In the classic 1973 film The Sting, Robert Redford and Paul Newman lead a team of con men in an elaborate scam to take revenge on a dangerous crime boss and a corrupt cop. The final play takes place in a high-stakes poolroom, an illegal parlor for the wealthy to bet on horse races, set up with a tapped Western Union wire connection to the tracks. Just after the crime boss loses his money, a half million dollars, FBI agents storm the poolroom and hustle off the crooked cop and the unsuspecting mark. But the feds are in on the scam as well, and the whole poolroom is phony. The film ends with the supporting cast taking down the scene of the sting, while Redford and Newman walk off into the city.
As we learn from Steven Riess’ book, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York, 1865-1913 (Syracuse University Press, 2011), the setting of The Sting was common feature in America’s big cities from the late 19th century onward. Bookies, crime bosses, cops on the take, fixers tapping into the wire links to the tracks, and men with money looking for the thrill of a bet: they were all found in the poolrooms, places not for billiards but for betting. All that was missing from the film were the politicians. Steve explains that horse racing in America was a web of sport and entertainment, new and old money, political bosses and crime kingpins. Racing exists for gambling. It is a sport of the wealthy, those with money to own horses and bet on them. But in order for the races to run, these rich men needed political connections for the tracks to be built and operate as spaces of legal betting. From President Andrew Jackson to the Tammany Hall political machine that dominated the city and state governments in New York, elected officials were willing to work with the owners of tracks and horses. In fact, the owners of tracks and horses were often elected officials themselves.
But there were other politicians—do-gooders and reformers—who sought to shut down the tracks and especially the poolrooms. Meanwhile, wherever bets were placed, there were shady people lurking in the background, looking to skim a few dollars. All of these characters are found in the history of New York racing, and Steve’s book presents them in a revealing picture of big-city money, power, and sport.