Many articles have been written about Pittsburgh Phil, the most famous of all punters. If a certain doctor was alive today he could testify, much to his own chagrin, to Phil's betting astuteness.

Pittsburgh Phil lay dying from what was believed to be tuberculosis in a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in February, 1905.

Aware that the Pale Horseman was close, he asked the doctor: "Give it to me straight. How long have I got to live?"

"Less than 24 hours," the doctor told him.

It was too much for Phil to resist, specially when he had very good inside knowledge. "I'll bet you $5,000 you're wrong," the dying man declared.

The doctor deliberated and undoubtedly argued before he accepted the bet. Each wrote a cheque for $5,000 and left them on Phil's bedside table.

Phil died 25 hours later with the two cheques in his hand and a smile on his lips.

He was only 43 but he left behind a reputation as the most successful punter in American turf history.

Pittsburgh Phil's real name was George E. Smith and he was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1862.

A Chicago bookmaker was responsible for the nickname under which George E. Smith became famous.

It is understood that the bookmaking establishment had another customer named George Smith and, whether right or wrong, he felt that his prior claim gave him exclusive rights to that monicker.

To solve the dispute and avoid ensuing confusion the bookmaker decided to give young Smith a nickname not likely to be duplicated.

"We'll call you Pittsburgh Phil," the bookie declared, adding, "There won't be another."

The bookie didn't know how right he was. There never has been.

Smith tried work as a teenager but found it distasteful to say the least.

So he turned his attention to the bloody sport of cockfighting and bet on these angry little birds with remarkable success.

From the feathered ring he graduated to the horse rooms of Pittsburgh and the remainder of his short life was spent betting on racehorses.

Naturally, his success in the Smoky City did little to endear him to the bookies. While bookmakers are very fond of losers and will do almost anything for them, including lending money, they have never cared very deeply for winners.

Pittsburgh Phil was one of the rarities, a winner from the word go. Bemoaning his success, the Pittsburgh bookies suggested he find his action elsewhere.

Pittsburgh Phil was the only man to bet them from the ground and leave a fortune. Some bookmakers have made a lot of money, but they are few and far between, while some punters have started with the proverbial shoestring and run it into a rope factory - only to give it all back.

A prime example was a Mr. Riley Grannan, a contemporary of Phil's. Grannan started his career as a bellhop in the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky.

He acquired so much racing knowledge from the guests and other sources that he soon graduated to the racetrack operating as a punter and a layer.

At one time it was alleged he held a bankroll of more than $1 million, an awful lot of money in those days ... and not too bad by today's standards. However, Grannan died in the then boom town of Rawhide, Nevada, in 1908, as poor as he had been when he was born 40 years earlier.

Unlike Grannan, Pittsburgh Phil never made a book. And as far as is known never financed one, either.

Dozens of systems have been marketed since Phil's death, each purporting to be the exact method by which Phil amassed his fortune.

You can't blame punters for being a little pessimistic when the dollar scroungers were offering this priceless information for as little as $2! No-one has come close to Phil's winning streak, with or without his "system".

You can lay odds of 10-1 on that Pittsburgh Phil was too shrewd to have relied on any mechanical means for picking winners.

This was attested to by James G. McGill, his nephew and a man who knew more of Phil's betting operations than anyone else.

Another reason for Phil's success was that he didn't deal in fixed races, jockeys' rings or the like. There is a story that one of his employees approached Phil with information that a certain race was in the bag.

Phil told him he didn't want to hear anything about it. "Just tell me what race it is," he said, "so I can stay off it altogether!"

One thing is known for certain about his betting methods: he would stay if he was winning, but if he was experiencing a sequence of losing days he was wise enough not to press his luck.

He usually would pull up stakes and slip off to a resort for a few weeks to relax and regain his equilibrium. When he returned to the betting ring the feathers usually flew and many a bookmaker contributed to the expense of his holiday.

At one stage he owned a stable of very useful horses. Perhaps the best to represent Phil on the track was King Cadmus, who once won at 30-1 ... but we don't know if Phil backed it.

There never was any question as to the manner in which his stable was conducted. While Pittsburgh Phil always stayed within the boundaries of the rules, he didn't fail to take any advantage that he legally could.

"NO man could see and retain as much of the running of a race as Phil"

One of his charges was in top form and was eligible for a fairly low-class event. Naturally, it was assumed he would be a very short price but when the jockey's board went up it was found that he was to be ridden by a mediocre hoop.

The bettors knew what that meant or so they thought: it was just a warmup race and Phil's horse would not be trying. Phil never went near the betting ring, but a few of the smarter punters wandered through the enclosure, going from book to book, betting on the horse.

The bookies grabbed their money with glee, mentally banking it before the race was even run.

Phil, on the other hand, knew that his horse was so outstanding that any reasonably competent jockey could win with him ... as long as he stayed in the saddle. And that's exactly what happened!

With any successful punter like Phil there was no end to the number of tales which circulated on the racecourses regarding his methods.

He had a veritable army of informers - trainers, jockeys, stable foremen and grooms - on his payroll. Such intelligence, reliable or otherwise, is worth a small fortune at any time and, if indeed, he did have such an army Phil must have won more than anyone thought in order to maintain his sources.

However, it is unlikely that he did. The documented knowledge of him indicates that he was not the kind of man to buy knowledge or attempt to capitalise on guesses. If he ever received information outside his own stable, no-one ever knew it.

People who remembered him agreed that no man in their experience could see, and retain, as much of the running of a race as Phil. He didn't have the accurate performance charts available to the punter today, so he made his own.

Sharp eyes combined with a fantastic memory to tell him which horses ran best for certain jockeys, which did best on certain courses and which could be depended on under certain track conditions.

Even more important, he knew the value of keeping business secrets in the family! When he had his own stable his brother was his trainer and other relatives worked for him in key positions.

Even the most astute of punters have their weaknesses and Phil suddenly found he was giving his own horses the best of it, betting on them just because they were his, without regard to the facts.

He did the sensible thing and sold the stable, returning to betting on them from the outside. Winning races wasn't important for Phil - winning bets was.

Phil was not a gregarious, flashy punter. He looked more like a businessman or a clergyman than a successful racetrack character. He dressed in a severely plain manner but he always was gentle, polite and courteous to all.

Regardless of how close people got to him, if they did at all, no-one could expect an exchange of confidences from him.

Many say he was the most unemotional man ever seen on a racetrack. While we might tear up tickets, stamp our feet and punch the nearest thing to us, you could never tell by Phil's face whether he had won or lost or how much money, if any, he had on the outcome.

Students of psychology have claimed that this continuous repression of feeling gradually wore him down. Although this writer knows at least one person with the same character traits and he's now 84!

His philosophy on horses probably was the edge that he had over everyone else. "When you come right down to it," he once said, "there is very little difference between horses. But it is that little difference that is all-important."

His ability to spot that "little difference" and capitalise on it probably is as close as anyone can come to his betting method.

Regardless of what it was that Pittsburgh Phil knew or possessed, it died with him. Those who were closely associated with him were not conspicuously successful on the turf after his demise.

Eight years before his death Pittsburgh Phil spent $30,000 erecting a marble mausoleum in a Pittsburgh cemetery, almost as though he knew his gambling days were coming to an end.

That is where he now reposes. The epitaph probably should read "Pittsburgh Phil, Patron Saint of Punters".

By Warren Craig