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The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York 1865-1913
By Steven A. Riess
Syracuse University Press, July 2011, 432 pages hardcover

Horse racing in America began in New York, and the Empire State continues to play a dominant role in the sport. The Jockey Club, the breed registry of all Thoroughbreds on the continent, is based there and the New York Racing Association, operator of Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, and Aqueduct Racetrack, hosts some of the most prestigious races in America. However, New York could have easily lost the top spot in the early days of the sport, if not stopped hosting races for good. In his latest book, Northeastern Illinois University history professor Steven Riess explains how and why New York became the national capital of horse racing, thanks to an unholy alliance with organized crime.

With such events as the match race between American Eclipse and Henry over the Union Course, pitting northern against southern interests, New York had already begun to wrest control of the sport away from other states. People from all walks of life enjoyed the thrill of the sport and, more importantly, being able to bet on the outcome. Of course, where there was unregulated betting, one would expect to find organized crime and politicians looking to get a cut of the action. Tracks sprang up all over the New York metropolitan area and New Jersey to satisfy the demand.

Gambling made the sport morally suspect to some, bringing about political pressure from reformers to shut down or severely curtail racing, but the powerful alliance between urban machine politics and track owners enabled racing in New York to flourish. The tracks needed all their political clout to fight off these efforts, as without gambling there would be no racing. Ironically, one measure used to save racing was to replace pool betting with bookmaking, under the notion that pools were less moral, a solution that would be unheard of today in America.

Social conservatives, with the support of the Republicans, were almost successful in killing the sport for good, but unlike in other states and cities, New York understood that racing is a multimillion dollar business with implications beyond the tracks themselves. Racing's supporters, especially prominent businessmen like William Whitney and August Belmont, worked to save it at the political level, aligning themselves with the Democratic party. The Percy-Gray Act created the State Racing Commission (now known as the New York State Racing and Wagering Board) to regulate the sport in cooperation with the private Jockey Club, in one of the first examples of a private-public partnership.

There was only one problem left to solve, shutting down illegal off-track bookmaking which siphoned handle away from track operators. However, the professional gamblers had the government and the police in their back pocket, thwarting any attempt to close the pool room gambling parlors. Racing was shut down in New York for two years, but quickly made a comeback, with tracks opening across the country leading to surge in the number of Thoroughbreds. The sport was saved, but the problem of bookmaking persists even to this day, with the advent of offshore Internet gambling.

Riess set out to explain how organized crime, with politicians in their back pocket, essentially saved horse racing in America. Fans of horse racing history will enjoy learning about the roller-coaster ride at the turn of the last century, how racing was truly an on-again off-again sport depending on who was in charge, and will appreciate the efforts of certain key figures, so that we can enjoy the exciting racing in New York and elsewhere today.

The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime has a list price of $45.00 and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $34.30.

Rating:     3.5/5

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