Horse Trainer Balances Demands of the Talmud and the Race Track

Times Staff Writer

Even in the mixed crowd around the paddock at Santa Anita race track--a milling throng of onlookers, handicappers, grooms and pastel-clad thoroughbred breeders--horse trainer Al Goodman sticks out. With black chapeau, side curls and a full, wiry beard hanging from his chin like a clump of Spanish moss, Goodman still has them doing double takes.

"It kind of jolts you the first time you see him," said one race track official, who has followed Goodman's career since he arrived in Southern California six months ago. "It's like, is he dressed up for a 'Saturday Night Live' skit or am I just seeing things?"

Goodman, a Hasidic Jew who has raced horses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, takes the attention with good-natured equanimity. "I'm way out of the mainstream," he concedes.

Not just in terms of dress, either. A deeply religious man who has been engaged in Talmudic studies for 15 years, Goodman, 48, tends to look at life as a series of moral choices. "If they knew what I was thinking most of the time, they'd be shocked," says Goodman, who started training horses 25 years ago.

Life is complicated for a Hasidic horse trainer.

Besides attending to your horses, you have to observe the rigid rules of staying kosher, win clients and make a name for yourself--operating all the time in a heatedly secular world with a heavy emphasis on sociability. "But I'm a pretty game guy for a challenge," Goodman says.

The kosher part is easy, says Goodman. "I don't eat."

Rigid Regimen

He follows a rigid regimen of daily observances, taking meals only in his Fairfax home. He rises at 3 a.m. for prayers and a visit to the mikvah, a ritual bath on Beverly Boulevard, before heading to Hollywood Park, where his stable of eight thoroughbreds is housed. He usually carries with him a prayer shawl and phylactery for morning prayers, which he observes in an apartment loaned to him by fellow race track personnel.

"The horses don't interfere with my religion," Goodman says, wearing the riding boots and work pants of his profession, with the stringy end of his tzittzit, the cord undergarment that Orthodox Jews wear over their shoulders, dangling beneath his shirt. "They may press me for time, of course. If, say, I have a horse in the first race, I may push to get out a little quicker."

If one of his horses must race on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, he turns responsibility over to someone else. "I don't have to be there," says Goodman. "Anyone can strap a saddle on. If a horse isn't ready on Friday, you shouldn't race him on Saturday."

But the business aspect is more problematical. Goodman says that, despite 15 years of experience in his profession, he has received mostly rejection from California horse breeders, ranging from apologetic brush-offs ("Gee, I'd like to use you, but they'd laugh me out of the country club") to viperish repudiation.

"Out in Hollywood Park one day, a guy really let me have it," says Goodman, who in the 1960s was the trainer for Flagler Farms, a major horse-breeding operation in Florida. "First, he was nasty and insulting in English, then he switched to Yiddish, telling me I was a disgrace to Jewish people. He said he owned 200 horses, but if he saw me lying in the street, he wouldn't give me a piece of bread."

Social Aspects

Goodman says it's the palmy social aspect of California horse racing that has kept him down. "The affluent horse owners want their trainers to go to the Derby Ball, that sort of thing," he says. "I don't do it. I'm not interested in sitting with a lot of people, eating and drinking on the Sabbath. . . . They said it would be more liberal in California. Liberal? Bull."

But some of Goodman's more successful colleagues at the artichoke-green race track in Arcadia deny that they're expected to fit into a country club social scene.

Others acknowledged that Goodman may have an appearance problem. "Especially in this industry, where there's a lot of cowboys and WASPs, he sorta stands out," said trainer Hal King. Added trainer Bobby Frankel: "If you brought a hippie in who looked like him, he wouldn't do any better."

Winning Record

But all of them contended that the best antidote for rejection is a winning record.

Goodman, who has raced at most of the Northeastern tracks as well as tracks in his native Florida, had his first Santa Anita winner six weeks ago--a 3-year-old filly named Lady Babe who took a $40,000 claiming race. (He's also training an up-and-comer named Unleavened.)

According to the Daily Racing Form, Goodman's horses raced 93 times last year, mostly at Maryland and New Jersey tracks, finishing in the money 26 times, with total earnings of $87,838. During the first three months of this year, his horses have raced 20 times, with one winner, one place and one show. His earnings during that time were $25,675.

But Goodman complains about the mediocrity of the horseflesh he's working with. "Too many of my horses hit that turn there," he says, pointing at the Santa Anita track's final turn, "and, thooph, it's over. Lack of class. I've seen it three times since I've been racing here."

Orthodox Convert

Goodman is a convert to Orthodox Judaism. Though he grew up in a kosher household in Coral Gables, Fla., he largely abandoned the religion as a young horse trainer working for a large breeding syndicate. "I was an American kid growing up in America," he explains.

He led a dissolute life, he says, dressing in color-coordinated outfits ("I had to have green suedes to go with the green suit"), spending days at the track and nights at jai alai matches or poker games. "It gets old," he says now. "I started thinking about what would happen to my kids. Was I going to buy them a Jaguar or a Corvette and set them up in an apartment?"

He began studying at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Miami, run by a Brooklyn-based community of Hasidim with ties to Russia. Then he dropped out of racing and moved to Israel in 1974, where he engaged in religious studies. When he got word that his father was dying of cancer, Goodman returned to the United States in 1984, dressed in the black garb of the Hasidim.

Goodman's wife, Miriam, has pitched in to help in the stables, grooming horses, cleaning out stalls, typing correspondence.

Goodman, who came to California to race some inexperienced horses in a warm-weather setting, says he is now in California for the distance.

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