Alan Leavitt leaves very few thoughts unexpressed. Which is why he ticks people off so much. Leavitt concedes the point. "There are days when I don't even like being me," he says. Time was when people could handle Leavitt's rampant abrasiveness by ignoring him or otherwise giving him a fast shuffle. But suddenly, Alan Leavitt—a 42-year-old loner who detests taking a middle-of-the-road position on anything because "all you find there are dead opossums, dead skunks and a yellow line"—has swung out of the traffic and is up there among the movers and shakers in harness racing. Many of the sport's biggies don't necessarily want him in their club, but they've got him.
This man with no patience for small talk or small deals aspires to become the very biggest shot in the business. He buys, sells, breeds and races horses at a dizzying pace. His three Lana Lobell farms, in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, spread over 2,475 acres, and he has plans to buy at least 500 more acres. He has every intention of catching up with and moving past the famed Hanover Shoe and Castleton farms. And he's in such a big rush because he wants to write a book and make a movie. Predictably, he's ignoring his own lawyer, who has advised him that movie making is "sheer insanity" and a sure road to financial regret. P. Jack Baugh, president of the U.S. Trotting Association and of Kentucky's Almahurst Farm, says, "Alan probably will do everything he says he will. He's shrewd."
What makes Leavitt such a dominant force in harness racing is his ability to syndicate horses—an arrangement whereby a number of investors share ownership of a horse, all hoping to divvy the profits but prepared to partake in the losses. Leavitt brought off harness racing's first important syndication 14 years ago. Two years ago, he put together the biggest harness deal ever—16 people pooling $3.6 million for the pacer Nero. Since 1964, Leavitt has syndicated $20 million worth of the sport's finest horses and, more than any other individual, helped push prices toward the heavens. When it comes to syndication, nobody does more of it or does it better.
This season Leavitt got together $4.5 million—including more than $1.6 million of his own—and now has control of both the most promising 3-year-old pacer and the most promising 3-year-old trotter. The pacer, No No Yankee, won a record $211,374 as a 2-year-old with 10 wins in 11 starts. Leavitt has more than $660,000 worth of No No and, more important, the say-so on the colt's future. Then there is Speedy Somolli, thought to be the class of the trotters. Speedy cost Leavitt $1 million and he owns 51%. There are experts who are appalled at the idea of putting that much money into two such young horses, for many a brilliant 2-year-old loses its luster in the grind of the 3-year-old campaign. Leavitt sniffs at the qualms. "Both these horses are worth what I paid for them," he says.
May 28, 1978
While each of these colts could easily make $200,000 to $400,000 at the races this summer, the truly big money comes when they begin their careers at stud. So if these two have a good 1978 and if they turn out to be worthy sires—the perennial "ifs" in racing—Leavitt will be in tall, tall cotton. With the Leavitt luck, the odds shorten, and in any case, few dispute that among the thousands of 3-year-olds going to the track this year, Leavitt has the two best prospects. But it's a fickle game.
Which is a perfect match for a fickle man. When he's trying to be engaging—even his friends say it is an effort for him—Leavitt says he lives by these guidelines: "Don't eat at a restaurant called Mom's, don't play cards with a guy named Doc, and never sleep with anybody who has more problems than you." He admits he stole these precepts, but he likes them anyway. His philosophy is a good deal gentler than the man. Recently he went after an official of the U.S. Trotting Association. Said Leavitt of the hapless soul, "The USTA glorifies mediocrity and I rest my case in this man. Calling him mediocre is a compliment to him. I mean the fact that a guy wears $3 shirts from Sears and clip-on long ties is no proof of mediocrity but it's a damn good indication." At the annual USTA meeting last March, the man was booted out of his job and Leavitt, of course, was among the booters.
Leavitt lives on the 40th floor of an apartment building on New York's East Side. For his $2,000-a-month rent, he gets unlimited viewing rights to the Empire State, Chrysler and Pan Am buildings, the George Washington and Triboro bridges, the East River, La Guardia Airport and the apartment of a wealthy, well-known New York businessman. The other night, Leavitt peered out and saw that the man was having a party, the kind of party that probably ought to have been held behind drawn curtains. Leavitt could not resist. He picked up the phone, dialed a number and asked to speak to the host.
"This is him."
"This is he," corrected Leavitt, a Harvard man.
"Am I disturbing you?"
"No, no. If you were, I'd hang up."
"Good," said Leavitt. "What's the last book you read?"
"Who is this?"
"Sir, I'd just like to satisfy my intellectual curiosity by knowing the last book you read. I'm not afraid to tell you my last book. It was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins."
"The Eagle Has Landed."
"Thank you very much. Have a nice evening."
The man across the street could be seen interrupting his guests and obviously repeating the gist of the phone call. Leavitt was beside himself. "See, this was probably the first time that anybody ever suspected that fool could read, much less care what he read."
The incident reveals something of the way Leavitt operates. He very often likes to act as an unseen force in a situation; he is nervy and seizes opportunities; he is iconoclastic, unpredictable and moody. Stan Bergstein, executive vice-president of the Harness Tracks of America, counts himself among Leavitt's friends. "But when I call him a close friend." says Bergstein, "I don't expect to be treated like a book salesman. And I certainly expect him to call me back, which Alan sometimes doesn't." So bad is Leavitt about returning phone calls that when Jim Harrison agreed to take charge of the Lana Lobell farm in Hanover, Pa., he says there was only one condition. "I told Alan I wouldn't call him often," he said, "but when I did, he must call right back." Leavitt's attorney, David Blasband, says, "You can't be thin-skinned if you want to have a relationship with Alan."
Indeed. Leavitt insists on making plans to go across the Hudson and visit the Meadowlands racetrack; when the time comes, he moans, "I just can't face the world tonight." He is anxious to show off his Hanover farm; when the time comes for the flight, he backs out.
He orders dinner to be sent up by a neighborhood deli and asks for skim milk. "No skim," says the man at the deli, "only pasteurized." Whereupon Leavitt feels it necessary to set the man straight by explaining that virtually all milk in this country is pasteurized. The man is not enthralled to learn this. It often seems as if Leavitt intends to right every one of the world's wrongs, whether it's any of his business or not.
Murray Brown, who was fired by Leavitt 10½ years ago and now is an executive with Hanover Shoe Farms, says, "Alan seems to go out of his way to alienate people." True. There is, for example, a certain USTA public-relations man whom Leavitt cannot abide. In fact, Leavitt has little contact with the man and no real reason to talk about him. Still, he cannot resist remarking to an acquaintance, "That man should have been writing publicity for Mussolini."
Farm manager Jim Harrison tries to be a voice of reason. "Alan is six lengths ahead of everyone else in this business," he says, "but I think he's so straightforward that he invites trouble." Even with people who break out with red necks at the mere mention of Leavitt, the words "smart" and "honest" inevitably arise when he is discussed. Howard Beissinger, trainer and 10% owner of Speedy Somolli, says, "When Alan tells you something, take it to the bank." And Frank G. Daniels, a Nova Scotia horseman, says, "I would rather buy from Alan Leavitt over the phone without ever having seen the horse than to see for myself." Says Leavitt, "You've got to tell the truth every time you open your mouth, not just when it suits you." But even with his outspoken ways, he insists, "I can be absolutely charming."
But, Alan, charm is not really your strongest suit, is it? "Well, I suppose we all see ourselves with a good deal of editing," he says.
Those who would like to edit Leavitt out of the harness business can forget it, even though there is chatter that he may have overextended himself financially. Says famed horseman Del Miller, "When you build an empire, you have to realize empires fall." In particular, Miller wonders how Leavitt can buy so much when prices for land and animals are so high.
The president of a prominent breeding farm grumps, "He must have a different kind of auditor than I do. I don't know how he does it. Maybe he's smarter than I am." Owner-trainer-driver Joe O'Brien is asked if Leavitt tends to overpay for horses. "Definitely," he says. Many think that Leavitt may have stepped on himself this time by paying too much for Speedy Somolli in a year when there are several other outstanding trotters. Leavitt differs. "Only the whole world was trying to buy Speedy Somolli," he says. "A lot of people have $2 million but I'm the only one who has Speedy." Lawyer Blasband says of Leavitt's situation, "He has one terrific balance sheet."
"People are just jealous when others do things," says Leavitt. "If you're a mover, they're critical. In a flock of sheep, everyone looks the same." Then he smiles his wary little smile—those few who know him well say he mistrusts every relationship—and gazes out across the city lights. In conversation, he constantly drills a listener with his eyes, not waiting for an answer, just looking. Hard. Leavitt doesn't blink first. He's in the throes of ending his second marriage and he says of his life, "I'm just not very happy." He used to hit the discos—one of his horses, Salvation, is named after such a place—and boozed too much. Today there is no liquor and seemingly little joy in his life, except when he deals with horses.
"It does seem like a horse is worth more money when you're up here on the 40th floor than when you're looking up at streets filled with trash and garbage from a one-room flat," says Leavitt. "I know that. But I always wanted to deal in high-priced horses. And let me tell you, it's a narcotic. When you start living on the high wires, you can't ever come down."
Basically, Leavitt simply is trying to buy and syndicate the best horses in a sport where breeding is almost everything. He's not much for detailed examinations of horses in which he is interested. "It's like looking at a girl," he says. "Right away you know what you think." In the case of future stallions, he will contact the owners. Or, as he likes to put it, they will call him. In the fall of 1976, a Woonsocket, R.I. lawyer, Paul Fontaine, bought No No Yankee for $18,500. Last March, he called Leavitt and heard Alan's estimate of what he could syndicate the horse for—$2.5 million.
Not long ago, Leavitt agreed to purchase two mares, both purportedly in foal, for a sky-high $400,000. At the last minute, two things happened: owner Bob Mumma of Harrisburg, Pa. decided he really didn't want to part with Somolli, the dam of Speedy Somolli; then Pizzaz, the second mare, turned out not to be in foal. At that point Leavitt was entirely free to walk away from the deal or at least to try to get a downward price adjustment in view of the condition of Pizzaz. But he didn't. Recalls Mumma, "I was really hoping he'd try to change the deal because that would have given me the chance to get out of it. But he was smart enough to know that." Several years ago Leavitt paid $325,000 for Tarport Hap—at the time, the highest price ever for a mare. "It's an embarrassment for a rich man to have poor mares," says Leavitt, referring, he insists, not to himself.
There were early hints of Leavitt's acumen. At a Baltimore military school, he was named the most efficient noncommissioned officer. For most of his growing-up years, Alan's family lived in horsey Hanover where his father gravitated into the mail-order business. Selling what? "One-and two-dollar junk that didn't work," says Leavitt. His youth was marked by a "deep sense of insecurity. My father kept saying we were going to the poorhouse and I believed him." After getting his B.A. degree in English from Harvard, he worked for his father. He says he was so embarrassed with his line of work that when people asked what he did, he said, "Import, export." When he decided to go into horses, the old man said it was silly. Nonetheless, Alan spent $1,600 on a mare, which turned out to be a silly move.
His first foray into syndication came in 1964 when a prominent Hanover farm owner, Mrs. Helen Buck, decided to sell Overtrick for $450,000. "She wanted to send out 10 telegrams," says Leavitt, "and could only think of nine names, so she added me." Leavitt called her and said he would like 24 hours to try to get the money. The next morning, having made little headway, Leavitt got a call from Norman Woolworth, president of Stoner Creek Stud.
"Congratulations," boomed the horseman. "No, no," said Leavitt, "I can't do it." "Sure you can," said Woolworth. "I'll take a share." And when Leavitt further protested that he guessed he didn't know anything about syndicating, Woolworth said he would lend him a copy of a syndication agreement to serve as a guide. Leavitt picked it up from Woolworth at a Chinese restaurant. That was the turning point—for Alan and for harness racing.
Among his deals—he has never failed to get a horse syndicated nor has a deal he engineered ever lost money—have been $2.7 million for Oil Burner when others were thinking in terms of $1.8 million; $1.4 million for Nansemond; Hambletonian winner Speedy Crown for $1 million; and the first standardbred ever to be syndicated for $1 million, Noble Victory.
But growing up in Hanover was not a happy time for Leavitt and he dislikes going there even now. He thinks he was shunned because he was Jewish and he continues to think that. In an article by Charlie Leerhsen in a trade publication, Hoofbeats, Leavitt attacked the Hambletonian Society (an influential governing board in harness racing) for being "openly anti-Semitic." That, he says, is why he's not a member. He contends that Del Miller, a director of the group, "suggested my name twice but couldn't get a second." Miller says that is not true, but that he did mention that "sometime we should consider Alan Leavitt." In a fit of pique the other night, Leavitt went through a list of the members of the society, noting those with few or no horses, those with favored family connections, those with no visible qualifications and one who is "a dedicated drunk."
Among other Leavitt opinions that nobody asked for:
•Two-heat racing of 2-year-olds in hot weather in Goshen, N.Y. is ridiculous. Also, lack of information on programs there makes betting "a shell game."
•Classified racing, in which a horse that wins is moved up to the next higher class, fosters cheating. That complaint stings a couple of the biggest tracks in the country—Roosevelt and Yonkers.
•Don't speak ill of the dead—but then, warming to the task, Leavitt attacks the late George Morton Levy, the founder of Roosevelt, for "making himself rich but never doing anything for harness racing."
•His stallion Oil Burner is the first great one to ever stand in New Jersey, an observation that undoubtedly irks every owner who has ever had a stallion in the state.
•"I'd like to be governor of New Jersey someday. Why not? They seem to elect about any jerk over there."
Stan Bergstein says, "He's a refreshing breeze in harness racing. He's a liberal, total and flaming, among a group of people who are to the right of Genghis Khan. But he is not a compromiser and he doesn't do things the politic way." But what one man thinks of another is not the bottom line in racing. The horse is. And that's why Leavitt and the people with whom he has had bitter contretemps still deal with each other.
At this year's USTA meeting in Columbus, Ohio, Leavitt was the only one who took off his sport jacket; he said he wore a tie "only because if you don't, these people don't think you own one." He suggested a motion be passed to limit a certain talkative horseman to 10,000 words an hour. When Leavitt disrupted another session by conversing while business was being transacted, the chairman said icily, "Alan, do you have something more important than this rules change?" "Yes, Mr. Chairman," said Leavitt, "but I'll forgo it."
While Leavitt's mouth can put things in turmoil, it's also true he's an innovator. Not only is he the father of syndication, but he was also a leader in seeing both the profit in racing horses in the winter and the benefits of acquiring top foreign horses. Recently he syndicated $750,000 worth of yearlings, an innovation that greatly pleases him. "One of them is so fast he catches birds," Leavitt says. Which, with the Leavitt luck, may turn out to be true.