Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arnold Rothstein, Dark Genius of the Mob

Legendary Feats

Three events took place in Rothstein's life that became legendary and created a reputation for the gambler that certainly preceded him and made him the talk of New York.

The first incident occurred in 1917. August Belmont owned a horse named Hourless, whose trainer, Sam Hildreth, was considered one of the best in the country. During the 1917 racing season Hourless lost in a three-horse race to that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Omar Khayyam. Hildreth knew he had been outsmarted by Hourless' rider, a dishonest jockey who dropped his whip during the race. When the New York season was over an enterprising track owner agreed to put up a purse for a grudge match between the two horses. On October 17, the day before the race, Rothstein decided to bet $240,000 on Hourless, but could not find anyone willing to handle a wager that large. Later that day, Rothstein received a telephone call and was informed whatever bet he was willing to place there was a man who would accept it — no limit.

Rothstein knew immediately that there must be a fix. He called Hildreth and voiced his concern regarding the sudden change of heart of the bookmakers to take his bet. If there was going to be a sucker in this race, it was not going to be Arnold Rothstein. At the last minute Hildreth changed jockeys and Hourless won convincingly. Rothstein pocketed a cool $300,000.

This bet was the largest Rothstein had won up until this time and he would exceed it twice in 1921. The first bet occurred on July 4. Independence Day was the second of the three big racing days that took place at the New York horse racing tracks (the other two being Memorial Day and Labor Day). On this holiday Rothstein was betting on his own horse, Sidereal.

Sidereal's entrance in the day's third race was a last minute decision by Rothstein. In fact, the horse was stabled at Belmont Park and the race was being run at Aqueduct. Rothstein sent Carolyn to fetch the horse while he maneuvered around the busy track drumming up business and, at the same time, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible so not to tip his hand. Rothstein "borrowed" as many as forty trackmen to do his bidding in placing bets on Sidereal. By the time the horse arrived at the track the paddock judge told the trainer he had beaten the deadline by a mere six seconds. Sidereal won the race and Rothstein earned the incredible amount of $850,000.

Weeks later, on August 20, Rothstein won $500,000 by betting on another of his horses, Sporting Blood, in the Travers Stakes. Rothstein had received some quality information about problems the favored horse was experiencing. He was quick to take advantage of the information — for which he always rewarded the provider well.

Despite the rumors that swirled about Rothstein's horses, both Herbert Bayard Swope and Carolyn Rothstein insisted that he ran an honest stable. "Arnold was never mixed up in a crooked race," Carolyn maintained. "He made his big winnings on races where he had superior information. He used every possible trick to find out more than anyone else and get the best odds."

August Belmont (Corbis)
August Belmont (Corbis)

One of those who believed the rumors was August Belmont. Leo Katcher describes Belmont's confrontation with Rothstein in his effort to keep him away from his racetrack.

"You know your reputation," Belmont said. "It hurts racing to have you such a conspicuous figure."

"What are you trying to say?" Rothstein demanded.

"You know what people are saying, Arnold," Belmont replied. "And what they're thinking. Half the country believes you were the man who fixed the World Series."

Next to the "Night of Sicilian Vespers," Arnold Rothstein's "fixing" of the 1919 World Series is the underworld's most popular myth. The reality is, however, as Leo Katcher claims, "He did not fix the Series. Rothstein's name, his reputation, and his reputed wealth were all used to influence the crooked baseball players. But Rothstein, knowing this, kept apart from the actual fix. He just let it happen."

The series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds was won by the underdog Cincinnati team five games to three (at the time the series was best of nine). Eight players from the Chicago team conspired to throw the games due to their intense dislike of owner Charles Comiskey, who they considered a cheapskate. However, the American League did not respond until over a year later after the completion of the 1920 season. At that time all eight players involved were banned from playing baseball for life. Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, was certain of Rothstein's participation in the fix and openly said so. To which Rothstein responded, "My only connection was to refuse to do business with some men who said they could fix it...I intend to sue Ban Johnson for libel..."

Rothstein traveled to Chicago to testify before a grand jury investigating the fixed games. Part of his testimony follows:

"The whole thing started when (Abe) Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down flat. I don't doubt that Attell used my name to put it over. That's been done by smarter men than Abe. But I wasn't in on it, wouldn't have gone into it under any circumstances and didn't bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was underway. My idea was that whatever way things turned out, it would be a crooked Series anyhow and that only a sucker would bet on it."

An attorney representing Comiskey and the White Sox believed Rothstein, as did the members of the grand jury. Despite the fact that Rothstein was cleared and never charged his name will forever be linked to Major League Baseball's darkest hour.

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