On this sultry Saturday afternoon at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, the 3-year-old trotting sensation Mack Lo-bell was 50 yards from the finish of the second, decisive heat of the Hambletonian and so far in front he was having trouble resisting a good horselaugh at his...well, let's be charitable and call them competitors. At that moment, up in the clubhouse, one of Mack's principal owners, high-rolling financier Lou Guida of Yardley, Pa., couldn't resist a small right fist to the sky in celebration. That little gesture summed up the day. And a lot more.
On the surface, of course, it was a tribute to a colt who would win the Hambo with a 1:53[3/5] mile, the best ever in the 62-year history of harness racing's premier event and only one fifth of a second off the fastest trotting race mile ever. Barring catastrophe—always a possibility in this game—Mack is now only a heartbeat away from being pronounced the finest trotter in history.
After all, last year he set a world record of 1:55[3/5] for 2-year-old trotters. He has won seven straight races, and no other colt has been within three lengths of him at the wire this year—in a sport in which photo finishes are routine. On Saturday, Mack won his first heat by 5¾ lengths over Spotlite Lobell, the final by 6¼ over Napoletano. Mack's combined 3:47[3/5] for the two heats added up to another world record. Should he win the Kentucky Futurity on Oct. 2, he'll be the first colt to take trotting's Triple Crown since Super Bowl did it in 1972. Mack won the first leg, the Yonkers Trot, on June 28. All of which means he is closing in on the legends: Greyhound, Nevele Pride, Super Bowl. Mack's trainer, Charles Sylvester, says, "In a few months he'll be telling us where he fits in."
Sad experience, however, has taught harness racing fans that legends-in-waiting can defuse themselves in surprising ways, as Mack's owner can attest. The legendary pacer Niatross, also owned by Guida, inexplicably jumped the rail in one horrendous race back in 1980 and was lucky he didn't kill himself. So while it is not quite time for a coronation of King Mack, it's not too early to start polishing the silver and checking out the caterers.
But there is much more to Guida's raised fist than winning itself.
Indeed, one day last week the 53-year-old Guida was sitting in his Trenton, N.J., restaurant, Bobby V's, confessing that what he would really like to get is the respect of his peers in the racing industry. He fell silent for a moment, then said, "Maybe respect is too strong. But I would like it. Now, at least, they do accept me. And they don't scoff at everything I say. And they send flowers when I win. Before, I was tolerated. That's all."
Guida has had more to do with pacers, who, compared with trotters, are easier to train and race for more money. "Trotters don't make economic sense," he says. He claims he was goaded into trotting by a snippy fellow owner (he won't name him) who chided Guida after a big pacing win: "Why don't you try trotting? Then you'll find out how much you don't know."
The remark served as evidence of the deep-seated resentment harbored by many of harness racing's insiders toward Guida. The hard feelings began back in 1971 when Guida, brash and loud and rich, plunged into pacing. He spent $350,000 on 21 yearlings, another $250,000 training them, and out of that got one race victory. He sold out for just under $50,000. Total. Industry establishment types weren't terribly unhappy.
But Guida recouped and regrouped and, in 1977, returned to the sport—un-humbled, unbowed and unable to keep from talking about how smart he was and how dumb they were. "It's such an easy game," Guida was fond of saying.
Since then he has backed up his boasts and lapped the field. His horses have won more than $20 million, making him the most successful harness racing owner ever. In the process, Guida, who retired more than a year ago as a Merrill Lynch senior vice-president, forged brave new ways of doing business, including syndicating horses among many investors for big bucks. Indeed, the victory circle after a win by a Guida horse looks like a block party that has gotten out of hand.
Although Guida does nothing to discourage his image as The Owner, he in fact owns only 20% of Mack Lobell—a portion he estimates is, at present, worth $1.6 million. Friends make up the rest of the ownership group. But it was Guida alone who made the decision to buy Mack in October 1985, when few were interested in bidding on a yearling son of the undistinguished sire Mystic Park. What attracted Guida to Mack was that Mystic Park had almost died of a grotesque disease that caused all four of his hard outer hooves to fall off. The horse couldn't stand, which would ordinarily mean death. But he was given therapy in a swimming pool for almost eight months and, miraculously, came back. "I loved Mystic Park's heart," says Guida. It cost, him—and his friends—a paltry $17,000 to purchase Mystic Park's son.
On Saturday, Mack won $523,150 and raced like the $8 million wonder that he now figures to be on syndication for stud. Driver John Campbell, the best in the country these days, reported after the first heat that the hard, sun-baked track was stinging Mack's feet. That could easily have led to a break in gait and defeat, so trainer Sylvester had leather pads put on the horse's hooves. All Mack did then was go out and stomp the field in the final.
With the prestigious Hambletonian in hand, Guida intimated that he may depart the harness racing scene as suddenly as he arrived. "Let's face it," said the man who was a high school dropout, "I have no place left to go but down. I think the problem is when you have had success, you begin to think you are God and that you can't make mistakes. Somebody up there has been good to me. So I don't want to put my hand out too many times and get slapped."
Several days prior to the Hambletonian, Guida had stuck his neck out and, with typical bravado, crowed, "Mack is unbeatable. I'm not looking to win but to win big, with authority." On Saturday, the deed done, he tried not to gloat. "In this sport," he said, "the highs are very high and the lows are very low. But the highs keep you going for a very long time." Then he lowered his voice conspiratorially and said, "I had no idea he'd be this good."