-- attributed to Sir E.V. E. Sassoon
Race, and racism, has never been absent from sports. Black jockeys, who won most of the early Kentucky Derbies, were forced out of the sport in the early 1900s by the pressure of Jim Crow zealots. Second-generation Americans, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish or East European, made their names in boxing, only to be supplanted by more recent immigrants and by African-Americans. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were ostracized and blacklisted for their Black Power salute from the podium at the 1968 Olympic games. And even today, Colin Kaepernick is blacklisted by NFL owners for taking a public stand against racism, and Orioles outfielder Adam Jones hears racial taunts when he jogs out to his position in Fenway Park. So racial awareness, and racism, are still alive and well in sports.
Sticking to the oft-given advice to write what you know, my own contribution to this discussion, which will occupy this blog over then next few months, is to chronicle the history of Jews in racing. While not all of us are as religiously observant as, say, Ahmed Zayat, who'll park an RV at the track on Friday so he doesn't violate the proscription against driving on the Sabbath, we all pretty much identify one way or another as Jewish. In my own case, it's the Karl Marx-Rosa Luxemburg-Emma Goldman-Upper West Side school of Judaism, but still, it's an identity.
So these next few posts will take a look at other Jews who've made an impact in horse racing. Owners, trainers, jockeys and gamblers. And, since he may indeed have actually uttered the quote at the top of the screen, what better place to start than with Sir Ellice Victor Elias ("Eve") Sassoon, 3rd Baronet of Bombay and four times winning owner in the (Epsom) Derby?
Yes it's the same family that gave us Vidal Sassoon's hairstyles and Sassoon jeans. The Sassoons were a well-established Jewish merchant family in Baghdad, perhaps having landed there after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, or perhaps having more local roots. In the 19th century, Baghdad was part of the Ottoman Empire that was based in Constantinople, and several Sassoons served as financial advisers and treasurers to the resident Ottoman pasha in Baghdad. But the origin of their real money was the opium trade with China. The Sassoons, in fact, put together the first international drug cartel, and then invoked the armed might of Queen Victoria's Royal Navy to protect their interests (along, by then, with those of other British merchants), culminating in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, which resulted in the cession of Hong Kong to Britain and the opening up of Chinese ports, especially Shanghai, to western commerce. The World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon was also a family member, though he was disinherited when he had the chutzpah to marry a shiksa. Siegfried did, however, eventually produce "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," evidencing at least some familiarity with horses.
The Sassoons soon moved from Baghdad to the British Empire, establishing a commercial base in Bombay (as it then was) and earning a peerage from the British Crown. Young Ellice Victor Elias was born in 1881, while the family was traveling from England to India, attended Harrow and Cambridge, served in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, suffering a leg injury that bothered him the rest of his life, and, on the death of his father in 1924, inherited the colonial peerage.