The San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC) will be holding its first annual “Race Day Raffle” on Sunday, August 12th.  Of course, every non-profit organization holds raffles to raise a few bucks, but this year the SFIAC decided to kick it up a notch by letting the ponies select the winners of its raffle.
The idea came from a member whose grandmother sold Irish Sweepstakes tickets back in the 1960s and 1970s.  For those too young to remember, the Irish Sweepstakes was the world’s largest lottery, with the world’s largest prizes.  The winners of the Irish Sweepstakes were chosen based on an un-associated horse race, usually not even held in Ireland.  So-called “subscribers” (ticket buyers) would purchase tickets from their friends or acquaintances known as “agents.”   The ticket stubs (or “counterfoils”) were sent by the agent to a contact in Ireland, usually through a series of “middle-men.”
Of course, the whole thing was illegal in every country in the world except Ireland itself, but that didn’t keep millions from buying the tickets anyway.  More than 95% of the tickets sold were purchased by people illegally—outside of Ireland.
A week before an internationally-famous horse race was to be held, the Irish Sweepstakes draw would be held in Dublin.  Because the world’s biggest raffle was held to support hospitals in Ireland, nurses in their uniforms were utilized to draw tickets from a drum the size of a railroad car.  To keep everything on the up-and-up, the nurses would wear short sleeves, and the whole event was held under the watchful eye of Dublin’s Chief of Police.
As each ticket stub was drawn, another nurse pulled out a small piece of paper from a separate drum, containing the names of all the horses that would be running in the big horse races the following week.  Each ticket stub was attached to the name of a horse.
When the big horse races ran (usually in England), the person whose ticket stub was attached to the name of a winning horse would win the grand prize.  Others would also win prizes based on how the horses attached to their ticket stubs performed at the races.
It was the most popular gambling game in the world until it came to a screeching halt when the rest of the world (including the State of California) decided it was smarter to stop spending money on law enforcement efforts to catch ticket sellers, and become ticket sellers themselves.  The California Lottery and other “legal” lotteries across the country and around the world finally helped to retire the Irish Sweepstakes after a run of over five decades.
The SFIAC member whose grandmother had sold Irish Sweepstakes tickets decades ago decided to fashion this year’s annual raffle into a scaled-down version of the grand-daddy of all raffles.  Tickets for the SFIAC’s Race Day Raffle are being sold by members of the Club, as well at the Club’s second-floor bar, and will be on sale at the SFIAC’s Festa Coloniale Italiana, which will be held on Saturday, August 11th, the day before the raffle.
On Sunday, August 12th, the SFIAC will host a Race Day party, which will be open to the public and held in the Club’s ballroom at 1630 Stockton Street between Union and Filbert Streets in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.  The horse races from the final day of the Sonoma County Fair will be broadcast on the Club’s big-screen television, and the Race Day Raffle drawing will be held prior to the races.
Like the Irish Sweepstakes of bygone days, each ticket stub drawn will be attached to the name of one of the horses running in the Sonoma County Fair’s races in Santa Rosa.  Prizes will be awarded to all holders of tickets drawn, but the largest prizes will be won by the holders of tickets attached to horses that Win, Place and Show in the far-off races.
The Club’s bar will be open, and the public may purchase tickets for the 12:30 p.m. lunch buffet prepared by the SFIAC’s Chef Paul Alioto.  Raffle tickets are $5.00 each, and must be purchased by 12:45 in time for the first post time at 1:15 p.m.
To purchase advance raffle or lunch tickets, contact the SFIAC at 415-781-0166.  Tickets will also be available at the door.

Receive more stories like this in your inbox