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George Ellsworth Smith

Horseplayer known as

Allegheny native George E. Smith was better known to the world as “Pittsburg Phil,” one of the leading horse race bettors of his day. Smith started his working life as a cork cutter in 1874 when he was only twelve years old.  Around the time he was 16, he read an article in a newspaper about horses owned by the Dwyer brothers and he became interested in racing.  He spent close to two years studying the horses, jockeys and the trainers via newspapers and telegraph broadcasts at poolhalls (which is where such wagers were made) before he placed his first bet.  In his first two years of betting, he made a $5000 profit—astronomical when compared to his cork cutting wage of $5 per week.  Smith was so successful that, by 1885, he felt he was too

well known in Pittsburgh to make the most of his skills.  He

moved to Chicago where poolroom owner Bill Riley christened

him “Pittsburg Phil,” a mash-up of Pittsburg and Philadelphia.

Phil was an oddity in the world of “plungers,” as big bettors were then known.  He didn’t smoke, stay up late or play cards. He limited his drinking to an occasional glass of white wine and apparently didn’t have much time for the ladies. His close friend, jockey Tod Sloane, described Phil as being able to, “think and talk nothing but horse…He devoted all his hours to a study of racing.”  Sloan devoted a chapter of his autobiography to his friendship with Phil, defending Phil’s success from charges of cheating: “It was absolutely wrong to believe one of the stories—and there were thousands of them about—of his ‘method.’  All those who spoke and wrote about him said he betted entirely on information and could ‘fix’ races and riders—and trainers too…But it was all untrue...He simply was his own handicapper and it is all nonsense about his employing an army of men to get news.  The only people he employed were those who did commissions for him.” 

Phil was legendary for his sangfroid and whether the horses went with or against him, he never let his feelings show.  He advocated treating betting as a business and seemed to have been a master at detaching his emotions from the numbers he had to crunch to come up with his wagers.  He was one of a generation of bettors who were successful enough to be newsworthy.  “Pack” McKenna, Charles Heaney, “Cad” Irish and “Mattie” Corbett were all horseplayers whom Phil was said to admire. Charles Botay, Mike Dwyer of Dwyer Brothers fame, and Riley Grannan also garnered headlines for the huge amounts they won and lost.  Of these and other plungers, Phil is most often the one credited by historians of the sport as “the original handicapper” and has even been given credit (at least in part) for invention of the race chart.

Sometime in 1903 Phil developed a cough that worsened and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He died in 1905 at age 43.  At the time of his death his estate was worth $3,250,000, which would amount to over $83,100,000 in 2010.  His funeral was conducted out of a fine home at 1700 Irwin Avenue which he had purchased for his mother a short time before his death.  A terrible snowstorm did not deter a crowd in the hundreds from standing outside Union Dale Cemetery while his remains were placed in the mausoleum he had commissioned for himself some seven years earlier.  The handsome portrait sculpture of Phil that tops his mausoleum was commissioned at a later date by his mother. The sculpture shows Phil clutching what has always been considered to be a racing form. 

The same year as Phil’s death, horserace reporter Edward Cole published a book titled, Racing Maxims and the Methods of Pittsburg Phil.  Claiming to be the only writer to whom Phil had made known his theories, Cole’s book was a best seller, both when it first came out and again in the 1960s when it was reprinted. 1905 was also the year the Daily Racing Form began to publish information on past performances of horses and jockeys.  In his 2005 article, “I got the horse right here; Appreciating 100 years of the Daily Racing Form,” sports writer, Frank Deford, summed up the irony; “Pittsburgh Phil died just months before the Daily Racing Form's publisher, Frank Brunell, came up with the concept of printing for the masses the sort of material Pittsburgh Phil had collected for himself.”

On the Memorial Day three years after Phil’s death, his brother, William Smith, provided a fitting tribute, placing at Phil’s mausoleum a lifesize horse made entirely out of flowers. A photo of the “Lifesize Equine of Carnations” can be found in the Pittsburgh Press, May 30, 1908  [scroll up from headline for image].

Another fitting homage to Pittsburgh Phil came in the form of the 1916 winner of the Kentucky Derby; a horse named George Smith.

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