Last weekend, the Forward sent reporter Max Gross — aka the Hapless Jewish Writer — to the Catskills to report on a story. He came back an accidental horse racing champion. This is his story.
Back in his college days, the Hapless Jewish Writer’s klutziness was the stuff of legends.
During his first week at Dartmouth — as he was getting to know his future classmates during a three-day mountain biking expedition in New Hampshire’s backwoods — the HJW’s bike spun out of control and he was discovered unconscious in a ditch by the side of the road, his brand new Mongoose battered and in pieces. A reputation of sorts was born.
“Oh, you’re the guy!” classmates would jeer. “You’re the guy who nearly killed himself on his freshman trip! I heard about you!”
It was not the first time the HJW had proved his physical gracelessness. He broke his left wrist when he was about 10; he broke his right foot a year or two later; shortly after that, he tore muscles in his neck and needed to wear a medical collar; he was flat-footed and couldn’t sprint without his feet hurting (to this day, he wears artificial arches in his shoes).
In short, the HJW was (and is) a wreck. And he always felt some tinge of disappointment about this, from the Jewish perspective.
American Jews always have tried to downplay the stereotype that they’re a bunch of bookish weaklings who can’t face down their gentile bullies. Every Jewish kid was taught baseball at an early age; every Jewish kid studied the sports page; every Jewish kid learned names like “Hank Greenberg,” “Max Baer” and “Mark Spitz” to bandy about when someone claimed that the Jews were a tribe of Woody Allen-like nebbishes.
The HJW was no different. But he was realistic; he knew he never would impress any girls with feats of physical derring-do. He relegated himself to the reporter’s life of sitting at his desk, puttering on his computer and juggling calls from public relations agents.
So when a PR agent named Esther Chen called the HJW and asked him if he would like to commandeer a horse in a special reporter’s race at the Monticello Raceway in the Catskills, to raise money for the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, the HJW laughed and politely declined..
“But it’ll be fun!” Chen protested.
“I’m not really built for riding a horse,” the HJW said.
“You’ll be riding with a jockey,” Chen said. “You won’t get hurt.”
“I’d find a way,” the HJW said.
But nevertheless, the HJW agreed to go up there with some other reporters and watch the race from the sidelines.
When he later told his father that he had been asked to jockey a horse for charity, he expected his dad to double over with laughter.
“Why didn’t you do it?” the HJW’s father said.
“Do you really think I’m capable of racing a horse?”
“You?” his father said. “No.”
But there was something in his father’s voice that suggested disappointment in the heir.
“Would you have done it?” the HJW asked.
“Sure,” the HJW’s father said. “But I was a much better sport than you. I don’t think you should do it, though. You don’t want to become Christopher Reeve.”
Fate has a way of taunting the HJW when he thinks he has come to a sensible conclusion. A few days later, he was talking to an extraordinarily cute woman in a bar. She told him about her skydiving adventures in Australia. “You should try skydiving,” she said.
A pitying look crept across her face, and she told him there was nothing in the world more exhilarating. As the day of the Monticello race approached, the HJW began to feel that, perhaps, his life was too tame; he should take more risks; he should be more active and courageous. And when he arrived at the bus on the day of the race and met his fellow reporters, he was stunned to find that those who were racing were, in some cases, double his age.
“Aren’t you scared of falling off?” the HJW asked a perky television reporter.
“I don’t think we’re going to be riding on the horse,” she replied. “I think we’re going to be on a harness behind.” (Not really knowing what a harness was, the HJW assumed it was something like the chariots in “Ben-Hur.”)
“Don’t worry,” Chen piped in. “You don’t have to go.”
But the HJW regretted his cowardice.
As the reporters were eating their breakfast, one of the organizers of the event came over to their table and said that a reporter for the Daily News had not shown up. “Anyone want to race who’s not already signed up?”
It turned out that the reporter who dropped out is named Christian Red. Since the HJW is something of a Jewish Red, it seemed like fate. The HJW was assigned to a horse named City Final.
Shortly thereafter, the HJW and 10 confederates were led through an enormous stable, where they were given riding helmets and told to wait for the professional jockeys who would be riding with them.
As they all stood near the horses, the HJW sneezed. He sneezed again. And again. (“You’re probably allergic to horses,” someone noted helpfully.) The sneezing only served to make him instantly regret his decision. “I’m going to sneeze and fall off the horse,” the HJW said to himself matter-of-factly.
“That’s your jockey,” one of the organizers said to the HJW, pointing to an older jockey with a scraggly white beard who had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
The HJW introduced himself.
“Billy,” the jockey said, extending a hand and tossing away his cigarette before settling in next to the HJW on the metal carriage harnessed to the horse’s back.
As City Final, Billy and the HJW trotted onto the track, a white pickup truck darted out in front of them, and the HJW briefly thought that City Final (who was starting to gallop) would run into the truck and kill them all. City Final swerved away sensibly.
Just as the trio readied themselves at the foot of the track with the other horses, the white truck circled around in front of these horses, extended two metal wings on each side (which the HJW guessed served as the starting line) and suddenly sped ahead. All the horses dashed forward at once.
City Final kicked gravel up onto the HJW’s shirt and into his open mouth (which he subsequently closed) and took an early lead, running out in front of a horse commanded by George Whipple of NY1 News.
City Final rounded the track once, and then a second time, while the HJW got the so-called “adrenaline rush” as he peered over to the side and watched the other horses — snorting and panting, their yellow teeth close enough to reach out and touch — vying for supremacy.
Then, suddenly, City Final started to slow down.
“Well, we win,” Billy said quietly with a smile.
They had crossed the finish line, and the HJW didn’t even notice.
Billy rode the horse over to the winner’s circle, and the HJW’s photo was taken. He was handed a brown-and-maroon plaque that read: “Winner, Reporter’s Race, Monticello Raceway, August 7, 2005.”
They rode back to the stables, and all the reporters suddenly crowded around the HJW.
“What was it like?” they asked him.
The HJW happily expounded on the experience.
“Wait a minute,” one of the reporters said. “You’re the guy who didn’t want to race, aren’t you?”
The HJW grinned.
“There’s a lesson in that,” the HJW said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure there’s a lesson.”
Max Gross is a freelance writer living in New York.