02/02/2015 12:18PM

Bergman: Guida left his mark on the sport

USTA Photo
Lou Guida made headlines in the early 1980s with top horse Niatross.

He was the worst thing that ever happened to harness racing.

He was the best thing that ever happened to harness racing.

You could love him or you could hate him, but either way you had to pay attention to his every move.

Lou Guida passed away a few days ago. His impact on the sport nearly 35 years ago still stands today as perhaps the most significant time in the sport’s history. Guida made news and at times he was the news. Such was the reason that many, including this author, looked at him as an interloper, a man that had no knowledge of the protocol of the sport but took the headlines and ran with them. A man that made things happen in such dramatic fashion that he shook up an industry every time he opened his mouth.

[DRF HARNESS: LIKE us on Facebook and get timely updates on the latest harness news]

Guida made the headlines at the same time the sport’s newest superstar Niatross was canvassing North America’s racetracks as a two-year-old. The son of Albatross, trained by Clint Galbraith, was a sight to behold and had universally received acclaim as a horse that could potentially be the best ever in the standardbred sport.

Guida, a powerbroker on Wall Street and a man that knew how to make major deals, seized the opportunity and made a dramatic move to acquire an interest and eventually control over Niatross.

“He paid $5 million for half interest in Niatross as a two-year-old,” said Bob Boni, a one-time associate and partner with Guida in numerous ventures and currently head of Northwood Bloodstock. “At the time no one had ever paid that much for a two-year-old standardbred or thoroughbred.”

The relationship between Guida and Galbraith was solid in the beginning, but ultimately after Niatross’ grand achievements at three and his eventual retirement the two would turn against one another. Galbraith had wanted and expected Niatross to stand at his Rodney Farm in New York, but Guida fought him and eventually prevailed.

“It was a difficult fight,” said Boni, “On the outside it appeared that this well-to-do Wall Street guy was taking advantage of an older woman (Elsie Berger) and her trainer (Galbraith).”

Putting aside the headlines and press Guida created during his fight over Niatross, the man was a champion of the press and it can be said with conviction that his involvement with the horse helped the standardbred sport transcend into a daily news story. The fact that Niatross was the 1980 New York Post Athlete of the Year has everything to do with Guida and his publicity team’s efforts, perhaps even more so than the horse.

USTA Photo      The great Niatross.

The power of Niatross gave Guida the capital to expand his business and open the door to new ventures. It also paved the way for a new era in the breeding and yearling business that saw prices of horses skyrocket. New money was entering the business and Guida was bringing those who had looked to Wall Street for investments to the racetrack to enjoy the benefits of horse ownership. At the time, lucrative deductions existed giving investors the potential for profit but at the same time a way to shelter income.

“He brought financing into the business,” said Boni, “Lou made that happen.”

Success breeds success and through Niatross Guida not only achieved credibility in this sport but was able to convince banks that it was in their interest to lend money to those looking to invest in standardbred ownership. The financing of horses only helped to bring more money into play, increasing the valuation of breeding stock to a level the sport had never seen before.

Following the retirement of Niatross on the racetrack and his move to the stud barn, Boni and Guida devised a plan to purchase privately a select band of yearlings from the first crop of Niatross. It was called The Wall Street Stable and was funded by Guida, with Boni canvassing farms throughout North America in search of the cream of the crop in 1983.

From that first crop one horse emerged that again propelled Guida into the headlines. His name was Nihilator. Much like his famous daddy he made headlines from the moment he set foot on the racetrack.

The biggest headline Nihilator made was early in his career when Hall of Fame trainer William Haughton elected not to drive the horse in the Woodrow Wilson instead offering Bill O’Donnell the mount. Haughton was also a most accomplished driver and the move puzzled most of the experts. The light was cast on Guida as the villain who unceremoniously evicted the legendary Haughton in favor of then leading driver O’Donnell.

“Lou called me that day,” said Boni, recalling the driver change, “He said he just got off the phone with Billy (Haughton) and that he said he was putting up O’Donnell to drive. He asked me if that was good.”

There may be other accounts of this story and in today’s world of social media we’d get to read all about them. However, in 1984 newspapers picked up on stories such as this and millions of people got to read about them.

Such was the way of Lou Guida.

Sure, he was a self-promoter, but at the same time during his era he inflated the amount of press the standardbred sport would receive.

Sure he didn’t have to invest all of his money and could raise millions.

He helped himself make money with certainty, but at the same time he increased the popularity of the sport and brought new faces with him to the racetrack. Many of those new faces would invest in yearlings and many of the breeders saw their business expand two and three-fold at the time.

Without the capital that Guida helped to usher in and his clever packaging of horses that helped to convince banks to finance, the sport would not have received exposure nor increase its popularity.

“He wasn’t afraid to take a risk,” said Boni.

To a much younger journalist at the time, Guida gave the impression as being a bully who just threw his money around to buy influence and control.

It turns out the money spent and the influence he had was in fact almost always positive for the sport and benefited a large majority favorably.

[DRF HARNESS: Check out our Harness Eye PPs and see our discount packages]