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Running their own race
John Schulian
December 12, 1977
You can bet on it—those Chicago messengers who promise to take your wager to the track aren't athletes. Many are working an ingenious, lucrative bookie racket
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December 12, 1977

Running Their Own Race

You can bet on it—those Chicago messengers who promise to take your wager to the track aren't athletes. Many are working an ingenious, lucrative bookie racket

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Before Las Vegas, there was Chicago. It wasn't much on sunshine and show girls, but half a century ago you could get a bet down in Chi faster than Al Capone's thugs could say "stick 'em up." The high rollers played their hunches on horses at the Horseshoe Club, a hoity-toity gambling den where they broke out roulette wheels in the evening. Bookmakers served the masses in cigar stores, at newsstands and even, it is said, in a corner of the American National Bank Building. Sure, it was illegal. But the police didn't mind.

Chicago almost let this wonderful tradition fade away. In the 1940s the gaming houses were shuttered. Only the bookies maintained the old fervor, but time reduced their number, and too many of their children turned away from a life of odds.

So it was left to a controversial lawyer named Frank Oliver to devise a scheme that brought betting back to the streets. Two years ago, inspired by an idea that had been snuffed out by the law in New Orleans, Oliver and two partners set up shop alongside doctors and lawyers, just a block from the Federal Building. Oliver contended it wasn't illegal for one person to give another person money to take to the racetrack to bet for him. "It's the same as asking a friend to buy a pair of galoshes for you," he says. So it was that the Pegasus Co., the first betting messenger service in Illinois, began.

Predictably enough, the tracks immediately cried foul. For one thing, it was quickly apparent that most of the services were booking the bets instead of taking them to the tracks. The legislature and courts soon were involved, but a bill outlawing the messenger services stalled in the legislature until last June when the threat of a horsemen's boycott forced passage of the measure. The messenger services successfully sued to remain open pending court tests on the constitutionality of the legislation. Although they now seem to be operating on borrowed time, in recent months they have spread the length and breadth of Illinois. And they are collecting something their bookmaking predecessors never got—a 10% carrying charge for each bet.

Pegasus didn't have much competition until its second season. Then, with thoroughbreds running at Arlington Park, and harness races rolling at Sportsman's Park, the messenger services began springing up faster than gas stations. In 1976 the count in metropolitan Chicago reached as high as 350, and many quiet neighborhoods, were scandalized to discover a betting parlor had opened next to a church or a school. Housewives wailed that the temptation was too great for their husbands and their children; however, the complaints from winners who weren't paid off were louder still. "They'd buy a ticket one day and go back the next to cash it," says William L. Masterson, secretary of the Illinois Racing Board. "They'd find the place closed up. Or there'd be somebody there saying they never heard of the old tenants." So far the biggest loser to the welshers is a woman who hit a $20,000 trifecta at Sportsman's. "The messenger said his office had been burglarized and her ticket had been taken," Masterson says. "But Sportsman's said it had sold only four winning tickets and all had been cashed." The woman hired an attorney, who managed to get her a couple of thousand dollars of her winnings, and she was a star witness at a public hearing on the messengers. Other victims have attempted more direct confrontations. The police collared one man with a pistol sitting in front of a South Side betting parlor, waiting for it to open.

Violence, or the threat of it, is considered the norm around the messenger services. Racing Board and track officials claim some services are operated by the mob, but the best evidence they have is that a lot of the messengers' employees have police records. "It looked like we were going to get proof of organized crime's involvement when we started hearing about a lot of mom-and-pop operations being taken over," says Masterson. "Guys would come in and make an offer, and then six weeks later they'd come back and make an offer that couldn't be refused. But we never got a mom or pop to testify."

The big messenger services have been battling each other even more than the independent operators. A clerk at one parlor was shot to death, and two storefronts were fire-bombed. The body of a nickel-and-dime hoodlum was found stuffed in the trunk of a car parked in front of one office.

Nothing, however, has scared away the messenger services' business. "We guess they handle $750,000 a day," says Billy Johnston Jr., president of the Chicago Downs Association, which runs both flat and harness races at local tracks. Pegasus, which had 18 outlets at its peak (it now has five), reportedly has handled as much as $1.2 million a month.

From the beginning, the tracks claimed they weren't seeing much of the messengers' money. A popular theory is that the services allegedly run by the mob book 80% of their bets. About the only bets put through the track machines are on trifectas. Because of the large payoffs, a trifecta race is the easiest for anybody booking bets to get burned on, so the services lay off the action.

Last month Masterson claimed a messenger service was involved in tranquilizing a pair of favorites entered in a trifecta event at Hawthorne. He will not elaborate on that allegation now. The race was canceled and the horses tested positive. The stewards, however, missed another doped favorite a week later, realizing what had happened only after the horse ran out of the money.

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