Hirsch Jacobs: King of the Claimers

Hirsch Jacobs with Stymie, who retired in 1950 as the richest racehorse in history to that point. (Meadors Photo)

One was a devoted family man, the other a confirmed bachelor. One was born to an immigrant tailor in New York City and raced pigeons as a youngster, the other might have stepped from the cast of “Guys and Dolls,” the Broadway musical.

Hirsch Jacobs was a bright-faced, redheaded trainer who possessed steely determination and loads of ambition. Isidore Bieber was a wildly successful ticket broker (scalper) of blockbuster Broadway shows and mega-watt sporting events in New York City. The two men bumped into each other one afternoon at Oriental Park in 1928. Bieber was 41, Jacobs just 24.

Over three decades, Jacobs and Bieber formed one of the great partnerships in racing history.

Hirsch Jacobs (Paul Schafer/NYRA)

Jacobs had a phenomenal eye for racehorses. He possessed an amazing ability for spotting latent abilities in runners whose owners had given up on them. He was known as the “voodoo veterinarian,” successful at restoring bad-legged horses into consistent winners over his career of 45 years.

His finest year was 1936, when Jacobs saddled 177 winners. He won 11 training titles from 1933 to 1944, except 1940, when he finished second. Horses Jacobs trained earned more than $12 million in purses. In the second half of the 20th  century, Jacobs ranked with John Nerud as the most versatile and successful horsemen in the nation. Each man could have merited Hall of Fame status singularly as an owner, trainer, or breeder.

It was the grand opening of Belmont Park in 1905 that hooked Bieber on the racing game for the rest of his life. Reportedly, he bet as much as $50,000 on a single race. As the story goes, one day Bieber parlayed $20 into $120,000 at the Empire City track but lost it all when he backed Bill Brennan in his prize fight that night versus Jack Dempsey at Madison Square Garden.

Jacobs’ and Bieber’s specialty was claiming inexpensive horses, developing them into big winners and as one turf writer put it,  “they ran them like a fleet of taxicabs.”

By 1933 Jacobs ranked as the U. S.’s leading trainer with 116 victories, despite racing only on the New York circuit. His most famous claimer was Stymie, a son of Equestrian who was by the great Equipoise. The rich chestnut colt had a near perfect conformation for the distance champ he became. Entered in a $1,500 maiden claimer at Belmont in June of 1943, Jacobs was there to write the claim slip.

Bred in Texas by the legendary King Ranch, Stymie came with a mind of his own. In morning workouts the colt would come to an abrupt halt without any warning, confounding Jacobs and the exercise rider. The trainer calmed the red chestnut colt by running him relentlessly – 55 times at ages 2 and 3.

Stymie didn’t win until his 14th start, but the long-striding horse blossomed in 1945, when he won eight stakes and was named champion handicap horse. He went on to dominate the New York racing circuit, winning stakes at distances from nine to 18 furlongs during his long career. With his come-from-behind style, Stymie became a darling of the Big Apple’s sporting fans. 

Racing in the emerald green and salmon pink colors of Jacobs’ wife Ethel, for three glorious seasons Stymie competed in stirring duels with Armed and Assault, all three powerhouse handicap horses that shouldered every weight and distance, capturing the imagination of an ever-growing post-war racing public. After seven tough seasons and 131 starts Stymie was retired in 1949. He stood as the richest racehorse in history with career earnings of $918,485 on a record of 35-33-28.

Renowned turf writer Joe Palmer wrote: “He came around that turn, his copper mane flying in the wind, making good horses look as if they just remembered a pressing engagement with the quarter pole.”

Hirsch Jacobs with daughter Patrice Jacobs and Bonjour (Paul Schafer photo)

Flash forward to 1960. Horsemen and turf writers anointed Hail to Reason as the best 2-year-old in the country. He was a big and still growing 2-year old colt, a massive strider who liked to wheel around his field of rivals roaring down the stretch in the run to the wire. Bred in a Jacobs-Bieber partnership, Hail to Reason was sired by the English stakes winner Turn-to, a grandson of the very influential sire Nearco.

A calm, intelligent and willing horse, Hail to Reason won nine of 18 starts in 1960 beginning in January at three furlongs at Santa Anita Park. From May forward, he was a man among boys.  He triumphed in the Youthful, Tremont, Great American, Sanford, Sapling, Hopeful, and World’s Playground stakes, owning a virtual monopoly on the East’s coveted 2-year-old prizes. Winning by 10 lengths in the Hopeful at Saratoga, Hail to Reason set the track record of 1:16 for six-and-a-half furlongs.

By September, Hail to Reason had already clinched the 2-year old championship with the Futurity, Champagne, and Garden Stakes still in the offing. Then disaster struck. On a Sunday morning gallop at Aqueduct, Hail to Reason apparently stepped on a horseshoe thrown by another horse. Both sesamoids of the left front fetlock were fractured. His career was over with earnings of $328,434.

Jacobs, then 55, took a good deal of criticism for running Hail to Reason so much. Jacobs replied, “I’ve always believed in racing my horses rather than training them once they are fit.”

Despite having saddled 3,596 winners – more than any trainer in history at that time – there was always one piece of hardware missing in Jacobs’ trophy room. Though he owned hundreds of cups, plates and assorted prizes from 51 stakes victories, Jacobs had never fashioned a win in one of the Triple Crown races.

In ill health in February 1970, Jacobs called his 35-year-old son and now trainer John to his hospital bedside. Barely able to speak, the elder Jacobs told him, "Don't worry about the gray (High Echelon who would finish third in the Kentucky Derby). He'll win his share. The real horse for us this year will be Personality."

The elder Jacobs then pointed to picture of a Personality race, and hoarsely whispered, “Do better, blinkers.” Jacobs slipped into a coma few days later and died in Miami Beach at age 65.

Personality was a son of the Jacobses' own celebrated stallion Hail to Reason and their all-time favorite racemare Affectionately. That May, the colt started in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, and Eddie Belmonte in the irons, Personality held off the stalwart My Dad George to win by a neck. Remarkably, in his first year as head of the family stable, John Jacobs scored the family’s first classic victory. The 95th Preakness victory was not only the richest race ever won by a Jacobs horse, but also the richest ($151,300) payout ever for the winner of a Triple Crown event at that time.

In Baltimore, the evening belonged to Hirsch Jacobs’ family.

Fun Facts

  • Stymie’s claim of $1,500 is arguably the greatest claim of all time.
  • Over the span of seven years, Stymie’s racing mileage totaled 142 miles, 170 yards of competitive running.
  • Stymie’s earnings enabled Jacobs and Bieber to branch out into breeding and they acquired a 283-acre horse farm in Monkton, Md. They named it Stymie Manor.
  • In November 1949, Stymie was brought to Jamaica racetrack for a poignant farewell. Too sore to ride, he was led down the homestretch to the roar of the crowd and the Seventh Regiment Band’s rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
  • Jacobs’ daughter Patrice married Louis Wolfson and their Harbor View Farm owned and bred Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner.
  • In 1958, Hirsch Jacobs, Ben Jones, and "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons were inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. They were the first living trainers inducted.

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