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 5� lengths over Spotlite Lobell, the final by 6� 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.