There are many men who have mastered the art of horse betting, but none of them achieved the success of the legendary George E. Smith, also known as Pittsburgh Phil. An avid gambler who loved many types of betting, Pittsburgh Phil had a special affinity for betting on racehorses. His methods were so good that they are still used successfully today by many handicappers.
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George E. Smith was born on July 13, 1862 in Sewickley, Pennsylvania to immigrant parents from Ireland and Germany. A shy boy, Smith preferred to spend more time on his own pursuits than playing with his three siblings. It was a trait that would follow him into adulthood. Pittsburgh Phil is known to have given only one interview in his lifetime in which he only discussed matters related to horse betting.
Young George started working at age 12 in a cork cutting factory to help support the family after his father Christopher died. George was not happy with the job, calling it a very boring way to earn a living. He began to put aside some of his weekly earnings so that he could purchase and train gamecocks. Fighting roosters was a very popular activity in the late 1800’s, and George was somewhat successful at it. He was forced to either hide his winnings from his religious mother or tell her that he received extra pay at the factory. Around this same time, George discovered that he could make bets on baseball games in the pool halls of Pittsburgh. It was in similar pool halls in Chicago that the famous Chicago gambler William “Silver Bill” Riley bestowed the moniker that would remain with George the rest of his life: Pittsburgh Phil.
Did you know that many professional gamblers adopted aliases in the early days of gambling in America? The reason for this was that gambling was still illegal in many jurisdictions and gamblers wanted to preserve their anonymity. Today, some gamblers still adopt a name as a throwback to the days of Pittsburgh Phil. An example is famous poker player Doyle Brunson who is often called “Texas Dolly.”
It was in the pool halls that Pittsburgh Phil began his love affair with horseracing. Results of the races were delivered to the pool halls via telegraph wire. Phil was captivated with the race descriptions and he soon began to develop his own racing charts for races all over the country. In some way, he was the predecessor of modern handicappers like Andrew Beyer who have used their own charts to create speed figures and analyze races. Pittsburgh Phil made his first racing bet in 1879 at the age of 17 and won $38 when his horse won the race at odds of 5-1. Phil became so good at horse betting that he had won $100,000 by age 23 without every seeing a horserace in person! It soon became impossible for Pittsburgh Phil to receive good odds on horses while betting in his hometown because other gamblers would take note of his selections and make the same bet. This forced Phil to leave Pittsburgh for greener pastures.
In 1885, Pittsburgh Phil saw his first live race at the Kentucky Derby. Joe Cotton, the favorite in the race, won at odds of 4/5, but Phil did not bet. It was his lifelong practice to only bet on horses with high odds. Phil eventually made his way to Chicago where he received his nickname. He figured that the prospects of betting would be better in the bustling city. “Silver Bill” Riley operated a club in Chicago that was dedicated to betting on horses and that was where Phil achieved a lot of success. He became known as a “plunger” or someone that bet large amounts of money on races. Pittsburgh Phil would wager as much as $50,000 on a single race.
Pittsburgh Phil eventually moved to New York and plied his trade at the New York racetracks where he made considerable sums of money. His earnings were large enough that he decided to purchase a few racehorses for himself. It was a failed endeavor even though his horses had some moderate success. The Jockey Club eventually suspended Pittsburgh Phil because one of the jockeys he employed in riding his horses was accused of fixing races.
If Pittsburgh Phil were alive today, he would recognize many of his own methods on the pages of EZ Horse Betting. His handicapping principles were so good that they continue to influence horseplayers today. Phil’s specialty was in keeping accurate records. He had detailed notes on which horses ran best in muddy conditions or which horses appeared to be lame. Ultimately, his handicapping methods were collected in a book titled Maxims which was gleaned from that one interview he gave.
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