07/07/2008 11:00PM

An honor better late than never


TUCSON, Ariz. - Every so often, a story comes along that transcends breed lines.

This is one of them.

Louis P. Guida is not a name known widely throughout Thoroughbred racing, although he and partners were 50 percent owners of Laurel Park 25 years ago and partners in Pimlico, selling their shares to Magna Entertainment, and he has bred runners with veterinarian Dr. Philip McCarthy.

He also owned the Philadelphia Eagles for a short while, calling his purchase of that NFL team the smartest move he ever made in sports, and selling it the dumbest.

There have not been many dumb moments in Lou Guida's lifetime, however, and a host of very smart ones.

He has owned all or part of 21 harness horses that have each won a million dollars, not bad for a kid from Jersey City who first worked shining shoes in his father's barber shop, and wound up a vice president of Merrill Lynch, the first broker ever elevated to that executive position.

Not bad either for an executive who did not earn an MBA at Harvard or a doctorate at Princeton, but instead dropped out of high school and worked days as a laborer and nights learning television repair. This was 1952, and Guida, then 19, soon opened a TV repair shop with $800 he earned working the day shift.

He soon expanded into multiple shops, and invested the profits into a state-of-the-art car wash. Both businesses flourished, and Guida sold them and founded Fidelity Finance, which ultimately employed a staff of more than 100.

He sold Fidelity in 1966, after a customer whose Cadillac was damaged when another car jumped the track at the car wash and injured Guida told him he didn't need that kind of hassle and persuaded him to sell the wash and join Merrill's Trenton office. That was 1967, and Guida began in mergers and acquisitions. In 1970, his fourth year in that job, he got a $250,000 finder's fee for his work on the $90 million merger of Caesars Palace and Lum's Restaurants, and he began looking for a tax shelter.

"I found the perfect one," he told Sports Marketing News years later. "I tried harness racing, and it was the greatest tax shelter in the world. I lost everything I owned."

But not for long. Instead of buying cheap claimers or using 90-second decisions to buy yearlings costing hundreds of thousands, Guida formed Louis P. Guida Enterprises, applied sound business practices, and interested new investors. In 1985 the operation spent almost $2 million for 21 yearlings, ranging in price from $16,000 to $275,000. One of them was Mack Lobell, who won the Hambletonian and $3.9 million, was taken to Sweden for its Elite classic, won it, and was sold on the spot for $5 million.

Before that came Niatross, regarded by some as the greatest pacer in the sport's history, a winner of $2 million and one of the first of Guida's championship deals.

Twenty years ago, with his stable dominating both the trotting and pacing gait in North America, Guida owned or partnered horses that won 14 major divisional championships and most of the sport's major stakes. Guida told a reporter at the time, "Every problem is an opportunity." He saw racing's problems as simulcasting, telephone betting, and OTB, and by the end of the 1990s he had had enough. He moved his stable operation to Italy, taking an American trainer with him, and now splits his time between there and Florida.

Despite his huge success and domination, and his bringing countless new owners into the game, harness racing's highest honor, the Hall of Fame, eluded him. He won national awards from the harness tracks and harness writers, but no Hall of Fame.

Until last Sunday. There, in Goshen, N.Y., where harness racing celebrates its roots just 90 miles north of New York City, the true believers gathered, as they do each Fourth of July weekend, and finally gave Lou Guida his long due recognition.

He had said once, during the years he was passed over for the honor he deserved probably more than any man in the sport, that he would not accept it if offered.

Now, 74 years old and still recovering from an illness that almost killed him last year, a mellowed Guida decided to enjoy the roses while he can.

After racing writers who denied him the sport's highest honor all these years finally relented, it was a touching ceremony as hundreds of friends and well wishers finally acknowledged Lou Guida's immense contributions to their game. The sport of harness racing owes him much, and a meaningful part of the debt was paid last Sunday at the Harness Racing Museum, on the main street where the first road trotters raced and an historic American sport was born.