Owner Mace Siegel goes about business of saving horse racing

Normally, Mace Siegel's focus would be only on Rail Trip.

The 84-year-old from Beverly Hills, one of the godfathers of Southern California horse racing, owns the 5-year-old with a chance to become only the third-ever multiple winner of Saturday's prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup. The other two, who each won three times, were Native Diver and Lava Man. Being in that company is the chance of a lifetime.

But Siegel's mind is all over the place, and with reason.

It is a Friday morning at Izzy's Deli in Santa Monica. Like many mornings, the man who made millions by owning shopping malls all over the country is holding court. Sitting nearby are bankers, investors, fellow horse owners and his son Evan, who is in the apartment business. Over eggs and coffee, deals are done and world problems are addressed, especially if that world involves horse racing.

This Friday is doubly special.

First, Siegel has a hot horse running at Belmont and the TV set over the cash register has the horses coming to the gate. Siegel got good reports on Boys of Tosconova, sent East Coast trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. to take a look, and after Dutrow's report, wrote a check to make the colt a part of Siegel's Jay Em Ess Stable.

Boys of Tosconova breaks from the No. 6 hole and the Siegel group is transfixed. Several own a piece of the horse. Everything stops at Izzy's. For a minute, the cash register will register no cash.

The race is around one turn, and at the head of the turn, Boys of Tosconova makes his move. Siegel sees it, declares the race over and heads back to his table almost before his horse crosses the finish line. Boys of Tosconova has done the five furlongs in 56.26 seconds, a mere half-second off Belmont's record. He wins by 12 lengths, is given an exceptional Beyer Speed rating of 103 and is suddenly at the head of the conversation about next year's Triple Crown contenders.

So, not only does Jay Em Ess Stable, inspired by Siegel's late wife Jan and managed by Siegel's daughter Samantha, have a healthy Rail Trip favored in a huge race, it has a possible Kentucky Derby horse. Even for a longtime operation such as Jay Em Ess, which has won dozens of graded races and an Eclipse in 2004 with 2-year-old colt Declan's Moon, this is exciting.

With a good showing in the Gold Cup and good luck after that, Rail Trip could be sliding into the gate near Zenyatta for the Breeders' Cup Classic in November, and that could just be a nice warmup for Siegel's stable for Derby Day next May.

It isn't that Siegel's not excited about all that, but two bites into his sausage, he makes it clear he has bigger fish to fry. Besides, he says, his daughter runs the horse racing operation and he does only strategy work. "I suggest something, she says no," he says, smiling proudly. "Ninety-eight percent of my ideas are ignored."

No, Siegel wants to talk about the future of his sport, which, by many measures, has none.

On June 22, at a contentious meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach had been taken to the woodshed by most in attendance. Stronach faced the group a month after he had suddenly canceled the lease for the Oak Tree Racing Assn.'s annual fall meet at Santa Anita, where it had been since 1969. He had babbled about free enterprise and lack of vision in California racing. But his action had forced the board of the Breeders' Cup, which had come to an unannounced agreement to bring the Breeders' Cup to Oak Tree as a semi-permanent home starting in 2011, to bail on Southern California and commit to Churchill Downs for 2011.

The CHRB was angry. Horse people were angry. Some snarled at Stronach and he snarled back. It was more shouting match than meeting.

Then Siegel sat down next to Stronach, asked whether he could be his agent, and helped broker a deal in which Stronach allowed Oak Tree one more year at Santa Anita.

That didn't get the Breeders' Cup back, nor have people been inviting Stronach to dinner, but it did bring the semblance of solution, stopgap though it is.

Now, Siegel sits over coffee and sausages and has more to say.

"Frank Stronach is a wonderful man," he says. "They call him a bum, but he keeps putting money into the sport. He's a hero."

This, of course, will be greeted in racing circles like somebody walking through the Westminster dog show with a sign proclaiming love for Michael Vick.

Siegel says that the CHRB meeting had been a wake-up call for him, a moment of realization that somebody has to step up, and he's that somebody.

"What's wrong with horse racing?" he asks, rhetorically. "The people who run it."

He says he has a plan that would put people back in the seats and make Hollywood Park the special race place it once was. He reveals no details but says it won't be long before he pulls the trigger.

"I'm going to fix this," he says, with the conviction of somebody used to having what he touches turn to gold.

Those gathered around him listen and nod. The big question is whether racing will, or should.


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World