Those who know harness racing will tell you that if you start a clawing match with Lawrence B. Sheppard, the paternalistic, feudal baron of Hanover, Pa., you are going to get scratched up. Mr. Sheppard (Shep, to his friends) has in his time scratched up the U.S. Army, a U.S. Senator, the Attorney General's office, the New York State Harness Racing Commission and the American labor movement, all of which have been foolish enough to do him battle. He is an implacable Republican who speaks his mind.
And those who know politics will tell you that if you get in a stand-up brawl with James Patrick Clark, the autocrat of Philadelphia, you are going to get run right over. Mr. Clark (Big Jim, to his friends) has in his time run over a Republican political machine that had lasted most of a century, assorted recalcitrant Congressmen, many a would-be governor and a popular football coach, all of whom have been so ill-advised as to take him on. He is an implacable Democrat who speaks his mind.
This, then, is the story of what has happened in the last few months as Mr. Sheppard, who wants to see Pennsylvania get the best harness racing in the world, and Mr. Clark, who wants to monopolize that racing, have joined in bitter conflict. Involved are the brother of a princess, the maker of a President, five millionaires, a deathbed promise, a classic political coup and an inestimable amount of boodle. At stake is the future character of harness racing in the U.S., for what happens in Pennsylvania is going to have a marked effect on the sport, one way or the other.
Until two years ago Pennsylvania had never legalized pari-mutuel betting. For 200 years the colony and the state stuck by its early combination of Protestant morality and Quaker severity. Its blue laws were so strict that Sunday picnics were illegal until 1959, and antigambling laws were severe in both attitude and punishment. True, there were so many horse races down Sassafras Street in Philadelphia that the name was changed to Race Street before the Revolution, and remains so today. But public wagering was not condoned.
June 4, 1961
Then, in December 1959, the state legislature, influenced by Democratic backers from the big cities, legalized betting at harness tracks. The bill passed by a single vote. The new law stipulated a maximum of four tracks. These could be located only in counties in which the voters, by referendum, approved pari-mutuel betting. Racing was limited to 50 days for each holder of a license, with a maximum total of 200 days for the state. The tracks were allowed to keep a generous 10% of the wagering (compared to New York's 5‚⅛%) with the rest of the 15% take-out, estimated at $10 million a year, going to the state. Racing would be administered by a three-man commission that would grant the four extremely valuable licenses. (The borrowing power alone of a license for the Philadelphia area is estimated at a minimum of $6 million.)
Governor David L. Lawrence, a Democrat, knew that political and gangster involvement with harness tracks had caused appalling scandals in New York (1953) and Illinois (1951). "I want to get as high-class a commission as I can," he said when he signed the bill. "People who know something about the racing business." Later he named Sheppard, a horseman and shoe manufacturer, as commission chairman; and then two Democrats and nonhorsemen, Martin J. Cusick and Edward Kane, to serve with Sheppard.
"Keep racing as above reproach as Caesar's wife," the governor warned Sheppard. As things developed, even the good Calpurnia would have had her troubles.
In western Pennsylvania, Dan Parish, a Pittsburgh contractor, and Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, wanted a license. Dan Parish is a dear friend of the governor. The malicious say he did not lose money paving Pittsburgh's streets while Lawrence was mayor there. Parish knows there is money in operating race tracks. He had an interest in Can-field Fairgrounds, Ohio, where he says, "We did wonderful." He operated Fair-mount Park, III. and "made four times what we put into it," and Randall Park, Ohio, where "we more than doubled our money."
Meanwhile, 250 miles east in Philadelphia, John B. Kelly, a leading Democratic figure in the city for 30 years, and the father of Princess Grace of Monaco and Olympic rowing champion John Jr., was critically ill. One of his last requests of his political associates was that his son get part of a Philadelphia track. The man who said yes was the one man who could virtually hand out shares in yet-to-be-licensed race tracks—James P. Clark. What's more, Clark was planning on a track of his own. Thus, politicians and their friends were ready to exercise the privileges of political power and divide harness racing's potential profits among themselves.
How could Clark be so sure of his racing future? Big Jim Clark is the finance chairman of the Democratic City Committee in Philadelphia. He is a personable 62-year-old Irishman who started with nothing and built a multimillion-dollar trucking business. In politics he also started with nothing—30 years ago there wasn't one Democrat to rub against another in Philadelphia—and led the building of a Democratic organization that ended seven decades of Republican rule. Clark's co-leader today is influential Congressman William J. Green Jr. Last year Robert F. Kennedy came to town on behalf of his campaigning brother, inspected what Clark had wrought, and called Philadelphia's Democratic organization "the best financed and best directed in the country."
In November, John Kennedy received a 310,000 majority in Philadelphia, which enabled him to win the key state of Pennsylvania. "He elected a President," aides like to say of Jim Clark. On the walls of his office, located on the floor above Democratic headquarters in Philadelphia (he is called "the man upstairs"), Clark has pictures of himself with Roosevelt, Truman and Stevenson. The latest picture, in color, shows him with a smiling Kennedy.
Clark, little known but much obeyed, has developed a reputation for being utterly uncompromising, a rare attitude in a politician, even one who has never run for public office. Compromise, Clark has contended, is weakness. He also demands the strictest loyalty. Sports fans remember how he formed a group that bought the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949, and then fired the team's well-liked coach, Greasy Neale, two years later. One reason was that Neale wanted to retire, an act of disloyalty.
One would have to be absurdly naive about politics, then, to think that Jim Clark, Jack Kelly, Art Rooney and Dan Parish would have any difficulty ending up with interests in Pennsylvania's unborn harness tracks. They were wealthy, reputable and "right."
Lawrence B. Sheppard, however, is absurdly naive about politics. There is not a more prominent or more respected figure in harness racing. He is the owner of Hanover Shoe Farms, where 1,000 standardbreds are grazing today. For eight years he was the forthright and uncompromising president of the U.S. Trotting Association, the Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis of harness racing.
Politically, Sheppard is somewhat to the right of McKinley. He rules his farm and his business, the Hanover Shoe company, like a benevolent dictator. He has no use for middlemen (he operates his own 120 retail stores), or advertising (budget: $500 a year) or labor unions ("I can afford to quit," he once announced for the benefit of his employees when a union tried to organize his factory. "Can you?").
Above all, he speaks his mind. While on the War Production Board in World War II he told the Army's Quartermaster Corps that its shoes were causing trench foot. When nobody listened he went to the Western Front and gathered evidence that proved his point. Later, hauled before a Senate committee to explain some of his shoe procurement policies, he easily bested testy Claude Pepper of Florida.
When the Government launched antitrust action against the trotting association in 1958 Sheppard told the frightened directors to fight back. "The government had scared the poop out of them," he recalls. The association fought, and the Government lost. Even more germane to the present issue, he warned and warned in the '50s that New York, where the sport was controlled by politicians, was faced with a trotting scandal. He was right.
Now, at 63, the well-shod and well-heeled Sheppard has one last dream, to bring Pennsylvania the best harness racing in the world. He accepted his post-on the Harness Racing Commission because he saw a chance to fulfill that goal. "I was foolish and naive," he now says. "I didn't understand politicians. Why, one week two of them are enemies, and the next week you pull back the blanket and there they are, side by side." This shocks him.
To compete with, and indeed better, New York's Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways, the unchallenged big brothers of the sport, Sheppard felt Pennsylvania must:
1) Use 45% of the track operator's share as racing purses, instead of the 35%-40% paid by most big tracks, including those in New York.
2) Have the tracks operated by people with long experience in the sport. Such people could get the best stables to race in Philadelphia, Sheppard repeatedly said.
Pennsylvania has the kind of horsemen Sheppard is talking about, and some were willing to put up $8 million to $12 million to finance a track. Among them were Max Hempt and Ward Sullivan, each of whom agreed with Sheppard's thesis about paying 45% for purses. They formed two organizations and applied for Philadelphia-area licenses. Hempt even obtained written promises from five of the country's leading trainers to race at his track.
But Sheppard quickly began getting lessons in practical politics. One week after his appointment as chairman of the Harness Racing Commission in January 1960, he was met in a Harris-burg hotel by Congressman Green and James Clark. The gist, according to Sheppard: would there be any objection to a politician, such as Clark, having a license? "I certainly had none," says Sheppard, "so long as Clark formed a reputable group and planned a good track."
Clark then organized Liberty Bell Racing Association. He and his dapper little Philadelphia lawyer, Francis W. Sullivan, kept all of the voting stock. Other officers included Frank L. McNamee, president of the Eagles, and Eugene Mori, millionaire president of nearby Garden State race track in New Jersey. Mori, of course, has race track savvy. Presumably, he would also be interested in avoiding a conflict of dates between Garden State and the harness track. Liberty Bell announced it would build a $12 million track on the Philadelphia-Bucks County line.
Eventually 10 other groups, in addition to those of Hempt and Sullivan, applied for licenses in various areas of the state. But Dan Parish and Art Rooney could not apply. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, surprised everybody by voting against having a harness track.
"Dan Parish has a high, squeaky voice," says Sheppard. "He went squealing to the governor like a stuck pig. The governor asked me what to do about Dan, and I said let's send him to talk to Jim Clark. He can get in there. But Clark wouldn't let him into Liberty Bell. Hempt would have let him in, but the cut was too small to suit Parish."
Young John Kelly, meanwhile, also went to see Clark, as his father had advised. Kelly was told he would be allowed to join a new group that would include Parish and Rooney. So, through Clark, east met west, forming the Bucks County Racing Association. Parish was named president, Kelly and Rooney vice-presidents. And the ingenious idea was that the Bucks County group would not build a track at all. It would merely lease Big Jim Clark's. This would give Liberty Bell's track 100 days of racing, 50 in Clark's name, and 50 more through the lease to Parish.
Sheppard learned of this proposed lease through his fellow commissioner, Edward Kane, a man who describes himself as a lifelong—but "not a political"—friend of Clark's. Last January, says Sheppard, he attended a heated meeting with Clark and Kane that shattered the quiet of Bryn Mawr Hospital, where Kane was recovering from a broken leg (he slipped on the ice New Year's Day).
"Clark said he wanted to lease to the Bucks County group, and I said no," recalls Sheppard. "Then Clark said he wanted to pay only 35% for purses, and I said no even louder. Finally Clark said he thought 100 days of racing was all Philadelphia could stand. I can see Gene Mori's ghost standing right over there,' I told Clark. [More than 100 days would necessitate a conflict with Garden State.] We got to yelling at each other pretty good. I said I wouldn't consider it, tolerate it, or anything else. That free-loading Parish wanted to pick a fat plum without putting up a nickel; Clark wanted a monopoly on every single day of Philadelphia racing, and they both wanted to have a penny-pinching operation. All they'd get running at their track would be a bunch of old manes and tails."
Clark's desire to pay only 35% for purses is not hard to understand. The difference in gross profit to Clark, as track owner, would be roughly half a million dollars for a 50-day meet at a track with Liberty Bell's potential. And he could charge Parish a much higher rent, since the second 50 days would be that much more lucrative too.
In the weeks that followed, Governor Lawrence tried to convince Sheppard that the Clark and Parish groups were actually two quite separate business organizations. He had trouble when Sheppard pointed out that Francis Sullivan was the attorney of record for both groups—he later resigned his Bucks County role—and that both groups listed Sullivan's office as their office in their license applications. An officer of one of the groups put it frankly, recently. "Practically speaking, we're one organization," he said.
By March, Sheppard "knew the roof had fallen in." He felt Clark was not going to run a track which, in his own typically mixed metaphor, "would hit a home run for the state." He accused Parish of being "a stooge and puppet" for Clark, castigated the proposed lease as "phony," and charged Jim Clark with a monopoly attempt. "Monopolies are repugnant in any business," he said.
Clark, who likes so much to remain in the background, was upset that a minority member of a Pennsylvania state commission (Sheppard) would dare fight back—and loudly at that. This was breaking a political lodge rule. Clark tried to smooth things over.
On April 5 the Harness Racing Commission was to meet in Harrisburg and grant the treasured licenses. The day before, April 4, says Sheppard, he received a telephone call from Democratic Commissioner Kane. "Clarkey wants to talk to you," said Kane. "I've got a telephone," said Sheppard. So Clark called Sheppard.
"We shouted at each other for an hour," says Sheppard. "I sent my secretary out of the room, and I hope he did." Clark was essentially arguing that one track with only 50 days of racing and paying 45% in purses would go broke. "Finally," Sheppard says, "I got so mad I told him to give me three days to raise $12 million and he could take my job as commission chairman, issue me a license, and I'd show him how to make money."
In short, the master of Hanover was unawed by "the man upstairs."
But, if Sheppard could not be placated, neither could Clark be stopped. What transpired at the harness commission's public hearing the next day was the stunning fruition of all the political planning, and it was handled in a fashion that would have brought smiles of professional appreciation from a Crump, a Tweed or a Pendergast, those bosses of an earlier era.
Railroading a track
After the very briefest procedural formalities opened the meeting, Commissioner Cusick said: "I move that we grant a license to Liberty Bell."
"I second that motion," said Commissioner Kane. The motion passed, Sheppard voting no.
"I move that action on further applications be deferred to a subsequent meeting," said Cusick.
"I second the motion," said Kane.
The motion passed, Sheppard voting no.
Three attorneys for other license applicants managed to get the floor to protest the hasty procedure as improper and illegal. At the first lull, Kane said,' 'I move we adjourn." "I will second the motion," said Cusick. The motion passed, Sheppard voting no. The meeting lasted 17 minutes.
"I never heard a double-barreled shotgun go off so fast," Sheppard said. "I didn't know what was happening to me." But he must have had an idea what might happen, for he had a formal statement ready.
Sheppard said the public had "been sold down the river in the interests of shortsighted, practical politics.... I think of it as the last act of a play and [it] should be known as the tragedy of harness racing in Pennsylvania," he continued. And now, attuned to the sound of political power plays at last, he warned that sometime in the next 10 months Parish and Rooney would come forward with a lease from Liberty Bell and demand a license to run at Clark's track.
Significantly, Liberty Bell and Bucks County were the only license applicants with no representatives at the April 5 commission meeting. "They didn't need them," said Sheppard.
The next commission meeting was on May 8. Cusick could not attend. Kane abstained at each motion by Sheppard to grant a license, and state harness track licensing had ended, for the moment, at least. Two applicants went to court to break the blockade, suing the commission and Liberty Bell in an effort to get public hearings and to get Liberty Bell's license revoked. Sheppard, too, demanded action. He proposed "that the commission get on with its unfinished business, and do it openly before the eyes of the public. With millions of dollars at stake, I think the public is entitled to know whether anybody is covering up, and for whom," he said. Very little has happened since then.
Lawrence Sheppard has the long furrowed face and sad, sad eyes of a basset hound, and out in Hanover, Pa., the other day he looked sadder still. He was being X-rayed for an ulcer. "They gave it to me," he said, with a wave toward Philadelphia.
He admitted he saw no way to keep the commission eventually from following Clark's plans. "These fellows are too tough," he said. "For some reason I have never been afraid of politicians, but I didn't know any of these modern ones. I was never in anything like this. I feel like the girl who should have said no three months ago.
"Those damn pooch heads," he continued. "Ruining a chance to have the best racing there is. If we could get just one track to run against them in Philadelphia.... There's a couple of things I can still try. The next snowball I throw will have a rock in it. You can bet on that."
Oddly enough, Jim Clark wasn't happy either. He sat in his shirtsleeves behind the desk of his large office, looking like a pained prisoner while Lawyer Sullivan refused to let him talk.
"It would be highly improper to discuss the commission, the application or anything pertaining to it," said Sullivan, "so long as we are defendants in a court action."
Jim Clark squirmed.
"After the court cases, Mr. Clark would be glad to discuss the entire situation," said Mr. Sullivan.
Jim Clark looked sadly apologetic.
"No, Mr. Clark could not even mention his hopes for the future of harness racing in the state," said Mr. Sullivan, who then started on a lengthy summary of Mr. Clark's rise through hard work and civic interest.
Jim Clark blushed.
"Mr. Clark does talk?" Mr. Sullivan was asked.
"Yes," said Mr. Sullivan.
Jim Clark laughed.
Nobody could fault him for taking his lawyer's advice, but had Clark been in a position to talk he could have made some salient points. He has an argument when he says a bigger, better race track used for 100 days would be of more benefit to the public than two small ones. He may have another point in suggesting that 45% is a little high for harness purses (though many Thoroughbred tracks pay it).
Nor does anybody fault his plans for Liberty Bell Park itself. The track would, at Sheppard's suggestion and Kane's actual motion, have 1,200 stalls (compared to Yonkers' 600), room for a mile track, and a 5/8 mile lighted track. It would seat roughly 10,000 with space for 20,000 standees. Pier Luigi Nervi, architect for many of the Olympic stadiums in Rome, designed the exterior, and it is exciting.
Clark is showing no interest in compromise. There is a campaign to accuse Sheppard of a conflict of interest on the grounds that higher purses at one track would force higher purses everywhere. This, in turn, would raise the value of horses, and Sheppard's Hanover Farms sells a bundle of them. It is also argued that Sheppard's concern is phony; that he is interested only in getting a track for his horsy friends. The ultimate aim, presumably, is to get Governor Lawrence to oust the prickly Sheppard.
Meanwhile the battle between Sheppard and Clark has resulted in 11 new bills being introduced in the Pennsylvania State Legislature which bear on harness racing. One of them would require the Harness Racing Commission to hold open meetings on the granting of licenses; another would make it illegal for public officials or political party officials to hold financial interests in tracks; and the most severe of all would repeal the law which legalized pari-mutuel betting at harness tracks. However, all of these bills are bogged down in committees controlled by Democrats. They are likely to stay there as long as Big Jim Clark is the boss.
WHAT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK
Harness racing came to New York in 1940 under the most powerful of political auspices. Party and state officials had worked behind the scenes to push the enabling legislation and later turned up as holders of large blocks of stock in harness tracks, stock for which they had paid virtually nothing. By the time New York's scandal broke in 1953, their profit-taking had reached sensational proportions. At the same time, a number of ex-convicts also had infiltrated stockholder lists and labor racketeers controlled the hiring of thousands of track employees, exacting kick-backs and managing union funds for their own benefit. The murder of one labor extortionist by members of a rival group of racketeers who wanted to share in the loot brought about exposure of the whole mess by a state investigating commission. Subsequently, laws were passed that prohibited politicians and state officials from owning stock or participating in the running of tracks, banned ex-convicts, set up a strong racing commission and cut the percentage of betting that tracks could keep. Almost exactly the same sequence of events occurred at about the same time in Illinois.