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A day at the races under the Percy-Gray Law

To understand how horse racing was conducted in New York in 1900, you first should know that the state constitution of 1895 forbade "pool selling, bookmaking, or any other kind of gambling". Sounds pretty unequivocal, doesn't it?

And yet, the photo at left illustrates a betting pavilion at a New York track. Kings Views of Brooklyn 1905 identifies it as being at Sheepshead Bay (I've seen the same photo identified as being at Gravesend.)

In fact, the period 1895-1908 was one of the golden ages for New York horse racing, and on-track betting. This amazing hypocrisy was due to the Percy-Gray Law, passed by legislature in 1895. How it could create a loophole large enough to allow flagrant gambling when the state constitution unequivocally forbade it was a mystery that required some research.

 The Percy-Gray Law described itself as "an act for the incorporation of associations for the improvement of the breed of horses and to regulate the same; and to establish a State racing commission." It was passed at the behest of racing interests gave the established jockey clubs a monopoly on racing.

Reading the first 16 sections, it's hard to see how this law allowed what's going on in the photo above. For instance, section 9 states that race track owners "shall cause to be properly posted in conspicuous positions upon the grounds whereon such races are held, printed notices or placards in large and legible type, which notices or placards shall be to the effect that all disorderly conduct, pool-selling, book-making or any other kind of gambling is prohibited."

Even a first reading of section 17 doesn't offer much illumination.

§ 17. Any person who, upon any race-course authorized by or entitled to the benefits of this act, shall make or record, directly or indirectly, any bet or wager on the result of any trial or contest of speed or power of endurance of horses taking place upon such race-course, shall forfeit the value of any money or property so wagered, received or held by him, to be recovered in a civil action by the person or persons with whom such wager is made, or by whom such money or property is deposited. This penalty is exclusive of all other penalties prescribed by law for the acts in this section specified, except in case of the exchange, delivery or transfer of a record, registry, memorandum, token, paper, or document of any kind whatever as evidence of any, such bet or wager, or the subscribing by name, initials or otherwise, of any record, registry or memorandum in the possession of another person of a bet or wager, intended to be retained by such other person or any other person as evidence of such bet or wager.

The secret lies in the fact that this was interpreted as meaning that the sole penalty for accepting a bet at a race course was forfeiture through civil action. The key bit being, "[t]his penalty is exclusive of all other penalties prescribed by law for the acts in this section specified." Thus criminal penalties were negated, provided no record of the bet was passed between parties. And as far as I can tell, there were no civil actions taken under the law, probably because there was no record of the bet having been made.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to establish just what the mechanics of betting under this bizarre regime. Ironically, one of the few descriptions I've found comes from the scolds themselves. The World's Work published an article in 1906, "Horse-Racing and the Public", which describes a visit to Gravesend.

Picking up information from that and similar articles, and various newspaper articles, I believe the way the bookies avoided passing a record of the bet is that the bettor gave the bookie his entrance ticket along with the wager. The bookie recorded the bet under the ticket stub number, then gave the bettor back the ticket, which did not itself have a record of the bet.

It all ended when the scolds took over the statehouse and passed the Hart–Agnew Law 1908. This killed the loophole and the horse racing courses died a not-so-slow death. The course at Brighton Beach moved on to auto racing for a period.

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