The gangster, the gamble and the horse that paid off
Arnold Rothstein was one of the most celebrated gangsters in 20th century America, forever linked to baseball’s Black Sox scandal, the 1919 Chicago White Sox fix of the World Series.
The great writer Damon Runyon, a friend of Rothstein‘s, modeled the character Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” after Rothstein. F. Scott Fitzgerald created a Rothstein figure, Meyer Wolfsheim, in “The Great Gatsby.”
Rothstein was given a legendary shoutout in the film “The Godfather Part II” when Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone, “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstien fixed the World Series in 1919.”
He’s been dead since he was shot by a fellow gambler in 1928, but remains part of the legacy of American organized crime, a central figure in the Home Box Office series “Boardwalk Empire.”
And 100 years ago Wednesday, Oct. 18, Rothstein made perhaps his biggest score ever at Laurel Race Course in Maryland in what was one of the most celebrated match horse races to date.
Rothstein was known as “The Brain,” the gambler-gangster who helped the “organization” of crime and was influential in the illegal money-making opportunities created by the passing of Prohibition in this country. He was based in New York, and, like Runyon wrote, was part of the Broadway street scene in the city.
But Rothstein had strong business interests in Maryland as the owner of a successful race track in Havre de Grace along the Susquehanna River — “The Graw” — until he was forced out by his Maryland partners.
There was still money to be made in Maryland, though, for “The Brain” — $300,000 in fact, his biggest score to date, and, in 1917, an enormous sum of money.
The top horses of that year were Omar Khayam, winner of the Kentucky Derby, and Hourless, winner of the Belmont Stakes. They would wind up facing each other in what turned into a match race when the other horses were scratched for the John R. McLean Memorial Championship at Laurel Race Course. Earlier in the year, Omar Khayam had beaten Hourless in the Lawrence Realization Stakes and the Brooklyn Derby.
Yet Rothstein was willing to put nearly his entire fortune on Hourless to win.
Why? According to the book, “Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series” by David Pietrusza, Rothstein, of course, had inside information. In fact, he may have created it by turning a fix on its head.
Hourless’ jockey who had ridden the horse to success, including the Belmont Stakes victory, was Jimmy Butwell. But at the last minute – just before the start of the race — S.C. Hildreth, Hourless’ trainer, changed jockeys, handing the reins over to Frankie Robinson, who had never ridden the horse before.
“Becoming dissatisfied with Jimmy Butwell, Belmont’s favorite jockey who had been chosen to pilot the horse to victory, because he had failed to a Belmont entry earlier in the afternoon to his satisfaction, S.C. Hildreth, Hourless’ trainer, entrusted to Robinson, who is attached to the Harry Payne Whitney stable, the task of riding him,” the Washington Star reported.
Or maybe Robinson got the mount because Rothstein planned it that way.
Rothstein had announced publicly that he had $240,000 to bet on Hourless, according to Pietrusza, but found nobody to take him up on it — until suddenly a group of Maryland gamblers changed their minds and accepted Rothstein’s action, with no limit on the amount. “A. R. smelled a rat,” Pietrusza wrote. “His investigations confirmed his suspicions, and he alerted Sam Hildreth that unless he made some changes, Hourless was a sure loser. Hildreth knew exactly what A. R. meant. In the Realization, Hourless’ jockey, Jimmy Butwell, had not only ridden his horse into a position where he could not move forward, he lost his whip. Hildreth resolved to replace Butwell.”
It was a winning move.
Nearly 30,000 people showed up that Oct. 18, 1917 day at Laurel — at that point, the largest crowd ever to watch a Maryland sporting event. The Star reported the crowd “packed the grandstand and clubhouse, filled the open spaces in front down to the rail and overflowed into the infield.” They witnessed Hourless setting a Maryland track record by running the mile-and-a-quarter race in 2:02, and Rothstein had the biggest score of his gambling career.
Ironically, Rothstein, the man who, two years later, would be accused of fixing the World Series may have won this bet not by fixing the race, but figuring out that the fix was already in.
“Hourless was an appropriate heavy favorite, running so strongly in recent workouts, that he could clearly win with anyone in the saddle — anyone except a crooked jockey,” Pietrusza wrote. “What if A. R. could ensure that an honest, competent jockey would indeed be aboard Hourless while making rival gamblers think otherwise?
“What if Jimmy Burwell remained, by a certain moral definition, an honest jockey?” he wrote. “That he merely promised a fix to those who would bet against A. R., but knew he’d never have to deliver one-because Arnold Rothstein’s friend Sam Hildreth … would install Frankie Robinson in the saddle at the last minute-and that Arnold Rothstein not only knew of this scenario, he created it?”
The Star reported that Hourless “was heavily backed by the New York contingent present.”
That was Arnold Rothstein, who 100 years ago came to Maryland and made a fortune.