George E. Smith, aka “Pittsburgh Phil” (1862–1905): Master of the Horse

I was trolling some gilded age  newspapers a while ago and I came across a 1889 squib entitled “Wealthy Men Banquet“,  which is my kind of article.  Twenty three notables were listed, including Andrew Carnegie, H.C. Frick, and towards the bottom E.D. Smith.

Pretty commonish name for such exalted company, and I’d never heard of him.  Google is your friend.  So sometimes is fat thumbing

E.D. Smith turned out to be Canadian businessman and Conservative politician.  G.E. Smith, which is what I googled in error, turned out to be both the guitarist, or a gambler.

Not just any gambler.   George Elsworth Smith, aka Pittsburgh Phil, was a byword for astute horse picking.  Or jockey picking,  whichever paid off the most.  Call him the Warren Buffett of the turf.  He did his homework, bet only when it made sense, and wound up making millions.  Millions in pre-World War One dollars

Not that you would have bet on him as a super star out of the gate.  George Smith started out life in Sewickley PA, just outside of Pittsburgh,  back when that was farm country.  His parents were low modest.  His father died when he was eleven, and he was forced to his first job was cutting cork for five dollars a week.

Always on the look out for a way to bring home more money, George took a plunger on raising game cocks.  They tended to win.  With the winnings he drifted into baseball,  on which sport one could be bet in the downtown pool halls.

It was there that he first discovered the horses.  If you’ve seen The Sting, you’ll be familiar with bare-bones race reports coming in over the wire and how readers dressed up the content for the punters.  It was the same in Smith’s time.  For him, however, it was all about the numbers.  He started making charts of who won, and where they placed at various points in the races.  He listened for a year before laying down money.  He won (of course) and a career was born.

Of course a consistent winner attracts attention and pretty soon he was having a hard time getting the odds-makers to take his bets. So it was off first to Churchill Downs to take a look at a real live horse race, then to Chicago where the field was wider and his reputation did not precede him.

The anonymity of the name Smith helped.  There were enough of those around that in Chicago he was dubbed Pittsburgh Phil (presumably as in Philadelphia, and not to be confused with the Murder Inc contractor) by the auctioneer to distinguish him from others of the same name.  Here too he was followed, and lost the odds with the bookmakers.  Here too he began the use of a beard to place his bets.

By the age of twenty five, he was worth $US 200,000.   It was time to go to New York.

From betting  he branched out to buying and owning horses for himself.  It was to him not simply a matter of judging horseflesh, but also noting what factors brought out the best and the worst in them. He was a connoisseur of the horse that liked mud, or not, and just as important, the jockey who liked mud, or not.  And he kept it all in the family.  Beards had to be changed regularly as they became familiar to the bookies, but for his trainer, he brought in his brother William, a railroad brakeman, who somehow managed to be quite good at the job.

You can have bad streaks and Smith had his share.  By 1891 the bookies were cheerfully taking money off him as race after race went south.  He was always careful not to let it upset his strategy.  Loses were losses.  They happened.  Smith had a long term view and he was confident that with his latest purchase, his luck, to the extent it was luck, was about to change.

In September, he brought the two year old King Cadmus to Sheepshead bay. The oddsmakers were feeling their oats and Smiths beards at the track and in other cities were quietly getting good odds.  By the end of that race, he was up over $US 140,000, a record win by a single horse at that time.  “The bookies! They fumed and stormed and looked at sheets that told them that Pittsburg Phil’s luck had changed with a vengence, and that they had got to give up to him a lot of the money that they had won of him in the past when fortune failed to smile on him.”

And if that were not enough, he added again as much by laying on a twelve to one longshot he reckoned liked mud for another $US 75,000.

It made him a household name.

He was not a shouter at the track, or anywhere else for that matter.  Whether winning or losing, he watched the races with seeming indifference to the outcome.  It was a calculated bet.  It either worked out or it did not.  If it didn’t, it would next time. Indeed, he was like as not paying no attention to his own horse, but seeing how the competition was doing, in case he might pick up some useful information for another day.

It was a business to him, and he described it as such to conventional businessmen who twitted him about the easy life he lead, showing up at the tracks on Sunday and loafing the rest of the time.  “Playing the races,” Smith observed,” appears to be the one business in which men believe they can succeed without special study, special talent, or special exertion.”   Not to Smith.  For him, it was a business just as much as any other and demanded hours of application and thought a day.

In an age where flash money was the rule and the likes of Diamond Jim Brady lit cigars at Delmonicos with hundred dollar bills, and showgirls livened the party,  Smith lived a retiring life.  He spent his evenings at home, quietly, with his mother and sister when in town, and with trusted associates when not.  An annual vacation to Hot Springs Arkansas with his mother.  Other women were not a factor in his life, absolutely not while he was at the track.

On the track much to his displeasure he was a celebrity, dogged by spies from other plungers and amateurs hoping for any kind of tip.  Proposition letters flooded his mail (all were ignored), and getting the operation running became increasingly difficult.

He was also getting on the nerves of respectable society.  In 1904, the members of the Jockey Club banned his jockey from riding at Belmont.  Allegations of throwing races.  Smith was furious, and by all accounts with good cause.  He ran a clean operation and when a newspaper insinuated he did not, he sued.

This same time his health was failing. Another season for his mother in Hot Springs, he himself to North Carolina to treat his consumption.  It didn’t work. He was just over forty when he died (tuberculosis), leaving a fortune of perhaps some two million dollars, and this in the days when money meant something.

Bookies across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief.

*****

As if to prove he was on the up and up, he shared his thinking with track writer Edward Cole,  who, after his death, published Racing Maxims & Methods of Pittsburg Phil explaining just what it was that Smith was looking for on the track.    Original copies can goes for hundred of dollars, but the book is out of copyright and can be had free on line. Or in paperback from Simon & Schuster October of 2012.  Even for those with little to no interest in horses or horse racing, makes for interesting reading.

A few of his observations:

“A man cannot divide his attention at the track between horses and women.”

“All consistently successful players of horses are men of temperate habits of life.”

“A jockey should not be overloaded with instructions.”

“Special Knowledge is not a talent. A man must acquire it by hard work.”

“A man who plays the races successfully must have opinions of his own and the strength to stick to them no matter what he hears.”

Other books that mention him include:

Ted Sloan by Himself

And a novel, Pittsburgh Phil: a Novel of a Legend

Then there’s his mausoleum.  He had it built in anticipation of death while still in his thirties  It’s your basic  Greek temple look-like, suitable for lawn equipment or a small car.  His mother decided to improve it by placing a life-sized sculpture of her extraordinary son on its roof, a racing form in his hand. It almost avoids looking absurd.

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