Ladies at the Race Tracks: 1890


Women Gamblers Seen at Clifton and Guttenburg Tracks.

Female Sports With Lots of Nerve and Fat Purses.

Winning and Losing as Coolly as Old Rounders.

Do women follow and bet on the Winter as well as the Summer races? To satisfy curiosity on this point an Evening World reporter has made observations at the leading tracks near this city. He has kept his eyes and ears open. One blustering day recently he was startled as a sharp-toned, emphatic sentence fell on his ear.

“— the luck.”

Not from the mouth of a bearded man, but through the cherry red lips of a pretty young woman the three words were hissed. The third race at Clifton had just been run off and a rank outsider had won it. The girl who swore evidently did not have her money on the winner.

The reporter, who sat beside her, inquired sympathetically, “Lose?” to which she sweetly responded:

“Well, I should say so. Every race to-day, and I had a dead straight tip on the winner of this last race. My tout brought it to the house before I was out of bed this morning, but I couldn’t see how he could win and I played the favorite.”

She was interrupted by several women, who clustered around her cackling like a lot of geese. This one had fifty each way, on the winner. That one had backed the winner for a place and was “sorry she didn’t play him straight; she had the tip.” Another wagered two hundred on the day, but hoped to “pull out” (get her money back) on the next race, and so they gabbled on.

The women who play the Winter races at Clifton are a peculiar class. They are Bohemian by nature and natural-born gamblers. No day is cold enough nor stormy enough to keep them away from the races. They have a mania for betting on horses and will go to any extreme to get money with which to gamble. Many of them are respectable married women who are infatuated with the game of chance.

During the Summer the class of women are not so noticeable in the throngs which attend the big meetings at Sheepshead, Monmouth and the Westchester track, but when these meetings are over, and the women who got too the races purely for pleasure stay at home, the chronic female gamblers are left at the Winter races in their glory.

From constant association, they get to know one another quite well, and exchange greetings, when they meet at the track every day, like dear friends, although one of them scarcely knows who or what the other one is, nor where she lives. They don’t care, either. Their sole ambition is to beat the bookmakers, but alas, poor creatures, they generally fail. The old saw that all men are equal on and under the turf, applies to women as well, and any day at Clifton or Guttenburg you may see the housewife sitting beside and talking to the woman who is no stranger in the dives of New York.

The men with whom they mix despise them. They refer to them sneeringly as Amazons, and the appellation is not inappropriate. Many of the women are old, stout, gray-haired and seedy looking. There are “characters” among them who would “bring down the house” in any theatre. One especially is a woman, nearly seventy years old. She dresses in rusty black, and always occupies her own particular seat at both Clifton and Guttenburg. She carries a huge bundle of sporting papers and several “guides to the turf.” She gets to the track as early as possible and settles herself comfortably in her chair. Her face is the color of old parchment and seamed with wrinkles. She wears glasses, an old poke bonnet, a cloak of many colors and big goloshes. Once seated she poses over the day’s programme and selects her winner. By means of her horse books and papers she can follow their record back since the first day they ran, and so judge of their chance to win or lose.

Five minutes before the first race is run off she beckons a messenger-boy and gives him $10 to bet, $5 each way, on her selection. She loses invariably. She is known among the other Amazons as “The Mystery.” She always travels alone, and never speaks to the other women about her. She carries a small black reticule, and this she always has full of money. She has followed the races for years.

A different specimen Is Mrs. __, the relict of a man who made a fabulous fortune in the city by taming birds. He died five years ago. Since then she has played the races persistently.  “It’s the only way I can forget dear George.” she tells her friends.

Her ill luck on the turf is phenomenal. Once, she had $90 placed on four horses out of six in a race, and the two on which she had not a cent came in first and second. She has already squandered a goodly portion of the money which her husband left her. She is a gold mine for the tipsters. She pays them royally for giving her “sure things,” although they seldom or never win.

She scrapes acquaintance with the jockeys, and follows them to the paddock in quest of tips. She travels with two or three women whose husbands are well known gamblers in New York. The gamblers’ wives have true sporting blood. One of them took the jewelled garters off her limbs at Clifton one day, and sold them for $10 with which to make a bet in the last race of the day.

She had lost half a thousand before and put her $10 on a horse at 40 to 1 and won, going home nearly even in the day, but she did not get her garters back. They adorn the walls of a young bachelor’s bedroom.

Some of the women are very lucky and wager hundreds of dollars on a face: but most of them are very unlucky. A pathetic incident was witnessed by The Evening World reporter at Clifton recently. An old dame sat in the front row and saw the horse on which she had her money drop down and break his neck in the track. She sat there as if carved in stone. Her thin, bony hands were tightly clasped: her poke bonnet was tipped awry, and a few stray locks of gray hair streamed out behind. Soon a tear trickled down her wrinkled old cheeks, quickly followed by another and another. They scurried down to her chin, hung there for a moment and then dripped unheeded in her lap. A few of the Amazons about inquired what the trouble was.

“Oh. I have got to stop playing the races until I earn more money,” she said.

“I saved $300 and thought I had a sure system of winning, but my last five dollar note went on that horse, and now I guess I’ll go home.”

There were many expressions of pity as the angular old Amazon gathered up her sporting papers and slowly moved away. She bade the others good-by all around, and like a ghost of misfortune stole out of the grounds.

A hump-backed man…creates unbounded joy in the breast of the Amazon. They think they cannot lose If they can only rub their fingers on the hump. Some of them boldly approach the crippled individual and rub their fingers on his back. Others manoeuvre cunningly to do the same unobserved, To the uninitiated the crowd of women who will follow in the wake of a hunchback seem to be crazy.

They have many other superstitions by which they govern their bets. Some play the jockey’s colors. Other have lucky numbers and play whatever horse is marked with that number.

“Gypsy Extract,” painted on a fence, seen by a woman on her way to Clifton, was taken as a tip from Providence. She played Gypsy, and won. too.

A familiar figure at Clifton and Guttenburg is a big coarse-looking woman, who must weigh at least 300 pounds. She is a winner, and runs several race-horses herself.

One curious feature about the Amazons is their utter indifference to men. They never pay any attention to them unless spoken to or when they ask for tips or a “bet.”

The nerve of these women is sublime. When they go broke before the last race they will not hesitate to “brace” a man for a loan, whether they know him or not.

If a man is pointed out to them as being a big winner, they boldly introduce themselves, and ask for money or tips or both, There is nothing feminine about these women gamblers, except their clothes.

They call the horses “hosses,” and know the jargon peculiar to the racetrack by heart. They cannot control their emotions as well as men, though. When the horses are at the post the Amazons stand up and watch the racers until “they are off,” Then they become excited. The color changes in their faces. They breathe in short, quick gasps. They stand first on one foot, then on the other, continually asking: “Who is ahead?” “Will so-and-so win?” “Oh, dear, my horse is last,” and then, as the horses come down the homestretch, they jump up on their chairs, yelling and screaming at the jockeys,

“Come on there Bergen! Whip the devil! Make him win!” “See Brait coming up!” “Look at Prodigal!” “Heavens! Prodigal has won it, and I have won!” or lost.

Down they sit again then, and make their choice for the next race. Messenger boys, wide-awake looking lads, take their money and place it with the bookmakers, and cash their tickets for them when they win. The boys are generally honest, but once in a while some one of them beats the Amazons. At Brighton, another resort for the Amazons, last summer a boy collected nearly $300 from the women to bet on a race, and thinking he had a sure thing, he bet it all for himself and lost. Then he ran away and the lady gamblers had no redress.

At Clifton and Guttenburg there are as many women as men every day. An old sporting man said to the writer: “A cold day will generally keep 50 per cent. of the men who usually attend the races away, but it will not deter the women from appearing. ”

The World 11 March 1890: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Previously Mrs Daffodil shared a peep into the lives of  Women Gamblers of New York. This is an equally censorious and misogynistic article, the author recoiling in figurative horror because, as all the world knows, gambling—consigned to the same moral abyss as profanity, alcohol, and tobacco—is somehow vastly worse when women do it. There is also a sneer and a nod to the widespread notion that women are rubbish gamblers.

John W. Gates says that not all women, but some of them, are very poor speculators , very poor gamblers, and recalled this incident:

“A young friend of mine has a pretty cousin. He was going to the races the other day, and she called him up on the telephone, and asked him to put $10 on Forest King for her.

‘Very well,’ he said. “I’ll do it if you’ll pay me back,’

‘Of course I’ll pay you back, you horrid thing.’

‘All right,’ said he. ‘You didn’t last time.’

‘Oh. well,’ said she, ‘last time the horse didn’t win. you know.’ ”

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 20 July 1907

Guttenburg (also spelt Guttenberg) Horse Race Track specialised in winter horse racing, according to this very informative article.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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