Skip to main content
Original Issue

O.K. Horse for Sleepy Hollow

Reaper didn't sound like much in the first place, and the more one learned, the less there seemed to be to him

One of the more popular British tribal rites is the celebration of the annual Bank Holiday on the first Monday in August. The day has long featured a gay mass exodus to the seaside, the countryside and the nation's playing fields, sporting arenas and amusement parks, not to mention the neighborhood pubs. This preoccupation with revelry provides an ideal background for a shady enterprise, and thus it was that the Trodmore Hoax came into full larcenous bloom in London on the Bank Holiday morning of Monday, Aug. 1, 1898.

As usual, the diversions included special race meetings throughout Great Britain, many of them held at small tracks scattered across the countryside. None of these events was so obscure as to be beneath the dignity of London's off-track bookmakers, particularly if a potentially profitable wager appeared. London's bookies were, and are, famed as an obliging breed in this regard. Also shrewd. On this festive morning they were up bright and early working the streets, corner shops and pubs, on the usual lookout for a good thing. Along with the routine heavy play on the established tracks, they observed some interest in an obscure meeting in the southwestern county of Cornwall called Trodmore. The full Trodmore program was carried on the racing pages of that morning's edition of the widely read London journal Sportsman. The adventurous were making bets on a 3-year-old named Reaper, scheduled to run in the fourth race of a six-race card and quoted at approximate starting odds of 6 to 1.

The bookies were not unduly curious about this flurry of interest in a little-known horse since most of the wagers were placed in the pubs that opened at 10 a.m., where clients were notoriously inclined to spells of poor judgment after a pint or two. Also, operating individually, as they did throughout the sprawling precincts of London and its suburbs, the bookies were not aware of the full extent of the support for the horse. So when the report came that Reaper had won, the bookies were in trouble.

It wasn't that Reaper was really a good horse. Or even a bad horse. The fact was that he was no horse at all. Not only that, there was no fourth race at Trodmore, there was no race meeting at Trodmore, there was, indeed, no such place as Trodmore. These were the basic ingredients of the holiday caper spawned by an organization subsequently vaguely known, and in some quarters greatly admired, as the Trodmore Syndicate. The curious course of this affair is traced in the files of Sportsman and the rival Sporting Life, two London journals at the time engaged in a fierce battle for street sales. It was the reports exclusively in Sportsman that had provided initial information on the phantom meeting.

Although it had been several weeks in the making, the gambit emerged as a full-fledged swindle on the August Bank Holiday morning when the final details of the Trodmore meeting appeared in the Sportsman. The report listed the entries, jockeys, owners, post times, distances, purses, approximate odds and all other pertinent information. In a modest way this was a clear scoop over Sporting Life, which carried not a word of information on the event.

Now a highly reputable and widely read newspaper such as the Sportsman does not treat the publication of such information lightly, and certainly not without having first been satisfied as to its authenticity. In the judgment of the editors, sufficient assurance had been provided by an impressive and highly official-looking mass of correspondence that had begun arriving several weeks before. The first advice concerning the Trodmore meeting had been received in the mails in late July in a letter from the Fox and Hounds Hotel, Trodmore. Preliminary details appeared under the tastefully engraved letterhead of the "Trodmore Hunt Club."

Enclosed in this first missive were all the data required for the official posting of the event: rules, purses, the names of patrons, stewards, sponsors and officials. It was respectfully noted that the Fox and Hounds was Race Headquarters, and that further information would be forthcoming from the Clerk of the Course at that address.

Further information was subsequently received as promised, with letters noting the progress of preparations and listing early entries. The Clerk of the Course also advised the Sportsman that the patrons would be most grateful if word of their modest charitable project could be passed along to the readers.

Pleased to receive this information on an event in the west counties, the editors were happy to oblige through the paper's regular race-news columns, but the editors said that unfortunately they would not be able to staff the meeting itself: their west counties correspondent would be busy at a larger event at Newton Abbot. However, if the patrons or the stewards could recommend a reliable person to wire in the results....

Enter Mr. Martin, the gentleman from St. Ives. A few days later a letter bearing his signature appeared in the Sportsman offices in an envelope with a Trodmore postmark. Mr. Martin wrote that he had been informed by the Race Committee of the problem regarding coverage of the Trodmore meeting and said that he would be pleased to offer his services. Later, over the phone, an agreement was reached whereby Mr. Martin would cover the event for the Sportsman at the standard fee of one guinea, full results to be wired at the conclusion of the meeting. At his suggestion, applauded by the Sportsman editors, it was further agreed that the Trodmore results should be exclusive to that paper.

Everything was in great shape as Bank Holiday Monday morning dawned, and a swarm of carefully briefed men from the aforementioned Trodmore Syndicate prepared to make the rounds. Each carried a copy of the Sportsman, turned to the racing section that carried the details of that day's Trodmore program. The tactic was the soft sell and the fast move—concentrate on the pubs, always heavily worked on days like this; have a pint; flash the Sportsman; suggest a fancy for Reaper in the fourth at Trodmore. If faced with any questions or reluctance, back off. Pay cash, and arrange to collect the next day.

The agents moved swiftly from pub to pub, and bets were laid and accepted without trouble. Business was brisk right up to the scheduled 1:30 p.m. first post time at the first meeting of the Trodmore Hunt Club in Cornwall.

In what Mr. Martin enthusiastically described as a highly successful and exciting inaugural meeting, the following winners were recorded, along with the official closing odds: First race: Jim, 5 to 4; second race: Rosy, 5 to 1; third race: Spur, 2 to 1; fifth race: Curfew, 6 to 4; sixth race: Fairy Bells, 7 to 4. And, oh yes—fourth race: Reaper, 5 to 1.

These results appeared in the Tuesday edition of the Sportsman, which was on the street at 7 a.m. The rival Sporting Life was out shortly after, but with no report from Trodmore.

Again clutching copies of their favorite newspaper, the Reaper fanciers swarmed back across London, this time to collect.

At first there were only the normal grumblings as bookies paid off, willing to accept the official results as published in the Sportsman. Then, with just a small portion of the take in the till, there was trouble. It began with a bookie over in Chelsea who balked at paying because the results were not carried in Sporting Life. The fellow said he wasn't quarreling over the official nature of the lone report, but wanted confirmation of the odds, which just might have been published in error. The agent involved didn't press the matter. He retired quietly, as did his mates across London as word of the challenge sped along the bookies' grapevine. With the enterprise under dangerous, if unsuspecting, scrutiny, the jig was up. Or was it?

Not at official Race Headquarters at the Fox and Hounds, Trodmore, it wasn't. Word from there or thereabouts went out to lie low until Wednesday. And by late Tuesday afternoon the editorial offices of Sporting Life were bombarded with calls from indignant readers demanding to know why they had not carried the Trodmore results.

The editors checked, saw that the Sportsman had carried the results, and apologized for their delinquency.

One of the late callers was a Mr. Martin, who noted the general indignation and said that he would be pleased to help out by sending the full results, as he had been on hand at the Trodmore meeting in an official capacity.

The offer was accepted. It was agreed that Mr. Martin would wire his story later that evening, in time to placate readers of the early Wednesday edition. But then, to make things a little easier for a work shift that was coming straight off a long day's celebrations, it was decided that to save time the Trodmore results would be copied direct from the Sportsman.

The Syndicate men were there waiting when the first edition of Sporting Life appeared, all set to toddle off with the confirmation needed to collect the rest of the bet money. The Trodmore results were there all right, but there was one small problem. The closing price on Reaper, the winner in the fourth, was quoted not at 5 to 1 as in the Sportsman but 5 to 2—the result of a printer's holiday hangover error.

The swindle was now in real trouble, and discretion clearly being the better part of valor, the frustrated bettors swiftly and quietly disappeared.

It was just as well. The bookies who had paid off began screaming for information on the Trodmore Race Meeting. They were joined by interested fellow professionals, then by the usual outraged public.

Who knew anyone connected with the Trodmore Races? Who had witnessed the event? Where, in fact, was Trodmore? Who knew anything about Reaper? Who knew anything about anything?

Swamped with angry calls the two highly embarrassed newspapers tried to get the facts. A check with the post office and telegraph services revealed that despite the Trodmore postmarks on all that official correspondence from the Fox and Hounds Hotel, there was no such town as Trodmore. Not in the county of Cornwall, nor anywhere else in Britain. That information wiped out the Fox and Hounds, the Trodmore track and all the distinguished local citizens who served as patrons, sponsors and stewards. Not to mention Reaper, no matter what the closing price.

The few things certain were that some ¬£1,000 of real money had changed hands, and that there had been a gentleman who went by the name of Mr. Martin—although where he went nobody would ever know.

He and the rest of the Trodmore Syndicate simply faded into the British countryside, leaving a baffled racing fraternity wiser by this much: never bet on a horse named Reaper in the fourth unless you have personally checked his teeth.