Review of Horse Racing the Chicago Way

Steven A. Riess, Horse Racing the Chicago Way: Gambling, Politics and Organized Crime, 1837-1911. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2022).

Reviewed by Nicholas E. Sarantakes

As the title indicates, Steven A. Riess studies the rise and fall of horse racing in Chicago in Horse Racing the Chicago Way: Gambling, Politics and Organized Crime, 1837-1911.  However, as the subtitle indicates, this book is more than that. Riess goes even further beyond horse racing in Chicago to examine national patterns in gambling, politics, and crime, making this book not only a useful account for sports historians but also for scholars interested in the history of Chicago, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and urban history. It will also be useful in other academic disciplines like criminology.

Syracuse University Press, 2022.

Riess certainly has the credentials to write this book. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he taught at Northeastern Illinois University—which is in Chicago—for 35 years, retiring as the Bernard Brommel Distinguished Research Professor. During that time, Riess wrote four books and edited another nine for an average of one title every 2.6 years. He won the 2015 North American Society for Sports History Book Award, and four article prizes.  He was editor of the Journal of Sports History for eight years, and spent 25 years serving as the editor of the “Sports and Entertainment” series at the Syracuse University Press, with this book published as part of the series. He wrote a similar book, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics and Organized Crime in New York, 1865-1913, which sold so well it was turned into an audio book.

In this more recent book, Riess makes his thesis clear: “The popularity of racing was overwhelmingly based on the opportunity to make bets.” (p. 313). The criminal element controlled much of this activity.  “This gambling was a cornerstone for the rise of syndicate crime and a major source of income. Horseracing was a crucial element in the alliance between the underworld and urban political machines as big-city syndicates worked in close cooperation with machine politicians and local police to protect this illegal business” (p. 312).  

Horse racing has a checkered history in the United States. Many of the founding fathers enjoyed equine sports, but many states in the early republic period outlawed horse racing, not for any moral objections to the social impact of sport but rather because of its association with the British aristocracy. Horse racing survived during the nineteenth century in the form of carriage trotting. Riess observes that this sport catered to the middle class. The horses were common farm and work animals. Betting was a feature of these races.  

It was only with the rise of a moneyed class after the Civil War that entrepreneurs turned to thoroughbreds. These horses were faster, but more high-strung and temperamental. They were really only good for racing, fox hunting, and as an investment. Trotting declined in popularity as a sport, while racing grew. A point that Riess suggests but does not explicitly make is that speed played a role in the changing status of these sports.

Riess uses sport as a lens to examine many different social issues in Chicago. Class played a role in the fortunes of the sport. The wealthy in Chicago began building race tracks.  The Washington Park Club opened its racetrack in 1884. The races at the track were open to the public and part of the attraction of attending was seeing and being seen. Betting was also a class and ethnic activity. Irish gamblers normally took bets only from Irishmen, while Germans usually took the majority of their bets from Germans, and so on. Betting often took place in pool halls and bars that catered to certain ethnic groups. Each group had different approaches towards betting. Much of this wagering was controlled by organized crime. One of the earliest Chicago crime lords was Mike McDonald. The media of the day exaggerated his influence. Claims that he ran the city are rather absurd, but one of the keys to his success was using his profits to make himself a political boss. Another was establishing a monopoly over gambling in the city.  

There is a constant interaction in this book between political leaders, gambling, and gamblers. At times, it is hard to keep track of the various policies and personalities without a scorecard. Riess observes, “Americans liked to gamble, whether it was legal or not” (p. 310). Despite this fact, there were many others that worried about the influences of gaming. Although many Chicago politicians were corrupt and taking bribes, there were many others in the state legislature opposed to this activity. Tracks opened and closed in the 1880s due to changing state laws and court rulings. Once court rulings and legislation allowed racing, this equine sport exploded in popularity. Chicago became the second most important center of horse racing in the United States, second only to New York.  

The end, however, was rapid. An odd coalition of religious evangelicals, progressive reformers, and social Darwinists opposed gambling for very different reasons. This movement enjoyed rapid success managing to shut almost all race tracks in roughly 15 years. The Washington Park Racetrack, days after having 40,000 people attend a race, closed. In a bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Mayor Carter Harrison attacked gambling, ordering the police to enforce existing laws that prohibited games of chance. Horse racing, the mayor stated, was all-together legal, betting on the races, though, was a different story. With gaming prohibited, attendance dropped rapidly. Other tracks in the suburbs closed a season or two later with the Illinois State Attorney for Cook County John J. Healy enforcing anti-gambling laws. “The reformers won the battle against racing in Chicago, but the war on gambling was another story” (p. 266).

It is hard to quibble with this account. The research is impressive. The bibliography is 24 pages long. There are 697 footnotes. This work is also timely. With the rise of websites like FanDuel.com and DraftKings.com, gambling in the United States has entered a new era.  Professional sports is embracing this source of revenue, particularly Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. Both of these leagues have long seasons and trouble generating interest in many of their games. Online betting sites are now advertising in stadiums, arenas, and ballparks. This would suggest some legitimization of gambling. But there is still great opportunity for wrongdoing. In 2022, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was issued a year-long suspension for betting on his team while he was injured. In 2007, the NBA encountered a gambling scandal centered on referee Tim Donaghy, who bet on games he officiated and possibly fixed a game. It is very possible that history might provide guidance for sports administrators as they navigate their way through this new era.

This study is also important in a historiographical sense. Sport history faces certain respectability issues among other historians. With this book, Riess is a historian exploring a major feature of urban life in Chicago. Put another way, Reiss is not a racing historian, but a historian of the Gilded Age and Progressive era using sport as a way to examine social change. Riess also points the field in a different direction than the one it is currently taking. Books on baseball dominate the field to the point that a professor could probably put together a reading seminar on just that sport. Much of these works have a significant focus on the business of the sport. Equine sport and gambling are two areas that have been understudied. Many works of sport history depend on journalism of the age as major sources. Even in Julius Tygel’s impressive Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, the majority of the citations are to newspaper articles. Reiss shows real creativity in his use of source material, employing probate records for Cook County, Illinois, Congressional reports, the official proceedings of state legislatures, and over 40 newspapers. In short, Riess has produced the type of work that will endure for decades.  


Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.  He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.  He is the author of six books.  The most recent is Fan-in-Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.

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