The Eulogizer: award-winning jockey, advocate for mentally ill


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here.

Billy Harmatz, former jockey and businessman

Billy Harmatz, who won more than 1,700 races as a jockey, including the 1959 Preakness Stakes, and went on to a second career as a businessman in Southern California, died Jan. 27 at 79.

Harmatz was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and grew up in East Los Angeles, where he was part of the Wabash Saxons, a largely Jewish, Depression-era group of “street-wise youngsters who fought and played together at Wabash Playground. Many of them came from immigrant families, some with parents who grew up in the same towns in Eastern Europe.”

Harmatz, who was 5 feet tall, was an all-California gymnast in high school, and later credited that training with helping him survive falls during his horse racing career. He began his racing career at the fabled Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico.

His memorable races included a fourth-place finish at the Kentucky Derby (one of his four rides in the Derby), and a third in the Belmont Stakes, both riding Royal Orbit,  with whom he won the Preakness, and who was owned by Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. Harmatz once called the Preakness win “the highlight of my career.” He won six races in one day at the Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, Calif., and was part of a rare triple dead heat at Hollywood Park in 1957 with Bill Shoemaker and George Taniguchi.

He won several racing industry awards, and was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel, in 1999.

Harmatz bought the Vista Entertainment Center in 1959 and expanded the bowling alley over the years into a popular enterprise in northern San Diego County.

“He was only 5-feet tall but he had a huge heart and a very big presence in any room he entered,” said his daughter, Suzi Harmatz. “He was kind and giving … and he had these huge dimples.”

Harmatz appeared as a jockey in episodes of the 1970s TV shows “Banacek” and “Mission: Impossible,” and was featured in the 1962 documentary “Story of a Jockey.”

Frederick B. Ruden, advocate for mentally ill

Frederick B. Ruden, who advocated for the mentally ill during one stormy term as a county commissioner in Kalamazoo, Mich., and who was open about discussing his own mental illness, died Jan. 23 at 55.

During his two-year term in the mid-1990s, Ruden once compared a board member to a Nazi and overturned three newspaper vending machines at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper because he disagreed with an editorial. But he also won county approval for the creation of a community mental health board. Ruden feared mental health was being overlooked without having its own board and director.

“He was determined that folks who had disabilities would not be viewed as totally incapacitated,” said Robert Houtman, who served with Ruden on the board. “He was out to prove that point and I think he proved it. He did it with gusto.”

Ruden’s motivation to seek office came from his desire to help those with mental illness, friends told Ruden’s hometown newspaper, for a person with chronic mental health issues to win political office broke a stigma surrounding the disease. Ruden was open about his diagnosis of manic depression, which gave him severe mood swings.

“I have pledged to improve the world around me, despite my mental illness,” Ruden once wrote.

Ruden’s behavior as a public figure also brought him unwanted attention. He was reported to have made angry, late-night phone calls to those he considered political enemies.

“I feel very emotional about certain subjects … human rights in general, and it has nothing to do with my mental disability,” Ruden said in 1993. “Why is this county always putting my behavior on trial?”

He did not seek re-election after his one term.

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