Bet-a-Million Gates

by Dean A. Hoffman

He swept majestically across the trotting tracks of America, bringing excitement and thrills to people whose daily lives were so bleak.

Greyhound was the most iconic harness horse foaled in the 20th century, often cited as sustaining public interest in the sport during the dark days of the Great Depression.

Most readers surely know the story of the horse nicknamed “The Grey Ghost.” He won the 1935 Hambletonian—displaying an irresistible rush to the front in the opening heat, then ultimately trotted himself out of competition. The only foe worthy of him was the relentless ticking of a stopwatch.

With paltry purses and no competition worthy of a race, Greyhound took on Father Time in time trials across  the country. His 1:55¼ mark set in 1938 stood for 31 years as the ultimate in trotting speed.

This September marks the 80th anniversary of Greyhound’s epic effort.

Yes, the story of Greyhound is well known to harness devotees, yet few know much about his quiet, digni- fied owner, Edward J. Baker, and the intriguing background of the Baker fortune.

The Devil’s Rope

In the aftermath of the Civil War, America was an agrarian society and pioneers were pushing westward. For- tunes could be made raising livestock and crops on the open prairies.

The land was too vast to be fenced, so livestock was often identified with a rancher’s branding iron and allowed to roam freely. Gradually, however, the need for fencing emerged, but tradi- tional wood or stone fences were im- practical on the prairies.

In 1873, businessman Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, Ill., saw a display of fencing consisting of “wooden  strips  with  metallic   points.”   Glidden envisioned its potential for use as low-cost fencing, but many ranchers were hostile toward a fence with twisted steel barbs. They feared that it   wouldn’t   contain   cattle   and would inflict grievous wounds on their valuable livestock.

Ranchers branded barbed wire fencing as “the devil’s rope.” Glidden experimented with various styles of barbed wire and thought he could build a better cow trap.

One of the earliest and most enthusiastic traveling salesmen for barbed wire fencing was John Gates of Illinois. Like Professor Harold Hill  in  “The  Music Man,”  Gates  knew  his  territory— and it consisted of the vast American West.

Still, ranchers were dubious. In 1876, Gates dispelled their doubt by demon- strating the effectiveness and safety of barbed wire fencing in San Antonio, Texas.

His demonstration was a smashing success, so Gates then retired to the bar at the nearby Menger Hotel and the once-reluctant ranchers lined up to place their orders. Sales of barbed wire spread like a prairie fire.

Gates rode the frenzy for barbed wire to riches. He got involved in manufacturing  the  devil’s  rope  and  soon John W. Gates became the Bill Gates of his era—becoming impossibly rich by being on the leading edge of a new product (except it was barbed wire, not computer systems).

The nouveau riche John Gates proved that he could spend money just as fast as he could make it. But who cared as long the money just kept roll- ing in? Gates never stopped spending.

Starting in 1894, he kept a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, paying an outrageous annual rent of $30,000. But Gates was hardly the model guest. He had a private entrance and elevator, but regularly hosted raucous mara- thon poker games. (In fact, some of the poker games reportedly began on the train when he was traveling with guests from Chicago to New York. Gates and his cronies got off the train and simply moved their floating poker game to the Waldorf.)

One poker game reportedly lasted for five days, with $2 million changing hands.

Gates’ wife, Dellora, wanted no part of this non-stop nonsense with diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs  on  the table. In fact, she probably wanted to use a spade or club to keep her husband in line.

Gates himself preferred diamonds. To keep her in good spirits, Gates kept diamonds in a vest pocket and would periodically present one to Dellora to placate her. The tactic worked. The diamonds in her hand made Dellora forget all about his poker games.

He traveled the world in style. In 1900, Gates was at the Goodwood Race Course in England for the prestigious Stewards Cup. A horse named Americus was the heavy favorite.

But Gates had a notion—and some in- side information—about an outsider ap- propriately named Royal Flush, whose pre-race odds were 40-1. He had his agents bet on Royal Flush. Other bet- tors noticed and backed Royal Flush.

Just  before  the  race,  one  of  Gates’ agents rushed to his box seats and asked, “How much have you bet?” “Don’t  really  know  for  sure,” replied Gates. He casually consulted some figures he’d scribbled down on his program and  added,  “Oh,  I  figure  about $70,000, maybe.”

Royal Flush outdueled Americus in the stretch to win. Gates grabbed Dellora and began waltzing her around, much to the dismay and disapproval of the proper British racing gentry.

Gates collected about $600,000 that day, but turf writers never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Some said he’d won a million dollars, but the story was twisted to imply that Gates had “bet a million” on a horse race. The nickname was born and never died. (With inflation factored in, a $70,000 wager in 1900 would be far more than $1 million in today’s dollars.)

He won—and lost, of course— other  large  bets.  He reportedly won $100,000 by backing the winner in the American Derby in Chicago in 1902. Gates just loved to gamble. And he would gamble on anything. He liked the action and he never worried where his next dollar or next meal would come from. He’d even bet on which raindrop on a window would reach the bottom first.

He embraced a simple philosophy: everything in life was a gamble. Travel- ers gambled on arriving safely. Farmers gambled when they raised livestock or planted crops.

Gates lived large. He played faro, a game he’d learned in the Wild West. He schooled the sharpies in the East and gleefully pocketed their money.

He embraced investment opportu- nities in the city of Port Arthur, Texas, and tossed a “Billion Dollar Banquet” to celebrate the opening of the Plaza Hotel there. He bucked tradition by hiring black waiters to serve his guests. Some of the locals were enraged by this affront, since blacks were prohibited from living in the city. Local hoodlums threatened to disrupt the banquet un- less Gates replaced the black waiters with whites. A showdown loomed.

Gates asked his black waiters to re- main and sent his valet to fetch a rifle. While he waited for the rifle, Gates tried to placate both groups with words.

When he had rifle firmly in his hands, Gates shouted. “Now, by God, I’ll shoot the first man who tries to go, and I’ll shoot the first son of a bitch who tries to make him go!”

The problem was over immediately.

Although Gates lived large, he did not live long. He died in 1911 at age 56 in Paris after an opera- tion to remove a tumor from his throat. He left an estate valued at approximately $50 million.

Gates’  son,  Charles,  died  two years  after  his  father  and  Gates’ widow died five years after her son.

The  bulk  of  Gates’  estate  had gone to his widow, and  when  she died in 1918, half of it—then reportedly $11 million—passed to her brother, Edward J. Baker, an Illinois businessman who considered himself “first and  foremost

a  farmer.”  (His  inheritance  would  be about $180 million in today’s dollars.)

The farm boy Baker fancied trotters and pacers and his newfound wealth gave him the means to buy the best. He stunned the world of harness racing in 1927 by paying $25,000 for the Canadi- an shooting star named Winnipeg.

Winnipeg had run loose and unbro- ken on the range in western Canada until age 4. Range horses were branded for  identification  and  Winnipeg’s  “R” brand was hidden beneath his mane.

Baker used Septer Faith Palin, known  to  all  simply  as  “Sep,”  as  his trainer and Palin achieved incredible success for Baker. Winnipeg paced the first 2:00 mile at night in a race at Toledo, Ohio.

In addition to plunging deeply into harness horse ownership, Baker and his wife spread their love and money on St. Charles, Ill., and basically rebuilt the town, including a resplendent ho- tel, theater, and community center.

In 1933, with a new president named Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, America was mired in the depths of the depression. Horseflesh was worth little to people who were worried about putting food on the table and hoping to get a job. That fall in Lex- ington, Ky., Baker bought a charcoal- grey yearling gelding named Grey- hound for $900 from breeder Henry Knight.

The youngster was shipped to India- napolis and given his lessons in harness by Palin over the state fairgrounds’ mile track.

Early in the summer of 1934, Greyhound invaded Ohio to begin his racing career. It started off well, then went backward. Greyhound won his first heat in 2:17, defeating four foes for $150. He placed third in the next trip timed in 2:20½.

Then he went to Toledo to perform under the lights and lost four consecu- tive starts in July, three to the filly Bel- vedere.

He then began to turn some heads in his races over the mile track in Goshen and at the Illinois State Fair in Spring- field. The lanky gelding concluded his first season with a straight- heat win in Lexington, giving him a dozen wins in 18 starts in his freshman season.

During his sophomore season, Greyhound was nearly unbeatable. He won 18 of his 20 tries, his only losses coming to Lawrence Hanover. He took the Hambleto- nian, then contested for $33,321 after beginning with a $73,451 purse a decade earlier.

(The year that Greyhound won the Hambletonian, owner Baker was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel and was thereafter re- ferred to as Col. Baker.)

Greyhound’s  4-year-old  cam- paign  didn’t  start  until  late  July when he was upset on the half- mile track at Goshen when the mares Tara and Angel Child worked him over.

He never lost a heat the rest of the 1936 season, trotting to 14 straight heat wins, including a 1:57¼ mile at Springfield that established a new race record for trotters.

By the end of that season, he’d trotted himself out of competition and began a familiar routine of trying to beat the stopwatch instead of flesh-and-blood rivals. He performed in two time trials at Lexington in an effort to beat his 1:57¼ record, but merely equaled it each time.

In 1937, Greyhound raced only  two heats all season, winning both at Springfield. The rest of his season consisted of exhibitions. Greyhound’s time trials were headline events. It evoked the era of Dan Patch barnstorming around in a quest for records. In the 1930s, many Americans had personal familiarity with horses. Horses still drew milk wagons in cities and plowed fields on farms. Racing fans loved Greyhound,  and  didn’t  mind  that  he was racing the clock instead of other trotters. They simply wanted to behold such a majestic sight.

He trotted the first 2:00 mile ever on a twice-around at Historic Track in Goshen with a 1:59¾ effort. Late in September at Lexington, he trotted in 1:56¾ to match the trotting speed standard then held by Peter Manning. A week later, he lay sole claim to the record with a 1:56 mile.

The $900 grey gelding was now the fastest trotter in history.

But  he  wasn’t  done.  In  1938,  he raced 10 times and won each time. The champion mare Rosalind was second in all 10 heats.

In late September, he trotted in 1:55¼ on an overcast day at Lexington, establishing a speed barrier that would stand for 31 years.

(Allow me a personal note: My father was in Lexington when Greyhound set his epic record, and I was a groom in a Grand Circuit stable at Indianapolis in 1969 when Nevele Pride finally broke it.)

In 1939, Greyhound never started for a purse, but instead started in time trials in Maine, Wisconsin, New York, and Indiana.

The following year Greyhound was back on the trotting trail again at age 8 as he swept 14 of his 15 tries.

His final official performance was a marvelous 2:01¾ mile under saddle with Frances Dodge Johnson riding. It was a record that would stand for 54 years.

Greyhound was officially retired, but not done performing. For the next de- cade he traveled often to tracks around America merely to showcase his long stride and remind spectators of his past greatness.

Col. Baker would own many other outstanding horses—King’s Counsel, Volo Song, Algiers, for example—and died at age 90 in 1959.

The Grey Ghost died in 1965, out- living his owner by six years. That was almost 90 years after a fast-talking salesman named Gates found  the key to incredible riches by peddling the devil’s rope.

 

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