Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil (Part 3)

Pittsburgh Phil swore by this...

Pittsburgh Phil swore by this...

In this final part of our serialization of the legendary racing gambler, Pittsburgh Phil, looks at the concepts of time, and class and weight, when it comes to horse racing. Although incredibly prescient at the time (written in 1908), some of this has been superseded by more modern thinking. But still, plenty holds as good today as it did a century ago, and the work is reproduced in its entirety for the reader.

The previous parts can be found here and here.

CHAPTER 5 -- Handicapping by Time

Quite a number of systematic handicappers take time as a basis for their calculations. I could never see where time was a positive criterion. Time enters into the argument under certain conditions, but if depended upon entirely for a deduction it will be found wanting. The atmospheric conditions will have much to do with the time of a race. The way a race is run will have much to do with the time of such race. I will give an illustration of this that is positive. The match race between Admiration and May Hempstead at Sheepshead Bay was run in 1.40 1-5.

Some days before the match race both fillies ran in two different races at a mile - Admiration carrying 111 lbs. and May Hempstead 107 lbs. Admiration ran in 1.41 and May Hempstead in 1.39 1-5. Making allowance for weight, those who handicapped the match race by time, might expect both horses to run under 1.40 when they met in their duel. What was the result? Admiration won the match race in 1.40 1-5, and May Hempstead was beaten by many lengths, yet she had covered the same course under almost identical conditions even as regards the atmosphere, in 1.39 15. The cause of this change in time was due entirely to the way the match race was run.

It was the early pace that made the time slow, the first half mile being run in something less than 47 seconds, and it became a question of sheer gameness as to which mare would crack first. One of them had to wilt under the terrific pace, as is always the case in races where two or more horses are being driven to their limit of speed, in the early part of the race. No better illustration of the uncertainty of time as a basis for handicapping could be given than the Admiration and May Hempstead races.

Again it will be found on record frequently that a horse running in his own class, say a race for three-year-olds only, carrying 112 pounds, will run three quarters of a mile in 1.13, and possibly win with apparent ease. This same horse will come out three or four days later in a race for horses three years old and upward, meeting a horse like Hermis, or Voter-in fact any fast horse, and possibly he will carry but 95 pounds. A time handicapper would make the three-year-old run in 1.12 possibly if he carried out his calculations to a fraction. What would be the result of the race? Why, Hermis would beat such a horse in a gallop, and possibly would not have to run but six furlongs better than 1.14 to do it. This is accounted for by class. Hermis being a high class horse would take a three-year-old by the collar and he would run him into the ground in the first halt mile, leaving him so leg weary at the end of this distance that he would simply stagger home.

Time in such cases is absolutely useless and deceiving. There are instances, however, where it is possible to determine a good race from a bad race by time when two races are run on the same day. Time again is useful to the trainer who is watching for improvement in his horse; but it is not nearly as reliable in a trial as running one horse against another. For instance, I may have a maiden in my stable that cannot work a mile better than 1.45, yet if I start him off with Belmar for a mile trial he will run a mile in 1.41 or perhaps better. Such a horse is considered a poor work horse, one that will race much better than he works. On the other hand, there are horses that will work exceedingly fast when alone and will not run up to form in races. Such horses are very bad betting propositions.

Returning to the fallacy of time as a criterion of what horses should do and should not do, there are horses that have created records on many occasions that have never lived up to their record afterward or anywhere near it. Take a straight course, for instance, like the Futurity Course in Sheepshead Bay. Time is absolutely no use there, for the reason that there may be a wind playing down the chute that is almost a gale. It will cause the time of the race to be exceedingly fast. Again the wind may be playing head on. It would make the time of the race very slow, for the resistance of the wind is very great in a horse race, and it is correspondingly great when acting as a propeller.

There are no race going folks who can determine the velocity of the wind. Similar results follow, probably not so decided, on a circular course as on a straight stretch, for the wind sometimes blows across the track, sometimes aids the horses on the back stretch or may be against them coming home. Again it may be against them on the back stretch and aid them coming home; and a horse can run faster against the wind in the early stages of the race than he can when he becomes leg weary in the last quarter of a mile.

Then there is the sultry day with a great deal of humidity, and the hot bright day when the atmosphere is dry. All these things have an effect on the time of the race, and in fact on the condition of a horse. It is a common saying that such and such a horse is a hot weather horse, and that others will be better in the hot weather. Weather affects them as it does persons. It is almost unnecessary to go further into the details on the question of time as a handicapping basis, for I have given enough illustrations of the uncertainty of making time the foundation or basic calculation in handicapping. Horse against horse, weight against weight and accompanying conditions are the best lines to follow as to the superiority of one horse over another.

Some men will say that because a horse has run a mile in 1.40 one day and was beaten in 1.41 the next, that there was something crooked about the horse. Do not believe it. I am not saying that there is no crookedness in horse racing. There is crookedness, more or less, in every kind of business, at least in most kinds of business. The less one thinks of crookedness in horse racing the better will it be for him. There are some smart men, that is, men who consider themselves smart, because they cook up a race once in a while, but if you will look them over you will find that they possess money spasmodically, and generally wind up their careers poor.

Instead of looking for crookedness in a race, be conservative and try to find out in after study of the race where it was possible to show a defect in your own calculations, instead of Jumping at the conclusion that because a horse did not run directly up to your own deductions the race was crooked. If you will place more confidence in the result of the race than you do in an exalted opinion of your own handicapping, you will find in the end that you will be much better off and considerably richer.

When I play a horse in a race and he is beaten on his merits, I know that I have made a mistake somewhere in my deductions, and before I go to sleep that night I try to find out where that mistake is, and turn it to advantage in the future. If everybody speculating on horses, who depends upon his own opinion, will follow this advice he will find it very instructive, and in the end much more profitable than jumping at the conclusion that there was something crooked about the race.


CHAPTER 6 -- Class and Weight

Class and weight are two of the most important subjects to be considered under the general division of handicapping. Although the first is not so closely related to the actual mechanical work of bookkeeping as the latter, it cannot be overlooked. When it comes to handicapping, all your mechanical work will go for naught if you have no knowledge of class.

"Show me the man who can class horses correctly and I will show you the man who can win all the money he wants, and he only needs a dollar to start." 

"Mike" Dwyer said that to me years ago, and time has shown it to be one of the greatest truths ever uttered about horseracing. Class, that intangible thing that almost defies definition, controls almost positively the running of thoroughbreds! Class enables one horse to beat another no matter what the physical odds imposed may be, what the conditions or what the distance. You may say it is that which enables a light bull terrier to whip a big dog of another breed. It enables sometimes one fighter to whip another. As I said before, it is hard to define, but everybody discerns it, when it is there.

In trying to define class in horse racing, the best I can do is to say that class in a horse is the ability possessed by it to carry its stipulated stake weight, take the track, and go the distance that nature intended it to go. It is heart, nerve and ability combined, which ignores all ordinary rules and ordinary obstacles.

There is no law by which you determine class or classify horses. An intimate knowledge of a horse alone tells. What he has done, and how he has done it, places him, and nothing else. Birth and breeding do not appear to count so much. Many great stallions, themselves of high class, with great turf records, have never sired good horses, not even when the nick has been with mares of equally high class. On the other hand, stallions that have not been so great, have produced magnificent colts, and it is the same way with the mares.

One of the mysterious rules of class that I cannot understand is that a real high class horse and a positively common horse cannot be brought together by weights within the handicapper's reason. You could put 140 pounds on Hamburg, which is a really high class horse, and 80 pounds on Alsike, and Hamburg would run him into the ground. He could take the track and outrun Alsike at every stage and the weight would not make any difference. You have seen what Reliable, a high class sprinter, had done and what Kinley Mack, Gold Heels, Ethelbert, all high class horses, can do.

Out of all the horses foaled during the year, there is hardly one-tenth of one per cent, that can be termed positively high class. After that stage comes the first class handicap horse and the proportion grows larger; then follows the moderate handicap horse, still more; then comes the lowest form of handicap horses, which dovetail into the selling plater class of the first flight, and from there they grade down to the "dogs," the poorest horses running.

Now, between the really high class horse like Hamburg and the "dog" like Alsike, there is such a wide gulf that the blindest man on the track can detect it. If that were all there is to it, racing would be easy. But then you start to go down from the top and come up from the bottom and your trouble begins. Between the first class handicap horses, and the horses a notch above the "dogs," you have not so much trouble. After that it grows harder until finally the classes dovetail, and then only the shrewdest of observers can hope to make a successful classification.

As there are more horses in the dovetailing classes than anywhere else, there are more races in those divisions, and hence one of the great uncertainties of racing. But the mysterious rule applies just the same, the better class horse has a "shade" always on the one below him-only very often we cannot fathom it.

Right here I may say that I consider Gold Heels a real high class horse, for he did in the Brighton handicap what only such horses can do. During the running of that race he stood off three challenges, one horse after another coming up to him in an effort to get the track away from him. You will remember how he stood them off one by one, taking them by the neck and beating them until Blues came up. Blues he beat from the eighth pole home in one of the greatest struggles we have ever seen on the race track. Gold Heels is to me a grand race horse.

By observation, class can be detected and tabulated in horses of a lower grade. For instance, there are many horses that will run an exceedingly good race with 90 pounds up, while 103 or 104 pounds will cause them to make a very disappointing showing. Every pound seems to send them down the scale of class, and a knowledge of this fact is very valuable to you.

It is this class that is most frequently manipulated by trainers and owners. Entered, say, at 108 pounds, this kind of a horse will show nothing. There will be two or three races just like it until the general public will classify that particular horse as a hound. Then will come a race in which the impost will be 95 pounds. The public, which does not study or observe closely, will pass him over again. They will not have noticed that his races with heavier weights have improved the horse, that he is fit and everything is propitious. He improves alarmingly, and immediately a cry goes up. Now strictly speaking there was no cheating by those concerned in the horse.

He ran as far as he could with 108 pounds up in his prior races, but nature had not made him a 108 pound horse. You will find this kind in the moderate and fairly good class of horses. There was Imp for instance. She could always be depended upon to do the best she could under any and all conditions. With 112 pounds on her she could beat first class horses at a mile and a quarter, but every pound more than that would send her down the scale. With 118 pounds she could beat high class horses for one and one-eighth miles, but if asked to go one and one-quarter miles, with the same weight, she would die away in the last furlong. She could carry 121 pounds one mile and a sixteenth and beat good horses but after that distance the weight would be fatal. I use Imp as an example-there are many in her division, running every year, of a similar disposition and class.

In regard to horses carrying weight, I figure that two-year-olds can give considerably more weight away successfully than horses in other divisions. A real high class two-year-old will carry a lot of weight, and it is hard to stop him until he is asked to carry 130 pounds or more and sometimes not even then. I have found it in my experience that a high class two-year-old will race fast with 130 pounds on him, practically as fast as he can with 120 pounds. In saying this 1 merely infer that the difference in a race a horse will run is so slight that it is hardly discernible. This refers to real first class two-year-olds. In the lower division of two-year-olds a few pounds make a very material difference to their racing; in fact, a difference of five pounds, say from 100 to 105 pounds on a common horse will make him run a very inferior race; and when a common horse is asked to carry 112 pounds or 115 pounds it seems to take his speed away altogether. Go back over any records of high class two-year-olds and you will find that this assertion is absolutely correct.

Hamburg was an extraordinary weight carrying two-year-old, and he is only one of many that could be mentioned. A good trainer will Know just about what weight his horse can carry and run a good race. He knows that if his horse is at his best with 95 pounds up he will run a very bad race if he puts 107 pounds on him. Frequently a trainer will enter a cheap selling plater in a race with the selling price so high that the horse will have to carry 110 pounds or thereabouts. He knows at the time that his horse will run poorly and has probably entered him for work only, preparing him for a race in the very near future when he will be entered to carry 95 pounds.

These little tricks are well worth watching, for by close observation it is easily seen what a trainer is doing with his horses and what his intentions are. In other words, when you have so far discovered the weight carrying ability of a horse, and you see him in a race with considerably more weight up than in your opinion he can carry, it is safe to say that this horse can be thrown into the discard, and depend on the old adage, "watch and wait." Do not understand me as saying that all trainers resort to these tricks. The majority do not, and this is a point which the player of horses has to learn. He must study the disposition of the men who train horses, as well as the horses themselves. I have found that everything being equal, two-year-olds run much more consistently than any other class of horses. They are taught to race.They are young and they know nothing else. In fact they are just like children playing on tip toe all the time.

Their consistency is due to their inexperience, for with age comes cunning and the developing of a disposition either good or bad. Some horses retain an even disposition throughout their career, while others become exceedingly eccentric. It is a common expression on the turf that a horse is "getting cunning," which means that if things suit him he will run a good race. But if they do not he will perform very indifferently. Real good horses have a lot of character about them, and they will run very consistently when in first class condition. A horse that has become eccentric in his disposition is liable to perform very indifferently. There are hundreds of horses that can win and will not run their best-horses that will work alone in the morning and shirk in the afternoon.

Administering stimulants to horses was due to the fact that some could run and would not. In these days they are called "dope" horses for the reason that they are stimulated with drugs.

Before the stimulating drug was discovered a draft of sherry or whiskey mixed with coffee was given to horses in the shape of a drench, and it has been known to have effect, but progress and experiments afterward proved that drugs were absolutely essential to make some horses put forth their best efforts. The drug question has been a very serious proposition for years, and at one time was beyond the control of racing officials. It is even now a source of considerable trouble. When the use of stimulants became prevalent I carefully studied the question, frequently getting advice from veterinary surgeons as to the effect certain kinds of drugs would have on horses. It was an exceedingly vexing question with me, for on that problem alone depended many of my investments.

When I discovered that a horse was a "dope" horse, it was absolutely necessary for me to know whether a stimulant had been given to him or not, for two reasons. If in my investigation I found that the horse had been given a stimulant, I knew he should run a good race, and therefore become a factor in my calculations. On the contrary, if he had not been stimulated by drugs it was equivalent to his not being in the race at all. If the horse in mind was one of the choices, it was a safe betting proposition to bet against him, and look elsewhere for the winner. It was sometimes very easy to beat a race two ways under such conditions, and I have frequently played the winner of a race and laid against another.

It is rather difficult these days to tell when horses have been drugged, for different drugs have different effects on horses. it was generally conceded in the old days that if a horse "broke out" into a pronounced perspiration that he was drugged. Sometimes he was and sometimes not, was my experience. The fretful horse will "break out" any day while in the paddock, and nearly all horses will show some perspiration on a hot day, so that if any of them have been drugged it cannot always be detected by their coat. But there are two things that hardly ever fail in distinguishing a horse that has been stimulated and a horse that has not.

The first is the glassy appearance of the eye and its bright, anxious look. The pupil also dilates. The second sign is the nostril, which becomes considerably distended. The breathing also is not uniform. The nostrils will expand and contract in an unusual manner. In some instances the forehead and the hide around the top of the head and neck will show continued perspiration. But those who have used stimulants on horses have things down pretty fine. They cannot stop the look in the eyes and the distending of the nostrils, but they can make their horses look as if they had been "doped" when such is not the case. Giving them a good stiff preliminary breeze under very heavy blankets will cause horses to have a "doped" appearance. This avoids suspicion in many cases and eludes the vigilance of the racing officials after they are drugged, because the horse goes to the post in apparently the same condition as regards his outward appearance every time.

If it were possible to make owners and trainers send their horses to the post in the same condition at all times, stimulating horses would not create the scandal it does, for the horses would run consistently. It is the abuse of stimulants that causes so much criticism by using them one day, and not another. This creates scandal and denunciation of the sport. All the patrons of racing want is consistency in horses, and when it is possible, they should get it. There is enough natural inconsistency in horse racing without its being forced on the public by unscrupulous men.

CHAPTER 7 -- Treatment of Horses

Many owners and trainers make mistakes and frequently spoil a good horse by not snaking him happy in his surroundings. A horse is just like a person in this respect. To do his best work, he must be contented. Whenever I bought a horse my first object was to find out his disposition. I have watched him closely in his stall, watched his eating, whether he had a good appetite, or minced at his meals. Any failing he had I would always try and remedy in some way or another. A horse that is not contented in his stable cannot take on flesh or be happy. Horses will not permit certain stable hands around them and they will even shirk their meals if interrupted by any one they do not like.

Belmar was a horse that was very hard to please. I knew he was a very good horse, but I knew that there was something wrong with him. He never seemed to run the race that I believed he could run. I bought this horse from Mr. Galway, thinking I could manage him and bring out his best qualities. Almost every moment I had to spare I would spend around Belmar's stall. I told my brother, William, that if ever we could get at the horse's disposition he would win a lot of races. We tried to please him by putting a companion in his stall in the shape of a rooster. He did not seem to take to the rooster and we tried a cat and a goat. Finally, a little fox terrier playing around the stables ran into the stall and Belmar seemed to take to him at once.

After this, if the fox terrier was away from Belmar, the old horse would sulk and whinny for him to come back again. When Belmar was lying down the little old fox terrier was always lying on his shoulder and the two always slept together. It got so that the fox terrier could be placed on the withers of Belmar and he would trot around the shed with the dog on his back. No sooner had Belmar become contented with his surroundings than he began to run good races. If I remember rightly, Mr. Vosburgh, unquestionably one of the few high class handicappers this or any other country has ever seen, had Belmar handicapped at 95 pounds in races before I got him. So much did the horse improve that he won seven straight handicaps without being defeated, and each time his weight was increased until in the last of his winning series he carried 128 pounds. In other words, he had jumped from the bottom to the top of the ladder in the handicap division, and it was all due to his being made happy and contented in his surroundings.

There was always something very noticeable about Belmar at this time and that was his excellent condition after a race it was very rare to see him oiling up distressed and it is for this reason that I am egotistic enough to say that I improved Belmar faster than the handicapper put on weight.

I never bought but one horse in my life that did not win any races for me I can safely say that every horse I ever owned improved after I had him long enough to study his disposition. A horse should be made comfortable at all times There is no animal so near like a person in disposition as a horse. They are positively human in their conduct at times. A trainer should use his best efforts to control a horse with a nervous disposition, for it is exceedingly hard to make them take on flesh and do well. The mind of a horse should be easy. He should not be anticipating anything, he should not be teased or in any way abused. Like a person, if irritable or excitable, he loses flesh and is incapable of his best efforts.

It sometimes takes months to get at the true disposition of a horse. Exceedingly close watch must be kept on him and every effort made to make him understand what is wanted of him. When a horse is fit to race it is almost cruel not to race him at least once a week. A horse expects to race if he is a thoroughbred. It is his nature, and if he is not raced he is disappointed and fretful.

This is very logical and has its resemblance in the eagerness a gamecock shows to fight. There is no time that a gamecock is not ready to get into a scrap if he is fit, and it is the same with a thoroughbred. He is high-strung and must be raced, and what is more, while in this condition he will improve with racing, and the work keeps him from being fretful, which is the main point in keeping a horse up to his condition.

This does not mean, however, that a horse will keep on improving after a certain time. When he has reached the keen edge of condition he will begin to go back. An oarsman, or a pugilist, or any other human being, who has been keyed up to the top notch by continued effort will go stale. That happens also to a horse. It will, therefore, be seen that the critical eye of the trainer should detect when to let up on a horse and not expect to keep him in first class condition forever.

There is one instance that I can recall in particular. It was at Brighton Beach where the condition of a horse after a race was so palpable to me that it made me win one of the biggest bets of the year. It was the race in which the horses Proper and Rigodon ran. Proper beat Rigodon; but in watching the horses return to the judges, as I always did, I saw that Proper was very much distressed, while Rigodon did not appear to be in the least exhausted. He just took a couple of long breaths, then pricked up his ears, and looked up and down the stretch as unconcerned as if he had not been in a race at all. Shortly after this occurrence the same two horses ran again. My observations had shown me that Proper would not run as good a race the second time, owing to his being so much distressed after his prior racing, while on the other hand Rigodon would improve considerably. I naturally had quite a large wager on Rigodon, and Rigodon won very handily.

It looked like a serious change of form, and so it was. There was considerable newspaper criticism about the two races, and quite a number at very smart men could not understand why Proper should beat Rigodon so handily one day and be so badly beaten by the same horse a few days later. In my opinion it was nothing else in the world but a case of Rigodon improving and Proper having gone back: or in other words. the first race improved one horse considerably while it had a very distressing effect on the other.


The full book, including interviews with contemporaries and anecdotes, can be downloaded from here.

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5 replies
  1. 10 Things You Didn't Know about Geegeez Racecards
  2. rjtilt
    rjtilt says:

    A fascinating read. Amazing to think how relevant the book is, today, all those years later. I would certainly be be interested in similar articles on Geegeez, in the future. Thank you Matt, another reason why Geegeez is the best racing website.

  3. Fetlock55
    Fetlock55 says:

    Can only echo rjtilt’s sentiments. Terrific read. Hope to see some more articles in the future. Thanks Matt.

  4. Sam Carson
    Sam Carson says:

    Absolutely excellent I should but probably won’t learn from it.
    Trust skiing has been first class.
    Wonder what you thought of the race conditions for the 20.10 from Chelmsford on Friday night ? Won by my local trainer whom I think exploited a loophole. Stupidly I bet his other one !!!

    • Matt Bisogno
      Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Sam

      Really glad you enjoyed the serialization – there are a few pointers in there, and there’s a section at the back – which I didn’t publish – containing bullet points. I think that might be the easiest way to remember some of the ‘goodness’.

      I didn’t see the race to which you refer, but given Chookie was a 6/1 shot, he wasn’t widely expected to prevail despite carrying a good bit more than the max 100 rating for the race.


  5. RonCombo
    RonCombo says:

    Really enjoyed reading those extracts Matt. Underlined the importance of discipline when looking at backing horses. Something I don’t have sadly, nor a good memory. Appreciate this was written in a different age but I wonder if Pittsburg Phil enjoyed his work? However he viewed it, he was seriously successful so that would have been enough perhaps!

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