Horse Racing and Gambling during the Prohibition Era – Carnival 1921

Horse racing during the Prohibition era was a huge outlet for gambling, especially if bets were being placed not on the official books. During Carnival 1921, Prohibition had just started across the United States, with many underground, illicit businesses thriving. New Orleans residents had a tolerant attitude towards illegal gambling in the 1920s.  There were a variety of games and places available to bet and lose money (or win money) at any given time. To place a bet legally, one had to go through the books at a Fair Grounds racetrack. However, there were plenty more illegal betting options available as well. As long as the illicit betting scheme operators made contributions to local politicians, especially around election time, the unlawful betting places were safe and allowed to go through with the business. However, if they failed the make contributions, then the police shut down their operations.

The leading form of gambling in New Orleans was betting on horses. Horse racing and gambling have long been part of New Orleans history, from the very first Eclipse track to the current Fairgrounds track that annually holds a race every Thanksgiving for opening the season. The Crescent City Derby, first raced in 1894, was held at the Fairgrounds racecourse. Since then, it has been renamed the Louisiana Derby and has a purse of $1,000,000. New Orleans has its horse race called the Louisiana Stakes (previously known as the New Orleans Handicap), and this has been going on since 1947. In a race taking place in December of 1930, the betting prices seem so low as compared to now. The highest payout listed in the newspaper article for that day was $31.80 with a $2 minimum payoff. This meant that if the horse won that the man bets on, he receives $31.80 after paying $2 to place his bet. Last year, in 2019, a twenty-cent ticket paid $2.2 million where the man who put the chances hit the Rainbow Six. This means the man bet correctly on six consecutive horse races. The more bets one place precisely, the more money is won during the race. These were/are all legitimate forms of gambling and placing bets on horses. However, there were plenty of more illegal ways to place bets on horses during the Prohibition era.

Horse racing came to New Orleans in 1820 when Francois Livaudais laid out the first track on his Live Oak Plantation, currently located in Uptown. There has been a horse racing track in the New Orleans Fairgrounds since 1852 while the first public racetrack was the Eclipse Track built during 1837, and on that land now lies Audubon Park. There was also the Metairie Race Course from 1838 and the Union from 1852. Throughout the 1850s, New Orleans was a major horse-racing city. The Fair Grounds used to be the most popular place for horse racing until the New Orleans Jockey Club purchased land that is now City Park to use as a track. The old Union track was refurbished (new electrical, lighting) and was turned into the Creole Race Track. In 1908, the Louisiana Legislature outlawed horse racing in a law known as the “Locke Law.” This law was repealed in 1916, and both racetracks were reorganized. Jefferson Park and the Fair Grounds were doing very well in the 1920s but fell hard during the Depression. Next, the Jefferson Downs was opened in Metairie and was operating until Hurricane Betsey destroyed the track in 1965. The City Park track was burned down in a fire in 1993 but was rebuilt in 1997. The Fair Grounds survived through Hurricane Katrina and now lives on under the ownership of Churchill Downs.

Image Credit: “Horse Crossing the Finish Line at the Fair Grounds.” Accessed December 9, 2020.

Handbooks were available throughout New Orleans but were mainly concentrated in the Business District from Poydras to Canal Street. Races could be heard being called throughout several locations if one were to take a walk through this area at a given time. These were smaller operations– usually soda stands, speakeasies, or smaller clubs. The benefits of running a business such as this are that one needs very little capital to do so. The next “level up” from these businesses were poolrooms, where the visitors were actually mostly focused on betting on horse races rather than getting a game of pool in. Another type of business similar to this was called a charter club, where people could come to “play cards.” Although many people did not see a problem with illegal gambling, there were also plenty of people who did not approve of this. There were clubs put together during the Prohibition era that spoke out against illegal gambling in New Orleans, as many people believed that gambling negatively impacted the local economy. People were concerned that gambling would bring away business from legitimate operations, and having so much money funneled into something not legally recognized is terrible in some people’s eyes. Others argued that gambling was a nursery for crime, where parents and religious organizations were concerned about the effects of gambling and its impact on young children/families. They believed gambling would lead to a higher crime rate and could keep potential, legitimate businesses away. Due to this, the local economy could suffer due to companies finding more legitimate places to set up shop.

Overall, the city of New Orleans seemed like it was mainly concerned with activities that would drive people away when it came to illegal ventures at least. However, gambling on horse races was easy to do whether legally or not, so many people were not concerned about just gambling illegally. Furthermore, many speakeasies continued to serve alcohol after Prohibition, where gambling also took place in parlors that also sold alcohol. Many places were already in deep if they were to get caught with alcohol charges, so why not let people gamble there as well? When it comes to illegal activities, people were mainly concerned with crime and efforts that drove legitimate businesses away from New Orleans. Betting on horse races, whether legally or not has been able to build up and fuel the economy of New Orleans, making it the city it is today. 


“Betting On Races To Be Prosecuted, Marr Intimates District Attorney Says Law Violations Will Not,” December 13, 1921.

“Hoofbeats Bits of Gossip about Horses and Horsemen.” NewsBank, January 10, 1920.

“Jockeying for Position: Horse Racing in New Orleans, 1865-1920 – LSU Digital Commons – 2016.” LSU Digital Commons 2016.

“Moroni The Winner Of The Handicap, Although Alpaca – Times-Picayune (Published as The Daily Picayune.) – December 30, 1900 – Page 8.” NewsBank, December 30, 1900.

“The Free State of New Orleans: Local Law Enforcement and Illegal Gambling in the 1920s – ScholarWorks@UNO – December 17, 2010” University of New Orleans December 17, 2010.

“Walsh Ends His Season In Luck, Riding Three – Times-Picayune (Published as The Daily Picayune.) – December 25, 1900 – Page 8.” NewsBank, December 25, 1900.

“Weber Makes A Perfect Record, Winning the Three – Times-Picayune (Published as The Daily Picayune.) – December 27, 1900 – Page 8.” NewsBank, December 27, 1900. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.