George E. Smith
George Smith who is also referred to as, "Pittsburgh Phil," for his reputation as a phenomenal horserace bettor in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia area, was a renowned gambler from the late 1800s. Not only did he bet on thoroughbred horses, but he also owned many of them as well.
By the time he died in the early 1900s, Smith had accumulated over $3 million dollars from betting on horse races alone, making him one of the most wealthy gamblers of his lifetime.
A Young Gambler was Born
George Ellsworth Smith was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 1862 to his parents Christian and Eliza. Smith grew up with his two older sisters, Annie and Elizabeth, and his younger brother, William Smith, to whom he was very close to.
The family eventually settled in the neighborhood of Pleasant Valley, which was located near Pittsburgh. Just one short year after the move, Smith's father passed away, leaving the family in financial ruins. At only twelve years of age, Smith started working full time at the local cork cutting factory for about five dollars per week in order to support his family.
Although he gave the majority of his paycheck to his mother each week, he did put a little aside to raise game cocks, which tended to win. He eventually started placing bets on the outcomes of National League baseball games in Pittsburgh pool halls in order to make more money. If he made any significant wins from a bet, he would tell his family that he got a raise at work to avoid having to explain his gambling habits to his mother who was a devout Roman Catholic.
Most of the pool halls would broadcast the horse races via telegraph, so Smith regularly listened to them so that he could compile a list of the names and times of the winning horses. He did this for over a year before he ever placed a bet. He placed his first bet on a 5:1 odds horse named, Gabriel, at the Brighton Beach racetrack in 1979. Gabriel happened to win the race, earning Smith over $38, a substantial amount of money for him at the time.
Smith continued to win many more bets and soon he had become one of the most talented gamblers in Pittsburgh, having won over $200,000 before age twenty five. He became too well known in Pittsburgh, having been nicknamed, "Pittsburgh Phil," to differentiate him from other bettors with the same name. He decided it would be in his best interest to move to New York City, so he quit his job at the factory and told his family the truth about his newly found wealth.
The first horse race that Smith witnessed live was the 1885 Kentucky Derby, but he didn't place any bets during that event, as he preferred to place his bets over telegraph. While in New York, Smith decided to purchase and race Thoroughbred horses for his Pleasant Valley Stable, which he purchased with his previous winnings. Smith's brother, Bill, was his main horse trainer for many years.
One of his most successful horses was a two-year-old bay colt named King Cadmus. This horse's first win occurred in 1891 at Sheepshead Bay Race Track and Smith won a staggering $115,000 that day, which was the largest payout from a horse race recorded in the United States at the time. Cadmus' other win occurred at Morris Park Racetrack in 1892, earning Smith another $80,000.
Smith took a huge risk by purchasing another two-year-old thoroughbred named Parvenu, who hadn't had much success on the tracks prior to his purchase. Despite his past performances, Smith believed in Parvenu who went on to win nine consecutive races, earning Smith approximately $200,000.
Smith purchased many more horses, but none of them were quite as triumphant as the two mentioned above. Smith's fame continued to spread and he eventually started hiring people to place bets for him, as many bookkeepers refused to accept bets from him due to his high success rate.
His Final Days
By the fall of 1903, Smith was attending less horse races and was instead making frequent trips to the Adirondacks to help him relax. He made his last bet on High Chancellor at the Sheepshead Bay racetrack during the summer of 1904 and won $2,000 from it.
Later that same year, Smith check in at the Winyah Sanitarium in Asheville, North Carolina for treatment of his worsening cough, which doctors later discovered was a result of advanced tuberculosis. Smith passed away on February 1, 1905, leaving behind nearly $3,250,000, which was divided equally among his remaining family members.
Before Smith passed away, he collaborated with the author, Edward Cole, who published Racing Maxims & Methods of Pittsburg Phil in 1908, which explained Smith's personal strategies for horseracing. Original copies cost hundreds of dollars, but you can find free versions of the book online today.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: December 2016