The Stage Takes another Look at Horse Racing History. And the Winner Is…

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Three Men on a Horse
Beckett Theater
Theater Row
W. 42d St.
New York, N.Y.

At the start of Three Men on a Horse, patrons get a replica 1935 race card and lay imaginary bets on their favorite with track workers dressed as they were that year.  Three small horses race across the stage. Everybody yells loudly as the horses move. There is a winner and a pay off in fake money.

People who bet on horses races have two dreams. First, that they could go back in time twenty-four hours with a newspaper in their pocket telling them who won races at a local track so they could bet on sure thing.  Second, that they could meet a mathematician who could figure out winners.

There is a third dream, though, and that is to meet a goofy man who, through ridiculous schemes, whether tarot cards, favorite colors or astrology charts, is able to pick winners.  That is the plot of Three Men on a Horse, the 1935 screwball comedy by George Abbott and John Cecil Holm that was revived last weekend on Theater Row.

The goofy man is Erwin Trowbridge, a meek, mild mannered fellow from New York who writes greeting cards for a living, adores his worrying wife and hates his brother-in-law.  He picks winners only while riding on a particular bus and looking for odd horse names. He never loses. One day he wanders into a drug store and meets three professional gamblers who are mesmerized by his abilities to pick winners.  The gamblers, and the ditzy blonde who travels with them, kidnap Erwin and make him part of their gambling cabal.

What follows is a crazy story about Erwin’s desperate desire to break free of the gamblers and get back to his job.  He writes greeting cards while in captivity.  Erwin’s horse pickings skills may be legendary, but his greeting card poems are just awful.

From there, the story spins off into a nutty comedy about race tracks and the denizens of the night who hang out there, all certain, as we all are, that we can pick horses that cannot lose. (My own horse picks, by the way, were so slow that they’re still running.)

Over the years, Three Men on a Horse has been revived several times, re-written and produced as a musical and made into a movie.  It is a very funny play with an unending appeal to the gambler in all of us.  It is a comedic valentine to a bygone era in American history.

It has problems, though. First, it is hard to translate a 1935 play, albeit hilarious in spots, to 2011.  Horse racing today—indeed all gambling—is far different today than it was nearly eighty years ago.  The storyline, that Erwin can pick winners but never bets on them, challenges the disbelief needed to make theater work, and not for the magical element.  Seriously, who is NOT going to make millions betting on sure things if you can?  While Three Men on a Horse sizzles at many points, it creaks at others.

The acting is uneven.  Geoffrey Molloy is wonderful as the muddling Trowbridge and James Murtaugh, in the rather small role of his boss, J.D. Carver, an angry, disoriented, bumbling man, is majestic. But the three gamblers (Jeff Hawkins, Don Burroughs and Gregory Salata) try so hard to go back in time to 1935 that they come off as cartoon characters.  The sexy blonde, Mabel (Julianna Zinkel), always seems uncertain about her role.

Director Scott Alan Evans, however, does fine work with the show, keeping the pace quick and the action sharp for most of the night.  He milks it for every laugh that Holm and Abbott tossed into the script.

One good thing about Three Men on a Horse is that there is a lot of history about horse racing through 1935 in the program to give the audience needed background.  They even printed a comparison table of dollar values in the 1930s versus today ($5 in 1935 is worth $79 today) and a year by year unemployment rate chart for the Great Depression (21.7 percent in the year the play was first produced).

The play serves as a nice piece of nostalgia for fans of sports history.  Horse racing is probably the world’s oldest sport.  Horse-drawn chariots tore around racetracks in ancient Greece and Rome to the loud roars of the crowd thousands of years ago.  It was introduced in England around 1140 AD when the king began to import Arabian stallions for his cavalry and raced the fastest of them (hence the nickname “Sport of Kings”).  Horse racing debuted in the U.S. in 1650 when a primitive track was built in what is today Hempstead, Long Island.  Long before the British Redcoats clashed with the Continental Army on Long Island, there were thousands of horse-racing fans cheering their favorite thoroughbred as he sped down the dirt tracks of the colonial arena (even George Washington owned racehorses).

Horse racing climbed in popularity in America throughout the nineteenth century and by 1890 there were 314 tracks that attracted several thousand fans for each race day.  Races were often fixed in the nineteenth century, though.  That ended in the early twentieth century with the debut of electronic tote boards, pari-mutual betting at track windows, and state commissions.  Fans started to wager millions on fast horses and stands were filled.  In 1919, the Triple Crown was introduced in racing (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont) and horses such as Man ‘O War, Seabiscuit and Secretariat became as famous as star baseball players.  In 1935, when the play opened, horse racing was second only to baseball in fan attendance,

Then came the decline.  By the 1980s, America had an overabundance of professional sports and they drew fans away from tracks.  In 1976, casinos opened in New Jersey and began what became a landslide of casino openings throughout the U.S.  The one great advantage horse racing had was legalized, on-site gambling.  Casinos offered that too, at an even faster pace, and drew away more fans.  Cities introduced off-track betting parlors; that siphoned away spectators, too.

Finally, in the early 1990s, there was simulcast racing from tracks around the country and online betting.  This diluted horse racing attendance even more.

Today, while the public still bets around $15 billion a year on races, many race tracks have closed and national track attendance has plunged by about a third.  To keep open, dozens of financially strapped tracks have introduced slot machines and full-scale casinos.  Thousands of people go to a track for the day or night for the casino and never watch a single race.

Horse racing buffs, and there are plenty of them, will get a chuckle out of Three Men on a Horse.  After all, gambling is gambling and that hasn’t changed in four thousand years. Sports history lovers will enjoy yet another look at the horse racing story.  All are in for a wild ride, some of it good and some of it tedious, towards the finish line.

PRODUCTION: Producers – the Actors Company Theater. Costumes: Martha Hally, Lighting: Mary Louise Geiger, Set: Brett Banakis. Directed by Scott Alan Evens

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