Bookies, Show Parlays, and Shifting Odds: The Legacy of the Linden Tree Caper

Gambling
Pimlico during the early 1980s was the site of a betting swindle modeled after the early 20th-century Linden Tree caper that reached all the way to Las Vegas. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The man in the gabardine suit didn’t look like he belonged at the racetrack. Not because he was too dignified for such a place. Quite the opposite. The tellers and the horseplayers at Pimlico had the man pegged as an impostor right away. He carried a Daily Racing Form, but he didn’t mark it up with speed figures, merely scratched out the scratches. Most telling, however, was that he didn’t look like someone from the city. From a farm, perhaps. A cracked and hard look about his face. People at the track said he looked like someone who might want to borrow some money. Which is why it was so alarming when he approached the teller to make a $5,000 show bet.

Was the man a bridge jumper? Was he dumping his life savings into the race to double up or head to the nearest bridge to end it all? It was unlikely. The tellers had seen the man there the day before, asking questions about how much he was allowed to bet. And he didn’t make just one $5,000 show bet. He made three. All on longshots. The old timers at Pimlico had some idea what he was up to. It was a Linden Tree caper, to be sure.

Early 20th-century bookmakers at the track. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1932, bookmakers who took bets on horse racing were legion across the country. There was no simulcast, no Internet, no OTB. For the horse racing fan who wanted to get a bet on a race being run in another city, there was only the local handbook operator, who could be found on barstools from coast to coast and everywhere in between. These bookies often paid their customers out on track odds, and they’d lay their action off with local runners who could dump “comeback money” into the betting pools on the track with a simple phone call. This practice annoyed Baron Long, one of the partners in the Agua Caliente Racetrack. He felt that comeback money was wreaking havoc on the game. Once he tried to bet a horse at 6-1, and when the comeback money hit the pool the horse went off at 1-10. He decided he’d have his revenge on the bookies of America.

In addition to owning the racetrack, Long owned a stable of horses that he raced. He entered a pair of his horses in the first race on Jan. 7, 1932, and he made sizeable wagers on them. But more than that, he also bet a total of $3,500 on the race, betting on every horse except for the morning-line favorite, Linden Tree. And even more than that, he made these bets at the last teller in the moments before the betting for the race closed. He approached the window and handed the teller the money and a written list of all of his bets.

Linden Tree won the race, but Long wasn’t disappointed. In fact, he was elated. He intended to lose his $3,500. The bet was in service of what soon appeared on the mutuel board at Agua Caliente once the race was official. Linden Tree paid $21.40 despite being pegged as the morning line favorite. Once the race went off and Long’s money was added to the pools, Long’s entry were the co-favorites at 2-1, and they finished last and next-to-last.

Long had bet a pile of money with bookies in New York on Linden Tree, and was paid off on the track odds – odds that were pumped up and inflated by his last-second bets. As a punishment, the racing stewards banned Long and his horses from the track – the very track he owned! Ownership, however, has its privileges. In two months, Long was back in action, and was elected president of the track. He sold his horses, however, and never raced again. But he laughed about the day he pulled one over on the bookies, and remained unapologetic.

As a result of the Linden Tree caper, most bookies thereafter capped what they would pay off on longshots, often at 15-1. Later, as the race wire enveloped the nation, bookmakers were able to manage their risk through layoff rooms and coordinate their action and the odds they offered. In the 1970s when New York legalized the handbooks and created Off-Track-Betting parlors throughout the city, they created a system that instantly pooled the money bet at the OTB with the money bet at the track. But in 1981, as the man in the gabardine suit was forking over wads of hundred-dollar bills at Pimlico, the sportsbooks of Las Vegas were stuck in those bygone pre-Linden Tree days. The 22 race books around Vegas paid off on track odds, just like the bookies of yesteryear. They may have thought they were protected against Linden Tree-style capers with safeguards like limits on bets ($200 maximum for people off the street, though high rollers could get more action if they knew somebody), or the widespread practice of only paying track odds on the first $20 bet. The problem, however, was they had no such limits or safeguards on the show parlay.

At the Pimlico betting windows. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The show parlay is a multi-race wager where the player picks horses in each race to show, and the money from each successive show payoff is parlayed onto the next race. In these bets, the payoffs could be quite high. Like sports parlays, they were difficult to hit, so the bookmakers loved them. On July 14, 1981, the 22 handbooks in Las Vegas learned to hate them.

Nobody is sure who they were, but three Latino men hit each race book up and down the Vegas Strip making sizeable show parlay bets. Nobody thought much about it until the seventh race at Pimlico, when Key to Riches, who was 5-1 in the win pool, won the race. Nothing unusual about a 5-1 shot winning a race. But he paid a whopping $10.20 to show. Not only that, there were a lot of significant show parlay bets that went through that horse that paid off astronomically.

How did that happen? It turned out some mope at Pimlico bet $5,000 to show on a 24-1 longshot named King Kurley. The mope was none other than the man in the gabardine suit. Pimlico on a Tuesday afternoon didn’t do a lot of handle. A single $5,000 bet in the show pool was enough to throw the entire pool way out of whack. The off-track bookmakers who were paying off on the track odds, despite not having access to the gabardine suit’s $5,000 loser bet to pay their winners, were caught with their pants down. Linden Tree strikes again.

Nobody knows how much Vegas lost that fateful day, because the bookies were understandably mum about it when the reporters came poking around. But today, these kinds of scams have all but vanished. Technology has made it much easier to regulate and to make sure that odds both on and off track are true and fair. It may sometimes seem like something fishy is going on, especially when the horses turn for home and the tote board updates a final time and the odds on a horse plunge dramatically. But it’s natural. Two-thirds of all handle comes in during the final two minutes before the post. In the time it takes the computers and regulators to tally up the final count and set the final odds, the horses have nearly finished the race. So while it may feel, on those days when your 10-1 longshot coming for home with a lead in the stretch suddenly drops to 6-5, that the fix is in, it probably isn’t.

But just to be safe, take a look around the track for a man in a gabardine suit. You never know.

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