Thoroughbred racing’s Golden Age, as we know it, was the decade of the ‘70s when we had three Triple Crown winners, as well as equine heroes such as Ruffian, Forego, Spectacular Bid, Alydar, and the rags to riches Canonero II.
But to our parents’ generation, racing’s Golden Age were the years following Word War II when the Sport of Kings got back in full swing following a brief shutdown in January, 1945 due to the war. The end of the war brought great prosperity. The Depression was over and Americans were returning to their normal lives, with many fathers seeing their babies for the first time. The racetrack grandstands were once again full, as crowds of 40,000 to 60,000 flocked to New York tracks every weekend. It was truly a time for growth.
If you feel we have great rivalries in racing now, they are nothing compared to the battles in 1946 and ’47 pitting future Hall of Famers Stymie, Assault, Armed, and Gallorette against each other.
On 13 occasions, some combination of those four finished first and second, and on nine occasions they finished first and third. Assault, Stymie, and Gallorette finished first, second, and third in the Butler Handicap, and Armed, Stymie, and Gallorette finished first, third, and fourth in the Pimlico Special. On another occasion, Armed defeated Assault in a match race. To demonstrate just how formidable Gallorette was, she competed against males an amazing 55 times, defeating Stymie in four of their seven confrontations, while Stymie and Triple Crown winner Assault raced against each other eight times.
Immediately following these four superstars came the legendary Citation, who would become the last horse to sweep the Triple Crown until Secretariat 25 years later.
Many racing fans know the names of the aforementioned horses, but they do not know the story behind the story of that era and all the colorful characters that dominated the sport.
That brings us to a sensational book, titled “Out of the Clouds,” by Linda Carroll and David Rosner, which not only brings this era to life, but the prior decades going back to the streets of New York City during The Depression through its main character, Hirsch Jacobs, one of the true innovators and geniuses the sport has ever known. The book, which transcends Thoroughbred racing, is a piece of American history, revolving around Jacobs, his historic $1,500 claim of Stymie, and his charismatic partner, Isador “Izzy” Bieber, one of the city’s biggest bettors and feared brawlers, who would take on anyone in fisticuffs and personified the true Damon Runyon character. In fact, it was Bieber, who was the inspiration for Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls.”
Runyon, in fact, is a major figure in the book, being close friends with Jacobs and Bieber, who basically was the money man behind the Jacobs’ stable. There was no more of a Damon Runyon character than Runyon himself, and his colorful life and close relationship with Jacobs are explored in great depth. Runyon was another of the high rollers portrayed in the book. Also playing prominent roles in the story of Jacobs, Bieber, and Runyon are J. Edgar Hoover, Colonel E.R. Bradley, and some of the most notorious figures in American history, such as Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, and Frank Costello.
When it comes to history and colorful characters, “Out of the Clouds” is right up there with “Seabiscuit,” and is as riveting a racing/history book from start to finish as I have ever read.
This is history combined with the quintessential Horatio Alger story, with the backdrop of The Depression and WWII, and growing up in New York City racing pigeons, all beautifully woven together through historical events and individuals, not to mention one of the most popular horses of all time and himself an equine Horatio Alger story, who rose from the lowly claiming ranks to become the leading money-winning horse of all time.
You will be fascinated by Jacobs’ rise and how he revolutionized the Sport of Kings, linking the predominantly Jewish and Italian neighborhood of the East New York section of Brooklyn to the bluebloods and titans of industry that ruled racing. From training cheap claimers and boosting his number of victories almost every year while leading the nation in wins 11 times from 1933 to 1944 to becoming a true pioneer, breeding, owning, and training his own horses and building one of the sport’s great dynasties, Jacobs all the while remained unassuming and a dedicated family man, who never lost touch with his roots.
Not only did Jacobs defeat a Triple Crown winner in Assault, his daughter Patrice would own 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed with her husband Lou Wolfson, and his son John would become one of the few trainers to win two legs of the Triple Crown in one year with two different horses (Personality in the Preakness and High Echelon in the Belmont Stakes). Jacobs, who raced under his wife Ethel’s name, bred both Personality and High Echelon. Jacobs would also revolutionize the breeding industry.
He bred Hail to Reason, one of the great sires of his era, who sired six champions and classic winners Proud Clarion (Kentucky Derby), Roberto (English Derby), and Personality (Preakness Stakes). He purchased the filly Searching, bred by Ogden Phipps, bred her to Hail to Reason, and the resulting filly, Priceless Gem, wound up defeating Phipps’ greatest horse ever, Buckpasser, in the Futurity Stakes. Priceless Gem went on to produce the great French filly Allez France, winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Searching also produced champion and Hall of Famer Affectionately, the dam of Personality, and Admiring, the dam of the stakes-winning Glowing Tribute, who produced Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero.
And it all started with the $1,500 claimer Stymie, who raced 131 times, earned over $918,000, and launched Jacobs’ career to heights he could only have dreamed about.
One of my favorite anecdotes in the book was when J. Edgar Hoover, who had special agents place his big bets for him, invited Hirsch and Ethel Jacobs to lunch in the Laurel Race Course clubhouse. During their conversation, Hoover “turned to Hirsch and made a startling confession.” He told him, “I had you investigated. You have no idea how many people I had working for you. I had FBI men working for you as grooms and exercise boys, checking you out. I had to find out if you were using something. Congratulations, you were clean. They came up with absolutely nothing. Not one could come up with a story of drugs or anything like that. You were one hundred percent clean.”
I normally do not devote an entire column recommending a book, but this one is special, transporting the reader back to a number of different places and times in history, and providing an inside look into the world of Thoroughbred racing through a kaleidoscope of color. It is a true slice of Americana, introducing you to a cast of characters, both human and equine, you will never forget, and the eras in which they lived.