In the sport’s post-Depression heyday, one audacious grifter beat the odds with an elaborate scam: disguising fast horses to look like slow ones.
T he bathtub was still full of champagne when Peter Christian Barrie barged into the gamblers’ hotel room just after dawn on Labor Day in 1926 with bad news to share.
The party had been rolling since Saturday at the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago, and as the sun rose on Monday there were still some women over, and everyone was half-drunk. The gamblers, described enigmatically in the New York Daily News a decade later as “a railroad man and a local millionaire,” were celebrating the $250,000 they planned to win that afternoon at Lincoln Fields, a new racetrack 30 miles south of the city.
Nothing is certain on the thoroughbred racetrack, but the men thought they had something as close to can’t-lose as it gets. Their planned coup wasn’t exactly on the level, but it wasn’t exactly illegal either. It relied somewhat on the gullibility of the betting public, but mostly on the extraordinary talents of Barrie, the Scottish horseman who blew into their pre-race victory celebration with a warning that all was not well.
Barrie had red cheeks, black hair, and an indistinct sort of face that could pass as a stablehand’s or a stockbroker’s, depending on the exigencies of the particular con he was running at the moment. His antecedents were hazy: A veteran of the Battle of Gallipoli and Dartmoor Prison, he trailed alibis like ex-lovers.