When all is said and done in the evolution of mankind's commerce, Chicago's neighborhood bookmakers should have earned a place near the pinnacle of entrepreneurship.
By applying a disarmingly simple twist to the usually prudent messenger business, some enterprising horse racing aficionados have created almost over night a flourishing betting operation that so far has frustrated the Chicago police and the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement.
Hundreds of betting parlos - tight rope walking the law amidst a growing controversy - are doing a landslide business ostensibly by hand-carrying horse bets to nearby Arlington Park and Sportmen's Park racetracks.
While making $100,000 a day or more - nobody knows for certain how much - the messenger services quietly decided to cut out the middlemen - the racetracks - and simply make book themselves, according to police authorities and the Illinois Racing Board.
As a result, in the first 130 days of this year's throughbred racing season, attendance was down 245,000 and wagering was down $20 million, for a $3.4 million loss to the tracks and a $1.6 million loss of state taxes.
The drop in attendance was to be expected, racing officials say, but the decline in the wagering handle could only mean that the messenger services decided to eliminate their daily runs to the track.
"Theyre just hanging out their shingles as bookmakers. Anybody can see that," William Masterson, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board, said in an interview.
All over Chicago, messenger services have been opening up new offices, including one across the street from the Racing Board and next door to City Hall. It was opened three weeks ago in a gala celebration.
The names leave little to the imagination. Among them are Finish Line Express, Lucky Messenger Service. Front Runner, Wire To Wire, Turf Services, and 16th Pole, Inc.
A state law was signed in June by Gov. James Thompson banning track messengers, but the constitutionality of that was questioned and a state appeals court has allowed them to stay in business until the dispute is settled.
Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic has suggested the city might want to get into the offtrack betting business, sparking a new controversy.
The betting parlors began in 1975 when a firm called Pegasus Co. opened a messenger service and announced it would hand-carry bets to the track for a 10 per cent fee. The firm stressed that it was not accepting bets, but was simply acting as "attorneys in fact" for gamblers wanting to avoid the inconvenience of driving to Arlington Park, about 30 miles north of Chicago's Loop.
William Rose, the owner of Pegasus, reportedly opened four similar operations in New Oreleans but was closed down under a new state law.
At first, the new business handled only few thousand dollars a day, according to Materson, but by the next year competitors had opened 300 offices and racetrack officials began noticing that not only was their attendance down, but also the betting recipts were falling.
The attendance drop alone caused losses in admission and concession revenue, such as that for parking and food, and when the betting handle also fell, the tracks began complaining. Materson said the losses forced the tracks to offer smaller purses, and horsemen subsequently began leaving for more lucrative tracks like the new Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey.
"The messenger people say they are taking money to the tracks, but you would have to be a fool to believe it. If they were doing that, the handle should be going up" Masterson said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials say they believe organized crime is entrenched in the messenger service business, and police have been steeping up the number of raids on the parlors.
From the start, the messenger services established a clearinghouse, to which bets were telephoned hourly. Then, according to the owners, runners would take the bets to the tracks.
A week ago, 60 agents from the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, the Chicago police and the Racing board raided 19 messenger offices and confiscated books, telephones, cash and bets slips in hope of proving that the parlors were offering more than messenger service.
However, on Thursday, the appeals court ruled that the raids violated the injunction holding the state law in abeyance, and ordered the records returned.
The owner of Pegasus, the original messenger service, complained in an interview about the raids and the racing board's allegations.
"I can't speak for the others, but I can tell you absolutely and unequivocally that we are operating in a perfectly legal manner." said Rose.
Rose said that "nothing has stimulated horse racing more than what Pegasus has done." He accused the racing board of lying about track revenues.
"If you look at the figures, attendance is down a little. But the figures on the wagering boggle the imagination. They don't add, multiply or divide. They're crazy," Rose said.
When asked how the handle could not have increased with the proliferation of messenger parlors, Rose said. "Maybe it's being taken from other sources," referring to the long-entrenched independent bookmakers in Chicago.
"The bookmakers are the ones who ought to be out there picketing us. We're the ones who are hurting their business more than the police," Rose said.
A bill has been submitted to the Illinois General Assembly to permit municipal offtrack betting, operations throughout the state, but political observers note the number of rural and conservative members of that body, and give the bill little chance.
In the meantime, business is booming at the messenger services, which have even begun to capitalize on the legal controversy.
Outside the Finish Line Express office next door to City Hall is a sign "Business As Usual. Court Proclaims Legality."