‘Matchless Jew’: The Belmont’s Jewish Backstory


The owner of the horse — will it be Derby-winner Animal Kingdom, Preakness-winner Shackleford or a 30-to-1 longshot? — who takes this year’s Belmont Stakes on Saturday will hoist an ornate trophy high. Made by Tiffany from glittering silver, the bowl and cover are topped with detailed oak leaves and a proud figure of a thoroughbred named Fenian.

The Jewish trainer Jacob Pincus saddled Fenian for the Belmont, and the resulting victory helped make Pincus the leading trainer of 1869. “Leading trainer” was just one in a series of Pincus’ many accomplishments. He also trained Iroquois, the first American-bred winner of England’s Epsom Derby in 1881. With that triumph, Pincus and Iroquois proved to the haughty British and French racing worlds that American thoroughbreds had arrived.

Mike Pons is the business manager of Country Life Farm, Maryland’s oldest thoroughbred horse farm; his grandfather, Adolphe Pons, was Belmont’s thoroughbred adviser and worked with Pincus. “Imagine bringing Iroquois over to England and winning the Epsom Derby,” Pons says. “In those days, American horses were not even recognized by the British Stud Book.”

Pincus was born in Baltimore in 1838, far from the green fields of Epsom Downs. He moved to Charleston, S.C., as a child. Riding racehorses at 14, Pincus was a success, both at the little Charleston track and then the larger ones at New Orleans and Saratoga. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he became one of the country’s most famous riders, winning the leading jockey award at Saratoga. He eventually outgrew the jockey’s weight, and began training for the robber-baron thoroughbred owners of the day, including August Belmont. Fenian’s 1869 victory marked the third running of Belmont’s self-named stakes race.

Next, Pincus trained for Pierre Lorillard, a millionaire tobacco merchant who liked to send his horses abroad. Lorillard owned Iroquois, who made Pincus a trans-Atlantic star when he became the first American horse to win Britain’s coveted Epsom Derby. In his horseman’s lingo, Pincus said Iroquois was “fast and game and always could be depended upon if properly handled … a grandly turned colt, built for speed and a stayer.”

Pincus himself was “a small, sedate man, with a humor all his own,” wrote a Daily Racing Form writer in 1910. Other horsemen called him Jake. He was loyal to his employers, who appreciated his quiet, friendly ways. He always carried a walking stick, and would whistle under his breath and tap the ground with it when he was thinking or worried.

In a time when racing was marred by sponging (stuffing a sponge up a rival horse’s nose to restrict breathing) and doping, Pincus made a point of honesty. He trained his horses in broad daylight and at the same time every morning, unlike many contemporaries who ran theirs in darkness and at irregular times to avoid spectators. “To give a horse the necessary prep for a great effort,” Pincus said, “there must be no namby-pamby training. The horse must be asked the question in earnest, and the trainer must know his ability to the inch, so that he may be sure there will be no faltering when the final effort is made.”

Pincus eventually returned to New York to train fulltime in America, and then worked as a starter at the Jerome Park Racetrack, in what is now the Fordham section of the Bronx. (There were no starting gates back then, so the starter would wait until the all the horses were facing the correct way, and then start the race by dropping a flag and calling, “Come on.”) Even after Pincus retired, he frequented races, horse shows and auctions. No one knew he was sick until he failed to show up at a local horse sale. He died at the home of his niece, in Mt. Vernon, in 1918, and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1988.

“As a fellow Baltimore-bred, I marvel at Pincus’ achievements,” says Pons. “Perhaps someday we’ll have a horse half as good as Iroquois or Fenian.”

After his death, Pincus was remembered for his skill, kindness, honesty, and for his background. “I doubt if a needy turfman, who appealed to him for aid, ever was turned away, unanswered or empty handed. No! not from this matchless Jew,” wrote horseman James McCreery in The Thoroughbred Record’s obituary.

This year, when the Belmont is won and a delighted owner grins at the silver model of Fenian, pause a moment to remember Jake Pincus, the trainer behind the trophy.