Nihilator leads the field after the fastest three-quarters of a mile in harness history. The crowd is standing. The Meadowlands track announcer is hyperventilating. Standardbred racing’s answer to Secretariat is turning for home. Suddenly, the driver of the horse in second place attempts the inconceivable. He pulls out to pass. “I thought I had him beat,” says Tom Harmer, driving Falcon Seelster. Sure, and if his granny had wheels, she’d complete the trifecta.
No mere horse is going to challenge Nihilator this August afternoon. It takes a force of nature, a strong headwind, to prevent the 3-year-old colt from pacing the fastest mile in the history of the sport (the current mark of 1:49.1 was set by his sire, Niatross, in a time trial five years ago).
Nihilator coasts over the finish line two lengths in front, his time of 1:49.3 breaking his own world record for a racing mile by a full second. Falcon Seelster’s audacious move hasn’t ruffled Nihilator, but upstairs in the track-side dining room Lou Guida momentarily goes off his feed. Guida, 51, is the head of the syndicate that owns Nihilator, a brash businessman who has brought Wall Street sophistication to a horse-and-buggy sport. Harness racing has always been a little like a fiefdom, the barons of the breeding farms benevolently overseeing the commoners at their quaint country fairs, but in recent years Guida has changed the way the sport is financed, managed and promoted.
“I was told by the establishment that the horse business was for horse people, not for outsiders,” he says. “I’ve been called ‘offensive.’ I walked alone for a long time, but I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Ultimately the resistance, if not the resentment, was overcome. When Nihilator arrived, so did Guida.
He hasn’t changed at all. He still brags incessantly, promising feats from Nihilator—with 21 wins in 22 races lifetime and more than $2 million in earnings—that couldn’t be imagined a few years ago. Says Bob Boni, his partner and friend, “Lou loves the hype, but you have to be careful how much pressure you put on other people. It’s one thing for Muhammad Ali to say he’s going to knock a guy out in three. He’s alone in the ring. Lou’s not alone.” Replies Guida, gulping a ginger ale to moisten parched, post-race lips, “I don’t believe in playing it safe. I say what I think.”
Minutes after Nihilator’s win Guida is at it again, up in the press box announcing that Nihilator is going to Springfield, Ill. this week to break Niatross’ time trial record, maybe by more than a second. Time trials are bogus events that make absolutely no sense, except to harness horse breeders. They are run under perfect weather and track conditions with thoroughbreds in harness galloping alongside as prompters, and the times are about as meaningful as the hits Pete Rose gets in batting practice. Nevertheless, Guida wants to see what Nihilator can do on a hot, humid afternoon on a high-banked, hard dirt track. “Let’s compare counterfeit miles,” he says.
No matter how outrageous his comments, Guida can always get people to put their money where his mouth is. That’s what a syndicator does. Before Guida (rhymes with Ida), a harness horse syndicate was 10 guys from a bowling league who chipped in to buy a lame pacer from a crooked trainer and dreamed of posing drunk in the winner’s circle. What they usually got was a horse so hopeless it didn’t pull a sulky so much as lean against it for support.
Guida didn’t invent syndications, but he may have perfected them. He brought harness racing into the modern era of private placement offerings, tax shelters, bank financing and rigid management procedures. He refuses to allow trainers to make all the decisions about his horses, as was customary. “In the past, they always treated owners as annoyances,” he says.
When he isn’t running his syndicates, Guida is a senior resident vice president of Merrill Lynch, manager of the Lawrenceville and Princeton, N.J. complex. His office is filled with horse pictures, horse trophies, horse video cassettes and horse magazines, and friends believe he may soon retire from Merrill Lynch to work full-time at harness racing. Working at it part-time, he has amassed a share in 135 horses, including 28 percent of Nihilator, who was purchased by Guida for $100,000 and is now worth between $20 million (partner Boni’s estimate) and $30 million (Guida’s wilder guess). He also picks up about $500,000 a year managing Niatross’ stud career.
Guida grew up in a cold-water flat in Jersey City. His father was a barber, he was a high school dropout and his favorite memory is his mother’s mashed-potato dinners. Not mashed potatoes with dinner. “A big plate of mashed potatoes, my favorite meal,” he says. Looking at the man today, about as big around as a half-mile track, it is clear that not just memories remain.
It was the barber shop that fed his ambitions. Working as a shoeshine boy in the shop, listening to advice from successful men in shiny wing tips, he imagined himself becoming one of them. But first he became a mail clerk, a one-fingered typist, a TV repairman, the owner of a TV repair shop. Then he turned 20. A few years later, he sold the shop and opened a conveyor belt car wash. One night during the 99-cent specials, his life changed. His foot got wedged in the rollers and he was dragged through the entire cycle, including the state-of-the-art 200 mph blower. Luckily, this was before hot wax. The man whose Cadillac was in the car wash, a Merrill Lynch executive, said to him, “What’s a guy like you doing in this kind of business?”
Guida was 32 with a wife and three young children when he went to work for Merrill Lynch in 1966. He started at $550 a month, but he believed in a book by Napoleon Hill called Think & Grow Rich, and that’s just what he did.
By 1970 Guida was the company’s top broker, following the deceptively simple philosophy of recommending stocks in solid companies currently out of favor. He was also a masterly salesman, able to bring in some of the most prestigious Wall Street accounts. Even today, you can see the salesman in him, the all-encompassing spread-fingered handshake, the meticulous Lanvin suits. He says he became interested in harness racing “because it was a nighttime sport and I had to work during the day.”
These days his critics are few, mostly sportswriters complaining about the quality of the races and the competition he chooses for Nihilator, who has made more than half his lifetime starts at the Meadowlands. It wasn’t until mid-July that Nihilator had his first real test of the year, winning the $1 million Meadowlands Pace and tying the world race record of 1:50.3 held by Colt Forty six, a horse so obscure nobody cared that his caliber was wrong. Still, that was another race at the Meadowlands, the track in northern New Jersey that dominates harness racing the way the Circus Maximus once dominated chariot racing. Guida, who thrives on challenges, says that after the Springfield time trial Nihilator will have accomplished all his priorities for the year and “we’ll take on all comers on all tracks of all sizes.”
No matter how extravagant his praise of Nihilator, he says he never falls in love with the horses he buys, that he is in the “home run business”—emphasis on “business”—and sells off horses that aren’t world class. He shows almost no interest in trotters, the stylists of the sport, because they are slower than pacers, are harder to train, race less frequently and usually cost more to buy. “Some people have a true love of trotters, think they’re the most graceful animals that ever lived,” he says. “I’m interested in the fastest.” Yet Skip Lewis, who trains two of Guida’s top colts, Primus and Chairman of the board, says, “Unlike some owners, he won’t ever tell you to do anything to hurt a horse.”
Nihilator’s opinion, for what it’s worth, is unqualified. Before the Meadowlands Pace, horse and owner got together in the paddock. Guida tried to pet Nihilator’s nose. Nihilator snapped out at his hand, but Guida, laughing, pulled away. A horseman might have been bitten, but a businessman is always prepared when a partner turns on him.