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June 7, 2015 7:42 pm

American Pharoah, Horse Racing, and the Jews

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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American Pharaoh. Photo: Maryland GovPics - 2015 Preakness Stakes.

American Pharoah. Photo: Maryland GovPics – 2015 Preakness Stakes.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe won the Triple Crown at Belmont last Saturday when American Pharoah romped home in the Belmont Stakes at Elmont, New York, by five lengths, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years. The owner is one Ahmed Zayat, once known in Cairo as an Egyptian Muslim, but now in the USA he is an Orthodox Jew. He and his family spent Shabbat in a mobile home nearby so as not to have to travel to the event.

He made his fortune in beer, quickly realizing that in the Muslim world it makes sense to market the non-alcoholic kind! He himself is a good Sephardi Jew, not a Chasid. But the jockey of his winning horse was taken to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by some enterprising young Chabad Rabbis (as ever, with a nose for publicity), where he dropped in a piece of paper asking for a blessing before the race. That, of course, is why his horse won. I would not recommend doing this if you are a serious gambler, but then most gamblers, like those who put pieces of paper in walls and suchlike, are very superstitious.

In the United Kingdom, where I was born, horse racing was and is “the sport of kings”. The Queen is its most fervent patron and horse breeder. Her horses have won at Ascot 22 times. The fabulous ruling royal family of Dubai, the Maktoums, are the dominant force nowadays. Here in America horse racing is the sport of whoever wants to have a go. It is under a lot of pressure, but it still attracts attention and money.

And the unthinkable, a nice Jewish boy, has just won its Triple Crown. Its true in England there were wealthy and successful Jewish breeders (the Rothschilds, the Sassoons and the Tabors come to mind), but not one of them was Shabbat – or kosher-observant. And you had to be or hobnob with the aristocrats to get anywhere. In the USA, any Tom, Dick and/or Ahmed can make it.

As a child I spent several years living at Greenham Common in Berkshire overlooking the Newbury racecourse. I would sneak down the hill, through the fields, and climb up onto a haystack to watch the races. On television you get no sense of the thunderous pounding of the hooves, the snorting of the horses, the shouting and whipping of the jockeys and the peloton of sweating horse meat, the rolling of white horse eyes swishing past you in a second, and then heading towards the grandstands, where the crowd is roaring and cheering and screaming and stamping their feet until the post-climactic sigh that means the bookies have made a lot of money and the punters have lost again.

In the Britain of my youth, the poor would bet on greyhounds, the middle classes and the rich on horses. But in truth horses attracted all classes. There were stands and boxes where the rich could go and plain, open, unprotected mounds for the peasants. The rich would bet in secluded areas, while the poor stood amongst the shouting gesticulating bookmakers in garish clothes and hats screaming to get attention and pick up the small, the leftovers, and the last-minute hunch bets.

There was an art to deciding the odds, and usually the bookmakers knew they had to cover their bets or they might lose everything. Then off-course betting and now the internet have changed all that. Aficionados studied form, looked at statistics, knew the jockeys, examined the mounts, asked all kinds of shady insiders which horse would get nobbled, which jockey told to rein in his mount or let a favored stablemate win. As with all gambling, it was often gangster-controlled and rigged against the ordinary sucker. But the atmosphere, the excitement, and vain hopes of winning a fortune always won out.

I remember going to Royal Ascot 40 years ago. It was something special (but not so special that I ever wanted to go back). The Queen and members of the Royal Family would be driven in horse-drawn carriages from nearby Windsor Castle, accompanied by red jacketed riders, down the straight to the cheering crowds and the military band, and into the Royal Enclosure. Only the elite could get in there, and you had to be wearing morning suits and toppers or elegant dresses and outrageous hats.

The ordinary wealthy or the middle classes could make use of the Grand Stand enclosure, where companies and families had their private boxes and entertained lavishly. Dress was “cocktail.” Or you could stand on the grass mounds to the side.

Ascot dates back to Queen Anne. It was an essential part of the great annual summer Royal social calendar that divides Brits into those who aspire to be close to the monarchy and those who despise it. To me it was more about the setting than the betting. No, I did not win anything.

Beyond Royal Ascot it is a lot less glamorous and horse racing is a tough, expensive hobby, although it has its business side. Unless you have more cash than you need, it is not to be recommended. But then neither is betting in general. Just study the odds. And of course the rabbis of the Talmud had no sympathy for betting and banned gamblers from giving evidence in courts or standing for positions of honesty and responsibility. To the best of my knowledge, no Chasidic rebbes are in the business, unless of course you include the Lubavitcher Rebbe of sainted memory but then he no longer has a say in it.

For all my cynicism, I am delighted that a Shomer Shabbat Jew has won this great prize. There is such a constant flow of news about Jews being attacked, boycotted, and reviled and rejected, that to see a happy, smiling, victorious religious face is a real tonic. I hope we don’t have to wait another 37 years for a repeat. But then we did have to wait 2000 years to come home!

PS—The horse racing business is hardly the preserve of the educated. Those who registered the name of the horse couldn’t spell Pharaoh properly!!!!


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  • RC

    I thought this was such a kiddush Lubavitch. This sweet, spiritual minded jockey asking the Rebbe for a blessing for something that matters so much to him. Remember the story of the taxi driver who asked the Rebbe (at the ohel) for a blessing that his dog should live a long time. Baruch Hashem we have a Rebbe who understands and is kind to people no matter what level they are on, appreciating their heartfelt sincerity rather than making a judgment.

  • Eric R.

    I was quite the railbird when I was younger. In fact, I was at Belmont for the last Triple Crown winner in 1978 when Affirmed won by a nose in what is almost universally considered the greatest race in American thoroughbred history. (Oh yes, and his owners were also Jewish).

    In America, the grand old WASP families such as the Phippses and the Vanderbilts dominated the racing world until the 1970s. Then Jews started becoming major owners — Sigmund Sommer probably being the first with a really big stable.

    The sad part is that racing is dying in America, due to the explosion of other gambling venues.

  • Larry Andrews

    I am not a Talmudic scholar. And, I am not a Rabbi. And, I did not attend a Yeshiva. But, I do know the Passover story. And, there isn’t anything good about the Pharaoh!
    So, why would any Jew name his horse American Pharaoh, or in this case, Pharoah??!!

    • Paul Eisen

      The horse was named thru a contest, and named by a gentile woman, who obviously didn’t do her homework for the correct spelling. Zayat is such a mensh, he just gave away a small fortune to charity. Blessings on him.

    • DACON9

      #1) THE JEW is sitting on the back of the pharaoh.
      #2) JEWS under many regimes was not allowed to sit higher then its citizens
      #3) Jews were mot permitted to build any structures higher then any of the areas citizens

      …..and now JEWS ARE SITTING ON THE BACKS OF THOSE who oppressed the JEWS……
      and whipping them to go faster and to work harder.

      its a wonderful way to prepare for MASHIACH….
      Larry I just purchased a puppy..I am calling him
      either ‘united nations’ or ‘european union’,
      maybe hamas or abbas…what do you think?.
      I have other names in mind but I still live in the united states…

  • Michel

    I thought gambling, animal races … Were forbidden un theThora !

    • A. Nonymous

      Well, it is true that ‘asmachta lo kanya’ (a bet is not a legal conveyance of property), but they are not the one’s gambling – they are racing for a prize, which is not prohibited.

  • Rick

    The buzz is amazing – I only have one bet each year – a hefty wedge on the favourite in the English Derby. I never look, never select, never weigh up form – I went broke doing all that years ago. Nowadays it’s just the Derby favourite.

  • baruch hashem some one is watching up there for the jewish boy

  • baruch hashem some one is watching up there for the jewish boy

  • B A R U C H H A S H E M

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    I had a great-uncle whose family line originated in Dublin; yes, he was an Irish-American Jew and married to my maternal grandmother’s older sister. He spent many a Saturday at the Arlington race track, located in a northwestern suburb of Chicago betting small amounts of hard-earned money on his favourite horses and enjoyed being out in the open air. Since he was a postal worker and a totally nonobservant Jew, he seemed to fit in with the crowd whose composition was mostly nonJewish and working class. My uncle lived a long life to age ninety-seven and definitely did it his own, unique way. But that was the American Middle West in the middle of the twentieth century.

    Thanks for this colourful touch of life on the periphery of the Jewish scope of affairs.

  • Sdavid Allen Flax

    My information is that the horse was named after a naming contest. The winning name was submitted to the racing authorities for registration just as it was entered by the winning contestant.

  • nelson marans

    Great story but none of the major newspapers mentioned the religion of Ahmed Zayat or the actions of Chabad Lubavitch, instead giving the impression that Zayat was an Egyptian Muslim.

  • Annette Steingraber

    Awesome….so happy for you!!

  • Edna

    I am surprised indeed that you state that he was known in Egypt as an Egyptian Muslim!!

    His dad was Anwar Sadat’s personal physician, and both his parents were religious Jews.