His friends in harness racing all know Max Hochberg as "the man in gray." He wears gray suits, carries gray luggage and even has gray frames on the funny half-glasses that teeter precariously on the tip of his nose. As horse owners go, Max is hardly a big-time operator. His racing stable includes only 10 horses and his office is in the trunk of his gray car. Nevertheless, thanks to a very special pacing colt, Max's gray suits should be seen this summer in important winner's circles all around the country.
The colt's name is Truluck, and all the barnyard experts agree that the sport has seen very few like him. Last year, as a 2-year-old, Truluck made a bigger impression than any pacer since the mighty Bret Hanover. Besides winning 19 of his 24 starts for $164,361, Truluck also tied a world record by pacing seven miles under the two-minute barrier—including a season's record of 1:57.2 on a mile track. His potential so impressed millionarie Louis Resnick, who owned half of trotting's great Nevele Pride, that late in the summer Resnick talked Max into selling him a half-interest in Truluck for a substantial sum—"not less than $600,000, and not more than a million," as Max likes to put it with a coy smile.
"But I still make all the decisions," said Max, emphatically, one morning last week. "That was part of the deal. Of course, I consult with Resnick before I do something, but I am the one who will decide where the colt will race and where he will go to stud."
This year Truluck is nominated for stakes worth more than $1 million and he quickly was established as the early favorite for the top prize in pacing—the $100,000 Little Brown Jug late this summer at Delaware, Ohio. Last Friday night the colt made his season's debut at The Meadows, Del Miller's pleasant little track in the foothills near Washington, Pa., and—of course—Hochberg was very much in evidence, wearing one of his gray suits and trying hard to contain himself after Truluck pulled away in the stretch for an easy victory in the $18,956 Pennsylvania Sires Stakes.
When the race started, Truluck was already two lengths off the pace, thanks mainly to his peculiar habit of bobbing around right up until the starting gate pulls away. "He almost looks like he's lame," said his trainer, Allan Young. "Any other horse and I would be worried, but he does that all the time."
Once on the pace, however, Truluck got serious and settled into the fifth, and last, position as the field went into the first turn on the five-eighths track. He was still last coming past the stands for the first time, and the fans were looking at each other and beginning to wonder why they had bet Truluck down to 1 to 9. They soon found out. When the field hit the half-mile pole Truluck's driver, George Sholty, took him to the outside. As Truluck swept past, the rest of the field suddenly looked as if it was pacing in reverse and a big "whoooo" came rolling out of the stands. Now the only question was what the winning time would be. When Truluck passed under the lighted finish line, the scoreboard flashed the time 2:01.2, but that was less impressive than his 58.1 seconds for the last half mile. That's not bad any time, much less for the first race of the year, and later, in the paddock, Sholty was smiling and telling Hochberg that Truluck wasn't even trying. "I never did cluck to him, never moved a hair on him," said Sholty. "All I tried to do was steady him. He was just cake walking out there."
For Hochberg, now 62 years old, bald, plump and unmarried, the success of Truluck represents a sort of sentimental comeback. Until now he was best known as the man who raced Torpid, winner of the 1957 Little Brown Jug and $187,000 before an injury forced him to retire to stud after his 3-year-old campaign. Since then Max has been biding his time, building up his modest breeding business and waiting for Torpid to sire a super colt. Now, in Truluck, Max is back on top, and his outlook, unlike his suits, is anything but gray.
The race at The Meadows was the beginning of what will be a 30,000-mile summer odyssey for Hochberg, who is not the sort of horse owner who just pays bills and collects trophies. Having worked out Truluck's schedule of races, Hochberg will follow his colt everywhere, driving alone from track to track, living out of his suitcases, running his business out of his car and his suit pockets. This is partly because Max is a real nut about the sport, a man who likes to hang around the barn and talk racing, but also because Max is essentially a businessman who is keenly concerned with the well-being of his investment.
"When fate declares that you have a horse like this, a horse worth over a million dollars, you can't be fickle—you have to stay with him," says Max. "So my office and my home are really in my car, and I pay my bills as I go along. I can do it because I don't have a wife or children to tie me down. Oh; sure, it gets lonesome sometimes, but I love the sport. I love to read about it, talk about it and think about it, so that I don't really have any spare time."
How Max got so involved in harness racing is not so much a tale of true luck, but of perseverance, intelligence and hard work. The son of Austrian immigrant parents, Max grew up in Newark, N.J and entered New York University in 1924 His last year at NYU was also his first year in the New Jersey Law School and, in addition to handling two full school loads, Max held down a full-time bookkeeping job. The schedule turned Max into a hard-line believer in the formative powers of hard work. "That's the trouble with these kids today," he says, off on one of his favorite tangents. "Nobody wants to settle down and work for anything. All they want to do is play and have a good time. I think every young man should have to serve at least two years in the Army, too, because that's where you learn to respect authority."
He speaks, at least, from experience. After working seven years as a legal consultant for an oil firm, Max was drafted into the Army Air Force in 1942. But 3½ years later, when he was discharged as an Intelligence officer, Hochberg had a problem when he thought about returning to the law. New Jersey had adopted a new constitution which so changed New Jersey law that he would have had to return to school for six months of refresher courses. Finding that prospect unappealing, Max began to drift. A friend took him to Roosevelt Raceway, he won a few bets and soon he was investigating the business side of the sport.
After a few false starts he bought a big-chested colt, Tar's Dream, in 1951 from a man named—believe it or not—Gray Renamed Torrid, the colt earned $147,000, and Max was hooked for good He kept breeding Torrid's parents to each other, and in 1954 along came a big, lazy colt that Max finally named Torpid "Torrid earned enough to pay for the staking and bills for Torpid," says Max, "and after Torpid got in the stud, his fees paid the bills for the long years until Truluck came along."
The name Truluck came from an old family name in Allen Young's ancestry but it soon proved to be quite appropriate in a different sense Max had hoped to sell him as a yearling for a nice price, like maybe 510,000, but the colt came up with two splints that forced Max to keep him. "I decided to race him as a 2-year-old,' he said, "and try to sell him again after that season.' Later, of course, Max saw the colt work out at Allan Young's training base, and immediately, he says, "I knew he was going to be a great one"
Now, with the money from Resnick already in hand and thousands more anticipated from Truluck's racing and stud career, the man in gray will never again have to worry about where his next gray suit comes from "But this is what you have in the horse business," says Max. "Here you have a normal man struggling for a living, and overnight he has made a million. I don't know of anyplace you can make it bigger quicker than in the horse game, but that's the romance of it."
Or maybe just true luck.