There are 94 pari-mutuel harness tracks in the U.S. and Canada—places where all kinds of money can be won or lost—but there is only one money machine, and that is the Meadowlands, situated just across the Hudson River from New York City. The track opened on Sept. 1, 1976, and at the time a lot of industry insiders were sure it would fail. Instead, it has been a thundering success. The impact of the Meadowlands—big purses, big attendance and big handle—has been felt by tracks all across the country. Prices paid for horses have soared, and the whole sport has been jumping since The Machine got cranking. A distinct new breed of owners has emerged—men and women who spend big money on horses, which race to win big money at the Meadowlands, which excites the bettors and encourages the wagering of even more money, which allows purses to be raised, which lures more new breed owners to the Meadowlands...and so on. Where have you gone, E. Roland Harriman?
What mainly distinguishes the new breed from the old—the sprinkling of aristocrats, the masters and mistresses of the influential breeding farms, the driver-trainer movers and shakers of the Del Miller stripe—is this: the new breed cares a whole lot about winning a whole lot of money toot sweet.
Take Ed and Jeanette Freidberg of Far Hills, N.J. When they got into the business in the pre-Meadowlands' days of 1974, they went 10 months and were on their third horse before they won their first race. Jeanette was appalled that it took so long. "Ed has always had such great luck that I figured he'd be lucky in this," she says.
Turns out he is. In little more than two years of racing at the Meadowlands, the Freidbergs have won more than $800,000; they are considered the most successful new breed owners at the track. Still, Ed insists, "With a little competence, there's not that great amount of luck involved."
Ed Freidberg is a 43-year-old attorney who specializes in malpractice suits. Indeed, he has represented the plaintiffs in 40 malpractice suits against a single Sacramento (Calif.) physician. To date Freidberg's clients have collected more than $11 million from the man—of which Freidberg himself has reportedly received some $4 to $5 million in fees. Not bad considering that at one time he told an insurance company that he would not file any more suits against the doctor if it settled five of the cases for $1 million.
Until last month the Freidbergs lived in Sacramento and commuted to the Meadowlands. Now that they are domiciled but a canter away from the track, Ed commutes weekly to Sacramento to look after his law practice.
The Freidbergs are perfectly willing to take big risks with the money they have accumulated in order to put a little zest in their lives. "Six or seven years ago, there was a lull in my life," Ed says. "I thought, 'Why should I make more? What purpose is there?' We owned a lot of real estate but it gave me no pleasure to drive past a building and say, 'I own that.' Money became a burden. Then we got into horses. Now I want to make more money at law so I can buy more horses. It's like playing Monopoly all the time, only with real money. It's all pleasurable. And if more people realized what a deal it could be, oh, my."
"This is instant thrill," says Jeanette. "We're not afraid to put our money where our mouth is."
Ed agrees, but with a cautionary word. "I'm not interested in just throwing money away," he says. "Anybody can lose money. I'm spending it on horses because suddenly, with the Meadowlands, it's a sensible investment. I have good judgment as a lawyer, so why wouldn't I have it on horses?" It never bothers this member of the new breed that a few years ago he didn't know the difference between a harness race and a relay race.
Besides the prospect of making money, racing provides excitement. "If they didn't have winner's circle pictures, we wouldn't be in the business," Ed says. He says that in the rush to their first winner's circle, Jeanette "knocked this old man off the escalator." She says, "I only gave him a little encouragement to move along."
After trying times with other trainers, the Freidbergs are overjoyed at present with trainer-driver Lew Williams, largely because of Williams' insistence that they buy last year's sensation, Whata Baron, who ripped off 10 victories in a row en route to season winnings of $234,650. Whata Baron is now at stud on a farm in Cream Ridge, N.J., owned by fellow new breeder Ed Mullen. Mullen, a Newark paperboard executive, spent $310,000 for a yearling named Cool Wind last fall—the second-highest price ever paid for a standardbred yearling—on the blithe assumption that "he could be a racehorse."
The Freidbergs' first big break came in 1976. They paid $60,000 for a mare named Native Amber and planned to race her in California. But because she was in the East, they decided to try her once at Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Going off at 25 to 1, she finished second. Though the Freidbergs were novices, they were not so green as to be oblivious to the money that was being offered at the Meadowlands. They vanned Amber over to Jersey, and in 161 races she won $195,823.
Today the 15-horse Freidberg stable is considered the best at the track. Ed's idea of a successful owner is "the guy who puts in the least and makes the most," perhaps a quaint notion for a new breeder but one not unfamiliar on Wall Street. The most Freidberg has spent for a yearling is $50,000—small potatoes. He did pay $150,000 for one broodmare, but even that figure turns no heads these days. All together, the Freidbergs own 92 horses. Says Ed, "With horses, always plan on spending more than you expect. It's a never-ending drain."
In his law office are a miniature castle encrusted with gold and diamonds, a suit of armor ("In one of Ed's earlier lives, he thinks he was a prince," says Jeanette), a desk set made in Poland and a timepiece with an engraving of Dan Patch—the legendary standardbred—on the back. "See how I was floundering to collect something?" he says. Collecting horses has turned out to be so much fun that the Freidbergs want to do more of it. They recently purchased 472 acres of New Jersey land less than an hour from the Meadowlands, property that includes the Old York Country Club—a nice place for a horse farm. The price tag: $2.5 million.
Few names fit their bearers better than Wild Bill fits Perretti. He is blustery and outrageous and loud. He owns four Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships in northern New Jersey. Wild Bill says, "I used to be the biggest dealer in the country. Probably still am." (Asked about this, a Chrysler Corporation spokesman says, "Well, he might have been biggest at one time, maybe, but he's not now, for sure." "Who cares?" sniffs Perretti.)
Wild Bill didn't just edge into the harness business last fall, he positively plunged. Within a couple of months, he spent $524,000. It all started, he said, holding forth at the Meadowlands restaurant, when he went to the World Series last October and thought, "My God, I'm 51 and I've lost touch with reality. Here was everybody screaming and yelling. It reminded me of the gladiators. It felt like the Roman Empire. I needed a chariot. So I thought I'll buy a few trotters, pacers—whatever they're called. You know, those horses that pull those carts." One of his purchases was Ata Sea Skipper, a top 2-year-old, for $230,000.
How much were you prepared to spend, Bill?
"No more than $160,000."
He immediately changed the name of the colt to Wild Bill's Skipper. Of course.
Do people like you, Bill?
"Certainly not. I'm intimidating."
Who advises you on horses?
"Nobody. I listen only to myself."
Know anybody in the business?
"Nope. And the less I have to do with them the better, because then they can't try to impose their thinking on me."
Nice car you have.
"Yeah, Jaguar, $23,000. Used to have a Rolls convertible but I sold it."
"I don't like ostentatious things."
Do you expect to win?
"I'm gonna win. I'll go big. That's my style. If a horse ain't a winner, get rid of him. Horses are just like used cars. If they are junk, you have to get rid of them fast. Horses are not a matter of luck. They're a matter of skillful business practices. And when you've got as much money as I do in them, it's a business."
Would you be in harness racing if it weren't for the Meadowlands?
If you have a bad year with the horses, will you get out?
"I'm not a quitter and I don't have bad years."
But isn't it a tough business?
"I think it's the easiest business I've ever been in. All you have to do is watch the blood."
But make believe you might lose.
"If I lose money, you won't see me around. But I ain't gonna lose. Can't you get that through your head? This isn't the sport of kings, it's the sport of bucks. I got the bucks."
Is it fun being rich?
"Money is freedom."
What makes you successful?
"I don't think small and I don't run with the cattle. Life is horses, broads, booze and food. I'm a classy guy, a piece of work. And I bet you thought you were done meeting different kinds of people.
"My thing is the horse business. I was the hottest thing in the car business. Now I'm gonna be the hottest thing in the horse business. It belongs to me. I own it."
He summons the captain, gives him $20 and instructs him to bet Argyel Laddie, a Perretti-owned horse. The grateful captain bows his leave and Perretti crows, "Do I have a touch or don't I?"
It's not that Leon Machiz, who lives in Kings Point on Long Island, is any less a character than Perretti; he's just a little quieter. Not long ago in London, he came upon a BBC-TV crew filming a street program on ear wiggling. Machiz, who is 54, informed the BBC reporter that he was the ear-wiggling champ of the world. He said, "If I had a runway, I could take off. I have a retractable ear.
"The new breed," says Machiz, "is the guy who spends a quarter of a million on a horse and is relaxed about it. The old breed might buy a cheap horse, then go bet $20 or $30 on him to win to try to make some money—and be uptight about it." Machiz' jaunty optimism qualifies him as a new breeder, although he has been in the business a little longer than most. He got the wherewithal by selling an electronics firm he owned to a conglomerate.
"I never thought I'd pay a quarter of a million for one horse," he says. "But that's been the problem with harness racing. Until the Meadowlands, they never dreamed big enough." Why does Machiz go in for the horses? "Indulgence is fun. After all, hedonism is to gorge yourself, regurgitate, then gorge yourself again. I just want to be in the arena."
Last fall Machiz sprung for $285,000 for a yearling named Captain Caution at the Tattersalls sale. "He'll probably disappoint me," says Captain Nonchalant. In 1977 he paid $260,000 for Escape Artist, then the record for a yearling, and that one has yet to light up the track.
Nevertheless, Machiz says, "I'm not in the sport to look like an idiot by spending a lot of money and losing." That is what the new breed, fears most—looking silly. Machiz' wife, Lorraine, who shares in the ownership of the Machiz horses, says, "There's nothing frivolous about the way Lee spends his money. He doesn't put on a new blazer, light up a big cigar—God forbid—and keep raising his hand."
A few years ago, Machiz spent $88,000 at Harrisburg for a pacer named Say Hello. "After I did that," he recalls, "I had a hollow feeling in my stomach. After all, I had just spent more for Say Hello than anyone else in the world was willing to pay." That Say Hello had career earnings of $189,257 and was syndicated for $1.5 million helped chase away hollow feelings right smartly. "In business, making money is fun," says Machiz. "In horses, being in the business is fun."
In Machiz' view much of that fun consists of racing at the Meadowlands. "There can never be another track that has the impact of the Meadowlands," he says. "I never would have spent the money I did on Escape Artist or Captain Caution if the Meadowlands hadn't been there. If other tracks aren't trying to figure out how to be like the Meadowlands, they ought to be. If you have horses good enough to race at the Meadowlands, that makes you a dignified owner."
And maybe a winner. "A good loser is a schnook," says Machiz.
"When I'm in competition, I don't want to just beat the other guys, I want to bury them," John Shegerian is saying in his Carlstadt, N.J. office. He is the president of a printing firm. The Meadowlands is visible from his desk.
"When I got into the horse business two years ago, I don't know nothin'," says Shegerian. There are some who say Shegerian has more dollars than sense. Last year he spent $385,000—the most ever paid for any standardbred, apart from stud syndication—to buy a yearling named Cobra Almahurst. Already there are rumors, like one that says Cobra is a wonderful colt but a little slow.
"All big spending means," says Shegerian, "is that instead of being 1,000 to 1 to win a big race, now I'm 100 to 1." But Cobra's price was a little heady even for him, because he had set a limit of $250,000. Shegerian was home in bed watching TV when his father, who had gone to the sale to bid on the yearling for him, called.
"John, we just bought him," the elder Shegerian hollered.
"No, Pop, you mean $285,000."
"No, John, 3-8-5-0-0-0."
"Oh my God, are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure. Everybody is taking my picture and asking how come we spend so much."
John Shegerian remained unconvinced until he called the sales office and asked who had bought Cobra. Said the voice, "He was bought for $385,000 by John Shegerian of Carlstadt, N.J."
Shegerian, a member of a family of six, grew up in a four-room apartment on East 29th Street in New York, where he would leave notes for his parents in the Venetian blinds that read, "I want a horse." Now he has 38 of them. In 1978 his operation cost more than $1 million.
Shegerian snorts at the figure, claiming to see no downside whatsoever to the business. Even supposing that Cobra Almahurst never makes it to the races, he's certain the horse can pay for himself and much more at stud. "With his breeding and conformation," he says, "there's no way I can lose." But if it's such a great deal, why doesn't everybody do it? "The problem is this," says Shegerian. "Can you raise your hand and sign the check?"
Shegerian figures he'll spend $500,000 on a yearling at this year's fall sales, maybe more. "I'll buy the best," he says. "You just come watch." Told that Perretti says the same thing, he replies, "We're gonna show Perretti. We're gonna show them all. By next year I'm gonna have the top 12 horses in the country. That's all I want. I'm gonna write history. And that's not a promise, it's the truth. The reason I'll do all this is I'm a sore loser.
"What do you think life is all about? You got to get what you want quick. We're gonna be dead for a long time."