The bookies were back in business at the steeplechase races in Northern Virginia this month, after having been barred from meets earlier in the season. Handling greenbacks by the fistful, the professional gamblers gathered at wagering spots around the Broadview Course outside Warrenton in Fauquier County May 1 during the 57th running of the Virginia Gold Cup.
Traditionally present at Virginia steeplechase meets, the bookies had been nowhere in sight during the April races in neighboring Loudoun County--in Middleburg, at the Oatlands near Leesburg or at the Fairfax Races at the Belmont Plantation, also near Leesburg.
Earlier this spring, Loudoun County Commonwealth Attorney Thomas D. Horne, who will become a judge of the 20th Judicial Court on July 1, had issued copies of Virginia gamblings laws to local race committees and carnivals, along with a notice of his intent to enforce the laws in the county. The Virginia Code forbids the taking of bets or wagers on "any game, athletic contest or any trial of speed or power of endurance of animals or beasts."
Horne, who said he had "outstanding cooperation from the race committees" in enforcing the law, said the crackdown on illegal gambling came after his office received complaints last year from parents whose children had lost money at games of chance during a Loudoun carnival.
At one point during the six-race program at Middleburg, state policeman were seen meandering through the crowd. But Horne said they have made no arrests since the notices went out.
The absence of bookies at the steepchase events in Loudoun was cited by some patrons as a reason for a drop in attendance at the races this year. Middleburg race secretary Carolyn du Pont said that a final admissions tally showed only 5,500 fans attended that event, "about 3,000 less than we'd like to see." Yet du Pont blamed forecasts for poor weekend weather and the next day's Oatlands races--not the lack of bookies--for the drop in attendance.
Horne said he doesn't think that his enforcement of the law really affected any of the meets. "No one has come up to me and said 'Gee, where are the bookies?' " Horne said.
Raids by police have become somewhat of a tradition at the steeplechase meets. Some oldtimers remember how police and Secret Service personnel chased away bookies at the Middleburg meeting when President John F. Kennedy visited the races in 1961. And newspapers of that time report periodic raids continuing throughout the '60s.
Loudoun County Deputy Sheriff Edward Swain recounted recently how, as a boy more than 30 years ago, he had witnessed occasional raids on bookies at the Middleburg races. "There were plenty of bookies then," Swain said. "Most came from New Jersey and up north. When there was a raid, they would scatter off into the woods. The few that got caught would be charged with bookmaking and just get a small fine."
Bookies usually travel from race to race, working out of a gym bag and their pockets, offering low odds for as little as a dollar. They spend the day passing out colored tote cards with odds and entries scribbled on them to anyone willing to take a chance. Swain estimated bookies can net at least a $1,000 on a good day at the races.
At the Virginia Gold Cup this month in Fauquier County, more than 18 bookmakers, some from as far away as New York and Miami, operated in plain view. An estimated 20,000 people, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), attended the races that day.
The bookies stationed themselves in two rows between the paddock and the judge's stand, with their chalkboards fastened to poles that had been set up for the event. Some worked in pairs, while others handled the business by themselves.
One man, who said he and his partner had left New York at 3 a.m. for a day of bookmaking at the Broadview course, collected the money from wagerers, keeping $1 and $5 bills in his hand and stuffing $10 and larger denominations into his bulging pockets.
"Hey, it's a long day," he said. "I'll be lucky if I'm home by 2:30 or 3. It's going to be a 24-hour day." He said his daily income depends on the weather, then the crowds.
"If the weather is good, then the crowds are good and the money can be good," he said. "The weather is bad--there's no money in it."
Asked if a bookie can make nearly $1,000 a day at a " 'chase," the New Yorker gave a positive shrug. More than a $1,000 a day? "Yeah, but there're expenses. You got plane fares, driving expenses" and sometimes, claimed this bookmaker, "you gotta pay for your spot."
Race committee members said the committees have nothing to do with bookies. Bookmakers are "not something we ever talk about," said Gold Cup committee member Sheilah Palmer. "We're just lucky that the authorities look the other way."
When asked about the poles used for the bookies' chalkboards at the Broadview race, Arthur (Nick) Arundel, a longtime board member of the Gold Cup committee, said, "I'll be daggone if I know how they got there. The Gold Cup Committee has nothing to do with the bookies being there."
Another Gold Cup committee member said of the bookies: "They're not invited here. They just come on their own. We [the committee] have nothing to do with them."
Fauquier County's assistant prosecuting attorney, Roger A. Inger, said his office has received no complaints about bookies and "no inquiries concerning gambling at all." Said Inger: "It's up to the sheriff's department to enforce the law. I have no arrest powers."
Many steeplechase followers seem to accept the wagering. Carolyn du Pont, who said she "never bets," said the crackdown in Loudoun County reflected "the law of the state, but I'm not sure if it's a very fair law." She said the bookies "add local color to the races; they remind me of something out of Damon Runyon."
As one young bettor said: "It's an added touch, but it's still like throwing your money up in the air and trying to catch it in the wind." And the lack of bookies would not deter him from attending the races, he said. "When there are no bookies, we just get up pools between ourselves."
A 10-year-old boy, sifting through his tote cards, said he'd "been winning and losing all day." He said he was down $8 and could only lose $14 for the day.
Not far away, a man leaned over his young daughter and, holding tote cards, explained the odds to her while her poodle tugged on his leash.
Peter Winnants, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse, a Middleburg-based magazine, seemed perplexed by the crackdown in Loudoun County. "It's just innocent fun," he said about placing wagers. "It's not detrimental in any way, and it adds to the atmosphere and the spectacle. Maybe kids bet, maybe my kids have bet when I didn't want them to--but what the hell!"