Friday, May 21, 2010

From the shelves of the Paco library

I first became genuinely interested in horseracing while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s superb book about Seabiscuit. Now, John Christgau explores the dark side of the sport of kings in The Gambler and the Bug Boy, an account of a notorious race-fixing scheme operated by a group of professional gamblers and bookmakers in late 1930s California.

And what a tale it is! Many of the characters in this non-fiction book could have stepped out of a pulp fiction novel. The head of the ring was a flashy operator who called himself Big Mooney (real name, Bernard Einstoss), the son of a grocer who took to gambling from an early age and made it his life’s work. In association with other crooks – his brother Willie, “Doc” Kebo, Irving Sangbush, to name a few – Big Mooney struck upon the idea of paying jockeys to pull horses during races at Hollywood Park and Del Mar in order to improve his percentages. When simple bribery didn’t work, however, he made ominous threats, which he carried out on a number of occasions.
…one night in mid-April [jockey Albert Siler] came out of a bar in South San Francisco, where he had gone with another Tanforan jockey who had refused to pull horses. On the street, the two of them were jumped by figures twice their size. The other jockey chose to stand and fight, but Albert eluded them by running up a hillside into a dark pocket of eucalyptus trees where he hid out. From that safe point, he watched as the thugs, whoever they were, overwhelmed the other jockey and dragged him beneath a streetlight. There, they picked him up by his feet and hammered him repeatedly against the light post. Then they left him lying in a broken heap on the pavement.
The jockeys were easy targets. Most of them were young men – mere boys, really – who had grown up in poverty and had turned to racing in order to support their families. The book focuses on one particular “bug boy”, Albert Siler (apprentice riders had an asterisk by their names in the racing forms, hence the slang expression). He was the son of a hardscrabble farmer who drifted around the western dustbowl, from failure to failure. The one joy of Albert’s life as a boy was riding horses. Graduating from mules and plow-horses to ponies at county fairs and bush league racetracks, Albert finally journeyed to California, where he eventually became a very promising jockey. Young and deferential, he was the natural prey for Big Mooney. Albert didn’t want to pull horses, but he finally succumbed to the threats and began throwing races on Mooney’s orders (not always successfully; some horses were just too good to lose).

The jockeys’ ring eventually came to the attention of sharp-eyed race stewards and the L.A. County District Attorney, Burron Fitts (a colorful character in his own right). Fitts was determined to put the fixers out of business, and worked for months building a case against Mooney and company. Fitts was defeated in an election preceding the trial by John Dockweiler. Dockweiler continued the hot pursuit of Mooney and his gang, however, finally managing to bring them to trial, which, unfortunately, was bungled (Mooney was convicted of some relatively minor offenses and served less than a year in jail).

Christgau has done a fine job in throwing a spotlight on this obscure corner of sports history, and the book is, as well, an interesting window on pre-War America.

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