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Written by Bill Orzell

As a global resort, part of Saratoga Springs’ makeup for centuries was those that come to visit. Whether for the salubrious climate in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the healing waters of the many mineral springs, or the appreciation of the Thoroughbred, the old Spa has always offered the best.

Horse racing is a sport where the fundamentals of this thriving industry generated annals which are interesting to consider through the misty glass of history. Wagering on the outcome of a race adds multitudinous elements and individuals to the contests. New York State adopted pari-mutuel wagering in 1940, a system where all bets are placed in a pool, and the winnings are divided on a pro rata basis, among successful selections, less the “take-out” by track operators and government taxation. A totalizer, or tote board, displays all funds in the wagering pool prior to the race, and the divided payment of the results.

Before the State referendum enacting pari-mutuel betting, it was an entirely different landscape of placing wagers. Those desiring to back a horse would need to locate those willing to book their bet. A bookmaker, or layer of odds, the legal term for a bookie, would be the principal. At Saratoga, these activities took place in a special location known as the Betting Ring. This separate structure accomplished the dual task of dividing the sporting public from the wagering public, and collecting all the bookmakers in one location for track officials to supervise only licensed individuals, and appraise and collect their take-out. All bookies would offer their own odds on each race, displaying their offerings on slates, and erasing and re-chalking as bets came in and odds changed, often times yelling out those terms in a bellowing madman’s chorus of turf slang.

The introduction of pari-mutuel wagering in 1940 obsoleted the Betting Ring, along with other traditions which had existed in Saratoga from John Morrissey’s introduction of the sport in 1863 as a diversion for the many guests visiting the springs. He and his fellow investors created a successful private enterprise incorporated as the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses, which combined the spectacle of sport with the financial elements of chance, at a pleasurable venue.

As racing at Saratoga only occurred during the summer months, the original Betting Ring was a canvas marquee, supported by many poles from below. The shelter would be renewed, replaced or relocated from season to season. The final iteration of the separate Betting Ring was a substantial structure, a rectangular pavilion over a paving brick floor. In 1890, majority Saratoga Association shareholder Albert Spencer discreetly offered the race course for sale to a consortium of established horse owners. 

Interior view of the Betting Ring displaying the underside of the monitor roof, paving brick floor and the bookmakers booths lining the perimeter. Photographer C.C. Cook who captured this image in 1935 used the term “betting shed” in his caption. Courtesy of the George S. Bolster Collection of the Saratoga Springs History Museum.

Members of this group were elected to positions in the Saratoga Association, at which point they contracted with Saratoga’s master builder Andrew Robertson, who had built numerous notable structures in the then village, to build a subsidiary building modeled on the recently opened Linden Park Track near Elizabeth, New Jersey. This summerhouse would be located just east of the grandstand, with an excellent view of the track, and planned to accommodate 50 bookmakers. It would employ a monitor roof, which is a hip style crown with a second or upper ridge parallel to the first, separated and supported by vertical clerestory windows which admitted light and provided ventilation. This attractive cover was supported with rafters on numerous posts, which numbered and labeled, provided location breadcrumbs for patrons to retrace their steps to the bookie who accepted their wager. Around the outside perimeter of this raucous marketplace were placed booths where the bookmaker and their sheet-writers were seated on tall stools, behind a low railing.

(left) “Proceed, ye victims, to the betting ring, quite welcome are ye with the wealth ye bring. The books are waiting, yes, by all the gods! The boards are covered with the opening odds," by Thomas H. Kennedy from "The Race Track Swindle" 1906. Frederic Lowenheim illustrated this view of the Betting Ring in the 1903 publication "Thoroughbreds" by W.A. Fraser.

(right) Track announcer Jack Adler captured in caricature calling out the order of finish, always concluding with his signature expression, “All right!” Jesse Sylvester “Vet” Anderson created this illustration for the New York Sunday Telegraph January 1, 1905, and always included his sobriquet as the tail feathers of his rooster signature.

For decades the Betting Ring was managed by John G. Cavanagh, who began his professional career selling programs and pencils at the metropolitan tracks in the 1880s. His several track management roles were reported in newspapers who frequently printed his surname as Cavanuagh. He was a firm believer that the public should always be treated fairly when visiting the track, and with the support of August Belmont and the Jockey Club, he firmly maintained this probity. He organized a horseman’s train in the early years of the twentieth century, which brought the bookies, their clerks and their families from steaming Gotham to refreshing Saratoga Springs. Known as the “Cavanagh Special,” it would deliver more than 1,000 persons in parlor cars the day before the track opened. The “Special” also transported turf writers, many of whom moved directly from the train station on Division Street to the rathskeller bar of the Worden Hotel. “Irish John,” well attired and often wearing a soft panama hat, had a balcony-equipped office in the Betting Ring where he adroitly settled any disputes as the overlord of wagering. The Betting Ring was the reason for anti-gambling legislation which occurred in the years prior to World War I. Mr. Cavanagh was indicted under these laws, and no racing took place in New York State (1911-12), until the thorny legal struggle could be settled. Frank Sullivan, the Sage of Saratoga and humorist for The New Yorker magazine, recalled in his youth working for Mr. Cavanaugh as a water-boy, providing refreshing drinks to backers and bookies in the August heat. He fondly remembered the day he received a handsome tip from stage-star Lillian Russell.

Bookmakers were not well thought of, seen as larcenous and cold blooded on the level of Jesse James holding a slate instead of a gun, with a death grip upon their cash satchel. Perhaps they brought revile and rebuke on themselves by facetious terming Saturday "All Suckers Day." Turf writer Toney Betts on the pages of the New York Post wrote, “A bookmaker is a man who will cry with a case of champagne under his table.”

The Betting Ring was an impious whirlpool of frenetic energy, money changed hands while barely counted, fortune and failure hung in that balance which provides the thrill of the racetrack. "Who d'yer like?" was the question asked countless times by the bookmakers on their blocks willing to extend credit in the form of a marker to any plunger. The human tide increased toward post-time with bankrolls and wallets carefully guarded, those funds soon to be exchanged for pasteboard tickets and a chance for a score. The saddling-bell rang, indicating the jockeys had taken their mounts in the paddock, and were moving toward the track, speeding up the animation of those making a stake on late-changing odds.

It was said that no one had ever entered any betting ring without hearing Jack Adler, a man with a tremendous voice who announced officially for the bookies. He would sing out in his basso-profundo voice, "They're off!" which indicated betting was closed for that race. Jack Adler would call out the order of finish in the Betting Ring, always concluding with his signature expression, “A-w-w-ll Rrrrrright!” This signified the race was official and the bookies could pay off, or more importantly to them, count their profits. At age 24, with an exceptionally powerful intonation, he received appointment as official announcer in 1887. The New York Morning Telegraph, print authority of the theater and the turf, once said the stentorian announcer had the vocal apparatus to make “Gabriel's horn sound like a toy trumpet.” His position made him an interface with nearly all participants at the race track, and his amiable nature made him widely known and liked throughout the industry. His regular announcements at the racetrack were scratched horses, rider changes, calling the overweights, and messages from the stewards. Leather-lunged Jack Adler eschewed the use of a megaphone, which he considered artificial, and at times would make special announcements. One such occasion was the 1920 Travers Stakes when Man o’ War’s entry generated an enormous crowd; he proclaimed in sonorous tones, that the infield was thrown open to spectators. 

Pari-mutuel betting windows, 1941, which replaced bookies and the Betting Ring. Courtesy Saratoga Springs History Museum.

The advent of pari-mutuel wagering was a paradigm shift at Saratoga, so much so that Association President George Bull sponsored a junket for turf writers before the opening of the 1940 season. A special train was run just for the scribes, a sumptuous banquet with beverages were provided on their tour of the track, in hopes their print columns would introduce the changes to race fans before their next trip to the Spa. The inactive Betting Ring was used for storage, eventually torn down in 1964, and replaced by a 550-foot addition to the east side of the grandstand, which attempted to include architect H. Langford Warren’s roof treatments. Frank Sullivan, in his traditional track season opening column for 1965 in the New York Times, detailed updates made and how National Museum of Racing curator, Elaine Ensor Mann, had the forethought to preserve paving bricks from the recently demolished Betting Ring, moved across Union Avenue for preservation.

The affable George Bull always bewailed the end of each racing season, and would often recite: 

“The melancholy days are here, the saddest of the year, it's a little too early for whiskey, and a little too late for beer."

On the conclusion of each racing season, known as “get-away-day” to the purveyors of the Betting Ring, the Cavanagh Special would run in the reverse direction, “highballing” its way to Grand Central Station. The highball is a railroad term for the superimposed illuminated signal prioritizing a special train over all others. Interestingly, both a Highball and Cavanagh Special are the names of potent potables, and if you make an inquiry about them with your local bartender, the study of history through that misty glass can truly be appreciated.

Runners pass the Betting Ring in this circa 1922 aerial view showing architect H. Langford Warren’s Grandstand and the monitor roofed Betting Ring to the right. Courtesy Saratoga Springs Public Library – Saratoga Room.