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A Short History of Betting on the Aces

Oct 31, 2007
Racing started out nearly four hundred years ago as the sport of kings, but the little man has long since taken over. In America, the little fellow took over racing when the parimutuel machines were attuned to the common man. A Frenchman invented the machine, but the French failed to grasp the full possibilities of how machines could help the breed improve. The first machines came to the United States on a clipper ship, but that may be a coincidence.

For a number of years, the imported machines gathered dust in a warehouse because they sold only $5 tickets. Since even a skilled worker in those days was lucky to earn $15 a week, the little man saw no sense in going out to a track if his whole pay check was good for only two or three hunches. So racing was left to the frock-coat-and striped-pants-boys whose dividends had more stamina than the average pay check. They did business with men called bookmakers who are pickpockets who let you use your own hands.

Then along came a genius who probably was a direct descendant of the man who asked "Why?" when told "The show must go on." He asked why the machines could not sell cheaper tickets and another genius suggested $2 as the unit of trading. The horse now was on his way to some real improvement.

The frock-coat-and-striped-pants boys soon were swallowed up by the little fellow who had no concern about his dress unless he was being fitted for a barrel. The only formal dress requirements retained by the tracks are that, whatever the garment, it must have pockets. But there probably would be no objections to the eccentric fan who wanted to carry his money in his sock.

So far, the horses have not complained about the shift to casual wear, but they must have noted some changes because now the roars and yells that urge them on are not always couched in drawing room language. And instead of a few gently shouting encouragement from grandstand and clubhouse, there are now thousands lined along the rail from where lung power can really sweep the track.

If the striped-pants brigade had any complaints, their protests were drowned out by the din of clanking dollars as proceeds were counted at the end of each day. Society may have lent dignity and respectability to racing, but modern track owners prefer dividends. Since the betting in those days was done through bookmakers who sat on high stools but assuredly did not wear dunce caps, the tracks never knew how much money changed hands. The bookmakers simply paid the track for the privilege of catering both to man and man's good friend - the horse.

Several tracks still maintain an exclusive sanctum for those patrons who cannot only drive up in a chauffeured car but can also drive home the same way no matter in what fickle mood Lady Luck happens to be. Tracks, however, insist that these "bluebloods" also drop their money into the same mutuels, for the track likes its money thoroughly mixed. Nor does the little man object to this country club crowd, for to him it's the same proposition as getting a transfusion at a blood bank. He doesn't shop around for the blood donation of any particular person, and at the track he doesn't worry about whose money the cashier shoves to him through the window.

Racing started out on a slogan of "improve the breed of horses." Today's fan has kept the spirit of the old slogan but changed it to read: "Improve the breed of bankrolls." He is not interested in the social graces or in the manners of either the horses or his fellow players.

Whether the horse actually improves over the years is a question that is immaterial to the little man. He doesn't care how fast the horse runs just as long as its speed is a trifle faster than that of the next horse. This is the only kind of improvement he can understand.
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