Hidden History

History’s Greatest Horse Racing Cheat and His Incredible Painting Trick

In the sport’s post-Depression heyday, one audacious grifter beat the odds with an elaborate scam: disguising fast horses to look like slow ones.

History’s Greatest Horse Racing Cheat and His Incredible Painting Trick

The bathtub was still full of champagne when Peter Christian Barrie barged into the gamblers’ hotel room just after dawn on Labor Day in 1926 with bad news to share.

The party had been rolling since Saturday at the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago, and as the sun rose on Monday there were still some women over, and everyone was half-drunk. The gamblers, described enigmatically in the New York Daily News a decade later as “a railroad man and a local millionaire,” were celebrating the $250,000 they planned to win that afternoon at Lincoln Fields, a new racetrack 30 miles south of the city.

Nothing is certain on the thoroughbred racetrack, but the men thought they had something as close to can’t-lose as it gets. Their planned coup wasn’t exactly on the level, but it wasn’t exactly illegal either. It relied somewhat on the gullibility of the betting public, but mostly on the extraordinary talents of Barrie, the Scottish horseman who blew into their pre-race victory celebration with a warning that all was not well.

Barrie had red cheeks, black hair, and an indistinct sort of face that could pass as a stablehand’s or a stockbroker’s, depending on the exigencies of the particular con he was running at the moment. His antecedents were hazy: A veteran of the Battle of Gallipoli and Dartmoor Prison, he trailed alibis like ex-lovers.

He was a master, at 38, of the various measures a man could take to bend the odds at the track. He knew, for example, just how much heroin to shoot into a horse’s neck to make him “think he was Pegasus,” as the Daily News put it in 1932 (about 30 milligrams by hypodermic needle, or 160 milligrams down the throat).

But it was Barrie’s fingernails that told the story of his particular genius: They were nearly gone, eaten away by the bleach and ammonia he rubbed into the hides of thoroughbred horses so that racetrack stewards, detectives, jockeys, and even the horse’s own trainers mistook them for entirely different creatures.

The horse bleaching was in the service of an elegant scam that the gamblers called “ringing.” You take two horses, one slow and one fast. The very slow one doesn’t actually need to exist, but it’s convenient if it does. You enter the slow horse in a race for slow horses, but on the day of the race, run the fast one instead. No one but you and the gangsters staking you know that the slow horse is really the fast one, so the horse goes off at long odds, and when he wins, you clean up.

The art of the con is in making the track stewards and the bettors believe the winner really was the slow horse having an inexplicably good day. That’s where Barrie came in. He was a horse painter, perhaps the best in the world. His tools were simple: bleach, ammonia, bandages, silver nitrate, and henna in shades from blood to chocolate. He could turn a bay with a white star on its face into a dappled gray, and he could do it so convincingly that the gray’s last trainer would swear it was his horse.

If the painter was really good — and Barrie was the best — it was hard to go wrong. But that Labor Day in 1926, when dawn broke over a muddy track at Lincoln Fields, Barrie realized he had a problem.

Peter Christian Barrie, the greatest horse painter who ever lived. Photos courtesy of Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

With $2,500 fronted by the two gamblers, who came from Minneapolis, Barrie had bought a quick horse named Kalakaua and a hundred-dollar stinker named Bobby Dean. He shipped both of them to Washington Park Race Track, a brand new track just outside Chicago, where he got to work. One of the Minneapolis gamblers sat outside the stable, whittling a stick and whistling. Inside, Barrie laid out his tools.

Kalakaua was a light bay. Bobby Dean was dark brown with a white star on his forehead. The alchemic process by which Barrie transformed Kalakaua into an ersatz Bobby Dean began mundanely enough, with a thorough shampooing, but soon Barrie would be boiling pots of exotic dyes imported from Germany, and the wash of strong chemicals would have overpowered the hay and manure smells of the racetrack stall.

Years later, Barrie described his technique in detail to a Daily News reporter. After shampooing the horse, he would put tape over its eyes for protection, then bleach its hair white. The strength of the bleach wash was vital: Too much would make the horse’s skin contract and slow it down; too little would spoil the dye job, which Barrie accomplished with hot henna applied with his bare fingertips.

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If the horse he was mimicking had white spots, Barrie would rebleach the corresponding bits of the ringer after the dyeing work was done. If the horse had a white face or markings on its brow, Barrie recreated them by applying stencils fashioned out of adhesive bandages. He used a rubber stamp to mimic a dappled horse’s white spots; he colored a nose by smacking it with silver nitrate. He could cut an ear tendon, pluck tail hairs, or adjust a mane in pursuit of an identical match. If a stallion was running as a gelding, Barrie would apply blocks of ice to its testicles just before the post parade to make them disappear. Then there was work inside the horse’s mouth, the details that sold the whole ruse. A 3-year-old running as a 2-year-old would need its teeth adjusted, accomplished with a knife and a drill and all the skills of a veterinary dentist, which Barrie claimed to have been before the war.

All this took time, and it had to be done in perfect solitude. That day at Washington Park, as Barrie transformed Kalakaua into Bobby Dean, the Minneapolis gambler serving as the lookout would whistle louder if someone passed nearby, and Barrie would cover his work in progress with a blanket until the whistling quieted and he could get on with his painting.

After Barrie laid down his tools, Kalakaua’s forehead now bleached with Bobby Dean’s white star, he packed the slow horse into a cattle truck and shipped him off to Ohio. Then he drove Kalakaua to Lincoln Fields for the race. The gamblers rented their room at the Congress and loaded up on champagne. All was in place for an elegant scam.

But Labor Day morning brought trouble. The rain that had fallen days before had yet to dry, and the dirt track at Lincoln Fields was still thick and wet. Some horses love running in the mud, but some horses can’t stand it, and Kalakaua was in the latter camp. Barrie went to the hotel to tell his backers that the track hadn’t dried, and that Kalakaua, despite being a far faster horse than any other in the race, would lose.

Walking straight off the backstretch into the swank champagne party at the Congress, Barrie must have been a most unwelcome guest — reeking of bleach and manure, his hands stained with henna, his eyes bloodshot from the chemical fumes. He tried to tell the Minneapolis gamblers that they had to call off the scam, but they weren’t interested in what the con man had to say.

“Lissen, Limey,” one of them said, according to the 1932 Daily News account. “We’ve put up a lot of dough and come 500 miles to bet on that horse. You’d better start him, or there’ll be trouble.”

So Barrie did as he was told. Lincoln Fields was jammed that day with 30,000 spectators, the most at any Chicago racetrack since the beginning of the century, according to the Chicago Tribune. The track had opened just weeks earlier, and the $2 million facility, planted with bluegrass shipped from Kentucky, was still fresh and impressive. The governor of Illinois was there, along with all of Chicago’s high society, who the Tribune said brought an atmosphere of a “grand opera opening” to the brick grandstand.

Kalakaua ran in the second race on the day’s card. The dye job was so perfect that the young jockey who rode the faux Bobby Dean that day didn’t recognize him as Kalakaua, the horse he had ridden not long before at a racetrack in Tijuana. The race started happily. Kalakaua broke fast and held on, leading even as the pack rounded the clubhouse turn. Deep in the stretch, though, Kalakaua lost his footing, slipping so horribly in the mud that his rider nearly lost his seat. The jockey recovered well enough to bring the horse in third, paying $6.20 on a $2 show bet, which won the Minneapolis gamblers just enough to cover their expenses — and likely avoided any violent recriminations. Barrie and Kalakaua split for Havana.

It was an inauspicious prelude to one of the most legendary cons in the history of the American turf. Within four years, Barrie would be chased from state to state by private detectives, and newspapers would be writing about him like he was Butch Cassidy with a pot of ink instead of a revolver.

The horse Aknahton (who Barrie had disguised as another horse named Gailmont) at a race track in Mexico, 1932.

Barrie wasn’t exactly the greatest racetrack con man — the best cheat doesn’t get caught, and Barrie did get caught, over and over. But Barrie was the most famous racetrack grifter of his day, and the one whose name rings loudest in the annals of thoroughbred history. That was, in part, because Barrie boasted shamelessly, selling his story to the press at least three different times in the 1920s and ’30s. He proved he could hack racing at an explosive moment for the sport in America, when horse racing was expanding after years of suppression.

The puritanical mood that had ended in smashed whiskey barrels across the U.S. in 1920 had also shut down racetrack gambling in various states, hobbling the sport. But by the mid-1920s, laws were changing and the tracks were coming back, and American horse racing would soon reach its midcentury apex. That brought new opportunities for con men like Barrie, whose public exploits eventually helped push the turf authorities to take stronger measures to fight fraud on the track.

Though new to the American grifting scene when he pulled the Chicago scam in 1926, Barrie was no novice. In 1919 and 1920, he had rampaged across England’s racetracks, ringing one horse after another, before the law caught up with him one spring day at Charing Cross. They charged that he had entered a horse named Coat of Mail in a race at Stockton. Coat of Mail, a “pathetic-looking animal,” according to The Daily Telegraph, won the race without leaving the barn. “It had never run before, it had never run since, and it did not run on that day,” a lawyer joked, as the Telegraph reported. The winning horse was actually a strapping 3-year-old named Jazz, who one of Barrie’s cronies had bought for 800 pounds. The Jockey Club sent Barrie the 167-pound, 19-shilling purse, some of which he used to buy a fur coat from a tailor on Regent Street in London.

In one baroque disaster in the fall of 1919, recounted in the turf writer David Ashforth’s 2003 book Ringers & Rascals, which contains the definitive modern account of Barrie’s life and works, Barrie dyed a 3-year-old named Mexican Belle to look like a particular 2-year-old filly. Then he doped her with opium to slow her down for a race in South Yorkshire. Two days later he entered her again, thinking her poor previous showing would guarantee long odds. Hoping to goose her speed, he gave her twice the dosage of cocaine he usually administered to his starters. Mexican Belle, high as hell, chewed through her reins, ran free, and finished dead last.

Barrie pled guilty to the Coat of Mail scam and much more, putting himself at the mercy of the court, which promptly sentenced him to three years hard labor. He was 32 years old.

Barrie’s life of crime developed, as so many such careers do, out of a mix of necessity and opportunity. Born in Scotland, the son of a butcher, he moved to Australia as a young man, and in September of 1914 enlisted in the 6th Light Horse Regiment of the Australian Imperial Force. His enlistment papers evince a life already spent in the company of horses: He listed his trade as a veterinary dentist, and he said he had already served three years taking care of horses in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

His military service, as Ashforth recounts in his book, was not exactly exemplary. In May of 1915, he arrived at Gallipoli in time for one of the great humiliations of the Allied forces during the First World War. His own role there was limited. Barrie was first evacuated to a hospital ship with an infected foot in July, returned to the field of battle in August, and lasted a single day before his second evacuation, this time for diarrhea. He spent the rest of his war as an army driver in Westminster.

Aknahton, this time as himself.

In 1917, he did a bit of hard labor for stealing a wallet, but then married in 1918, establishing a home at a London hotel. The couple bought horses. Ashforth suggests that it was the need to maintain this lifestyle that started Barrie out as a racetrack cheat. His ease with horses must have suggested the direction of his larcenous attentions.

Barrie seems to have shed his wife somewhere back in London. After his stint at Dartmoor Prison, he crossed the ocean in search of new marks. As he told The Washington Post years later, Barrie sailed to North America in 1923 disguised so convincingly as a priest that the captain of his transatlantic liner, a god-fearing man, asked him to preach the shipboard sermon one Sunday morning.

In the U.S., Barrie at first confined himself to minor racetrack grifts. The Bobby Dean/Kalakaua switcheroo was Barrie’s first attempt to pull a full-fledged ringing scam in the New World. Its failure didn’t keep him from trying again.

In October of 1931, Barrie locked himself in the back of a horse trailer driving from New York to Maryland. On the floor of the trailer, he set up a lantern and a small charcoal stove to prepare his henna and then got to work.

In the horse box with him were two horses, half-second cousins (they shared a great-grandsire). Aknahton was a high-class horse, bred by the millionaire heir Marshall Field III, founder of the Chicago Sun. Barrie had bought him for $4,500, all of it in tens and twenties. Shem was a genetic dud, not worth the $300 Barrie had paid for him.

Barrie spent the 10-hour trip disguising Aknahton as Shem and Shem as Aknahton. Aknahton, perhaps offended at being disguised as his lesser relation, kicked Barrie square in the stomach, sending him straight to the trailer’s rattling boards, where he writhed in pain for a full hour.

At the racetrack in Havre de Grace, Maryland, Barrie emerged, covered in dye, with the two painted horses. Only he knew which was which. It was the first step in Barrie’s most ambitious caper, the one that made his name in the poolrooms and racetrack grandstands and press boxes of the second golden age of American racing.

Aknahton, running as Shem, went off at odds of 52 to 1, and beat by four lengths the favorite, a horse named Byzantine owned by a member of the wealthy Whitney family. In the winners’ circle, the governor of Maryland draped flowers around the victorious horse’s neck.

Things looked to be coming off clean, but up in the press box a gambler named Nate Raymond couldn’t contain himself.

Raymond was the real thing: a big-time bettor once under suspicion for the murder of the racketeer Arnold Rothstein. The tens and twenties that Barrie had put toward the purchase of Aknahton likely came from Raymond and his gang, according to the 1932 Daily News account. Raymond was waving “sheaves of mutuel tickets to the value of $2,500” under the reporters’ noses, according to the Daily News story, piquing the interest of the racing press and track officials.

Aknahton disguised as Shem and winning at Havre De Grace.

But before anyone could do anything about it, Barrie and his horses were long gone. He sent Aknahton and Shem to Queens, then Manhattan, then to a hideout in Indiana. Agents of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whom various tracks had hired to maintain the integrity of their races, began a horse hunt. An agent somehow ran the horses down to the track in Indiana where they had been stashed, but Barrie slipped away just in time, paying off a watchman and trucking the horses to Chicago, then Columbus, then back to Maryland, hiding Aknahton right under the noses of the track officials who had started the search. In November, Barrie ran Aknahton at a track in Maryland, disguised as another horse he owned named Hickey. In January, he ran Aknahton disguised as a horse named Gailmont at a track in Mexico a few times, then shipped him out to Miami, where the glorious run reached its inevitable end.

“I wouldn’t be in trouble now if I hadn’t done an act of kindness,” Barrie moaned to a gambling journalist named Evander Phocian Howard a few weeks later. As Barrie told it, he had been driving with his horses into Miami when, out of the goodness of his heart, he picked up a hitchhiker, who proceeded to get pinched for stealing a watch just as soon as he got to town. Things went bad for Barrie too: Aknahton broke down at Hialeah Park, near Miami, on February 23. It had been a hard few months for the 4-year old, and his deeply inbred body was failing. In the race at Hialeah, he faded hard in the stretch, hurting a leg and finishing on three feet as most of the field passed him by. Maybe Barrie was tiring too. According to an Associated Press story the next day, Aknahton’s dye job had started to fade, and the track officials had noticed the horse’s odd coloring.

Amid growing suspicions, officials impounded Aknahton as soon as the race was over. Barrie slipped away. The law only caught up to him, or so Barrie said, because the hitchhiker had squealed to the police, telling them where Barrie had left his car.

“So I got trapped going into the garage to get my car where this bum told the police I had it planted,” Barrie told Howard.

The police had him, but they couldn’t hold him. Remarkably, despite all of Barrie’s subterfuge and dark dealings, the police couldn’t find a single crime to charge him with. In the state of Florida, and in most other states across the country, there was no law against disguising one horse as another horse and entering it into a race under a false name. All the law could do was deport him, as he had entered the U.S. illegally, and in early March the Associated Press reported that deportation proceedings had begun. Soon after, out on a $500 bond, Barrie jumped bail.

Aknahton in disguise as Shem.

Over the next few years, Barrie came and went, ringing horses in Montreal and New York, then telling the Daily News he was sailing to Australia, then posing as a posh English horse trainer to ingratiate himself with society folks at the Masters Tournament in Augusta. He was arrested on suspicion of stealing a horse in Saratoga in August of 1934, and while the charges never went anywhere, the Pinkertons took the opportunity to get him thoroughly and completely deported, frog-marching him onto a ship themselves.

A picture of Barrie from the time of the arrest, taken from the Pinkerton archives and included in Ashforth’s book, shows a worn-out middle-aged man with a grizzly 5 o’clock shadow, pouchy cheeks, and a slouch. The work had taken its toll. Back in England, Barrie settled himself in London. “He looks a little thinner, but, as usual, fit as a fiddle and not broke,” the Washington Post sportswriter Paul Gallico wrote in February of 1935, after meeting Barrie for a cocktail while on a visit.

Still, the magic was gone. Ashforth, in his book, describes Barrie’s further adventures, which by the early 1950s had devolved into selling a cheap tonic he said was a dope-free horse performance enhancer. For all his artistry as a con man, Barrie never quite struck it rich. It was his backers who made the big bucks; Barrie was, in the end, just hired help. When he died in 1973 at the age of 85, he was living in government-owned housing for single men in London.

Barrie’s trademark scam seemed, at the time of his death, to have predeceased him by a few decades. In 1946, an industry group called the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, led by a former G-man, claimed to have exterminated ringing by instituting a rule that every racing horse needed its registration number tattooed on its lip. That simple measure was a foolproof deterrent to all the wannabe horse painters, and the ringing scam disappeared.

Or so it seemed. In 1979, six years after Barrie died, a new wave of ringers cropped up, seemingly out of nowhere. The racing writer Andrew Beyer reported in The Washington Post that April that there had been at least 15 ringer cases across the country in just the past few months.

Barrie lived.