The six pari-mutuel machines used at Churchill Downs for the Derby handled $67,570 for the full race card including $18,300 bet on the Derby. Bettors also had access to auction pools, which had an additional handle of $12,669.

After the 1908 rescue with the antiquated pari-mutuel machines, Churchill Downs had the first American pari-mutuel machines made in Charles Grainger’s foundry. The new machines took bets of $2, $5, and $10. 

Had it not been for Matt Winn’s creativity, French pools, an obscure amendment to a Louisville anti-gambling law, and a fast decision by a judge to allow pari-mutuel betting, Kentucky Derby history would have been abbreviated and Churchill Downs would likely have gone bankrupt, quite possibly to never reopen.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

REMEMBERING COALTOWN

Running second in the Kentucky Derby is rarely a precursor to lasting notoriety. Yet for Coaltown in 1948, a Hall of Fame career lay ahead.

Unraced as a 2-year-old, Coaltown carried 130 pounds in eight of his 39 career starts and 132 pounds in two other races. Coaltown’s world-record-shattering performances qualify him as one of the best racehorses of all time.

Being a sibling of a famous person of high achievement can make one feel proud; yet living one’s life in the shadow of a close relative can lead to a deep-seated notion of inadequacy. While racehorses don’t have such emotions to contend with, even Hall of Fame runners can end up being obscured historically by better-known brothers or sisters, in this case Triple Crown winner Citation.

Coaltown and his Calumet Farm stablemate Citation, both sired by Bull Lea, are in the Hall of Fame but Citation is much more known. On this 71st anniversary of Coaltown running second to Citation in the Kentucky Derby, read the remarkable Hall of Fame narrative about one the fastest horses to ever set foot on a racetrack:

“Known for his extraordinary speed, Calumet Farm’s Coaltown equaled three world records and broke four track records during his four-year career.

Trained by Ben Jones, Coaltown was nicknamed ‘The Goose’ by stable employees for his habit of outstretching his long, thin neck when he raced. Overshadowed by stablemate Citation as a 3-year-old in 1948, Coaltown finished second to the Triple Crown winner in the Kentucky Derby, but he beat older horses that year in the Phoenix Handicap and set a track record in the Blue Grass Stakes. Coaltown was recognized as Champion Sprint Horse that year and finished with a record of 8-3-2 from 13 starts and earnings of $104,650.

As a 4-year-old, Coaltown came into his own as Citation missed the year with an osselet problem. Coaltown won 12 of his first 13 starts, including the McLennan, Widener, Gallant Fox, Roger Williams, Stars and Stripes, Arlington and Washington Park handicaps. He set a world record for one mile at Washington Park, equaled a world record for 1 1/8 miles at Hialeah Park, matched a world record for 1 ¼ miles at Gulfstream Park. He also set a track record at Arlington Park that year loand equaled one at Hollywood Park. Overall, Coaltown posted a record of 12-3-0 from 15 starts and earnings of $276,125 in 1949 to be recognized by Turf and Sport Digest as Horse of the Year.

Coaltown had limited success the next two years, winning only three of 11 starts before being retired with a career record of 23-6-3 from 39 starts and earnings of $415,675. He was considered a disappointment as a sire and was sold to breeding interests in France, where he died at the age of 20 in 1965.”

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If Hall of Fame enshrinement is the criterion, Calumet Farm’s Citation and Coaltown had the most accomplished careers of any pair of 3 year olds campaigned by the same stable in the same year.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

BORROWING TROUBLE

With the spotlight dimming somewhat on 23 horse fatalities at Santa Anita, media attention now turns to Kentucky as the biggest event in American horse racing approaches. A horse fatality in a race at the current Keeneland meet and two recent stories from the Louisville Courier Journal are extending the negative publicity generated at Santa Anita.

After the horse breakdown at Keeneland, the track’s CEO released a statement that said in part: “…we will review and evaluate all facets of our racing operation to ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes participating in our racing program.”

The words are well intentioned but do not hold up under factual scrutiny. If Keeneland was sincerely trying to “ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes” it would not have torn out its synthetic racetrack surface and replaced it with dirt. Keeneland acted knowing that data from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database clearly demonstrate that equine injuries are much lower on synthetic surfaces and, in fact, show dirt to be the unsafest surface of all for racing. (Santa Anita also replaced a synthetic surface with dirt and horse fatalities predictably soared immediately.)

The first Courier Journal story was titled “Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America” and the second headline was “Horse racing is worse than football for concussions. Why isn’t the US doing more?” So this is the negative backdrop for the upcoming Derby.

The Kentucky Derby typically has a 20-horse field requiring two starting gates. This is a recipe for a barrage of criticism should there be an accident, particularly at the start of the race or on the first turn. Can’t you hear the public outcry and Churchill Downs’ reactive response that it will study the matter of whether the Derby field size should be reduced?

Why not proactively limit the field to 14 horses and one starting gate in the name of safety? Many of the horses in a 20-horse field are pretenders rather than contenders, anyway.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland (and Santa Anita) have made themselves vulnerable to hard-to-counter charges that the safety of jockeys and horses runs a poor second to monetary goals.

For those of us who enjoy horse racing and want to see it have a future in the United States, it is troubling to see leaders in the sport repeatedly engage in actions that invite public condemnation and espouse lofty words so obviously contradicted by hard evidence. Injuries are bound to happen in athletic endeavors, but common-sense initiatives can curb the number.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business