So what is a good Jew like Moe Simon doing on a Thursday afternoon in 1905? Is he thinking about the coming Shabbas? Is he counting the days till his wife, Rosie, is due to give birth to their second child, G–d willing? Is he musing about the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of Bennie, their 13-year-old?
He is trying to get together enough money to enter his horse in a race at the Jamaica track on Long Island. And this is not just any horse. It is a Jewish horse. Moe is so convinced of this that he has named the bay gelding Tallis. He wears a white satin saddle pad appliqued with two black stripes and a Star of David. Is this appropriate? Moe thinks so. After all, Jewish boxers (a brutal sport, boxing) wear their tallit in the ring, and have Stars of David on their shorts, and G–d does not strike them dead. Of course, they often lose, but that is their own fault.
Moe goes down to the corner bar. There he is — Alfred Shneiderman! Moe is in luck. “Al!’ cries Moe. “Just the man I want to see.”
“Why?” asks Shneiderman, smelling a rat, or at least a touch.
“I’ve got a horse,” says Moe.
“I mean, I’ve got a good horse. I knew him when I was a jock. Before then, even. When he was a foal. I named him, already.”
“So I want to enter him in tomorrow’s third race, an allowance, but I ain’t got the entry fee. Back me? I’ll split the purse. It’s $4000. The entry’s $500, and I’d have it, but –”
“But you paid $500 for the horse, right?” asks Shneiderman.
Moe hangs his head. “Yeah. But he’s worth more than that, and he’s ready.”
“I watched him a couple of months ago,” says Shneiderman. “He come up empty.”
“I know,” says Moe. “I claimed him out of his next race. But I got him going. He’s ready, honest.”
Shneiderman orders a draft. Then he orders one for Moe. “Tell you what I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll back you. On your terms. And just this once. And only because I kind of like the horse, too. His name, mainly. Not many Jewish horses running. Most of the trainers, mackerel-snappers. Holy medals on the jocks’s silks. Don’t make any difference. Horse wins, loses, medal, no medal. You got tallis, horse called Tallis — we’ll see. I’ll say a bruchah. Here’s the dough. We’ll go together.”
Moe is beside himself. Rushes to the train, to the backside, checks the horse, finalizes the jockey, pays at the office. Rushes home to Brooklyn, kisses Rosie, tousels Bennie’s hair, and leaves.
“Where are you going?” asks Rosie. “It’s supper.”
“Gotta get back to Jamaica. Check Tallis.”
“That fekakteh horse? Are you really going to run him?”
“Yeah. Shneiderman’s backing me.”
“Oy.” Rosie gets back to the stove, where she is preparing a chicken. She wonders if this will be the last chicken she can afford.
Friday. Tallis is in the saddling paddock. Some of the touts are laughing — they see his colors, his Star of David. “Jew horse!” they call out. Moe ignores them. Shneiderman gives them the eye, and they shut up.
“”Riders up!” comes the call, and they’re brought to the track.
“They’re off!” cries the announcer, and there is a general scramble from the gate, but there goes Tallis! Is he leading too early? No, this is just six furlongs, not a mile. And he’s flying. What’s more, look at the board — who bets a Jew horse? He’s 50 — 1.
The crowd, unbelieving, is screaming. Moe is screaming. Shneiderman, forgetting he is supposed to be stern and close-mouthed, is screaming too. And Tallis does not disappoint. Five lengths ahead, and he crosses the finish line with energy to spare.
“Did you bet him?” asks Moe.
“Whaddaya think?” says Shneiderman. “$100 across. How about you?”
“I ain’t got your kind of dough. But — $10 across. Rosie won’t believe it.”
Winner’s Circle. Proud owner and backer grin for the camera. Tallis, not even very sweaty, pricks his ears. The Irish, for once, are silent.
Moe and Shneiderman go to the windows. “Don’t look happy. Don’t brag. Hide your money,” advises Shneiderman, the expert. “You don’t want to be held up on the way out. Go to the backside, tip your jock, your stable boy.”
“What stable boy? I’m the stable boy.”
Shneiderman pats Moe on the back. “From now on, you get a stable boy.”
Home again (after a short stop at the bar, to buy Shneiderman a couple of beers, pay him back and split the purse as promised.) Rosie is thrilled by the amazing win. Maybe a doctor, instead of a midwife? Maybe a fancier Bar Mitzvah? Maybe a new dress, for once; a new suit for Moe?
Days later, everyone is even prouder. Tallis is written up in The Forward — “Jewish Gamblers Rejoice”. Unfortunately, although Moe, Shneiderman, and Tallis get the credit, Rosie and the kid, and the kid-to-come don’t make the paper. But what the hell, the jockey didn’t get written up either. A Jewish horse. Who would have thought?
Marisa Samuels started taking writing classes a few years ago, and self-published a small volume of stories about the stable where she rode in the 40s and 50s. She subscribes to The Forward, a New York Jewish newspaper, which has a small column devoted to happenings 100 years ago, 75 years ago, etc. In 2005 a tiny item appeared about a man who owned a race horse called Tallis (a Jewish prayer garment) who convinced someone to back him and against all odds he won. This is her fictionalized story of what might have happened. She is 75.