08/04/2017 12:10PM

Hovdey: Leonard Lavin gave racing a good name

Benoit and Associates
Gary Stevens wins aboard Tweeting July 27 at Del Mar. It was the last victory for owner-breeder Leonard Lavin, who died Wednesday night at age 97.

Gary Stevens was asked to characterize the impact Leonard Lavin had on his career. The Hall of Famer smiled and shook his head, wondering where to begin.

“Put it this way,” Stevens said. “When I first came down here in 1980 as an apprentice, I won some races for him, and he offered me a contract. I was 17. I’m 54 now and rode another winner for him just the other day. So, yeah, you might say he’s been a big part of my life.”

The winner Stevens rode for Lavin’s Glen Hill Farm on July 27 at Del Mar was a 3-year-old daughter of Uncle Mo named Tweeting. As it turned out, she was Lavin’s final winner, in a life of steadfast dedication to the sport that ended quietly in his Chicago home Wednesday night at the age of 97.

Lavin’s first winner as an owner was Gabby Abby in 1967. The half-century between Gabby Abby and Tweeting was filled with Glen Hill horses like Convenience, Relaunch, One Dreamer, Marketing Mix, Uniformity, Right Honorable, Header Card, Concept Win, Old Time Hockey, Banned, Top Rung, Chiropractor, Star of the Crop, Wishing Gate, Global View, Repriced, and Enterprising.

The list goes on. During Lavin’s life there were more than 80 stakes winners who carried the Glen Hill silks, sporting the color scheme inspired by the classic packaging of Alberto VO5, the flagship brand of Lavin’s Chicago-based Alberto-Culver hair-care and beauty-products company. And yes, Leonard Lavin had fabulous hair.

Lavin’s impact on the game was pervasive. There was no corner he did not touch. Need a race sponsor for the nascent Breeders’ Cup experiment? Alberto-Culver was there. Funding required for a study of jockey health? Lavin asked where to send the check. It went on like that for decades until, in 2016, the sport finally said thank you in a meaningful way.

This reporter had the honor of introducing Lavin to the assembled swells at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Florida last year as the winner of the Award of Merit. Beyond a recitation of his racing achievements, I thought it was important to note that each time he did something for the world beyond horse racing, Lavin was identified as not only the philanthropic chief executive of a major American company. He was identified as Leonard Lavin – Thoroughbred owner and breeder.

Because of that, the public knew that it was a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who endowed a chair in ophthalmology at the University of Chicago. It was a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who supplied major backing to the widely recognized Entrepreneurial Management Center of San Diego State University. It was the family of a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who funded the Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. And it was a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who weighed in with a large donation to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In his autobiography, “Winners Make It Happen: Reflections of a Self-Made Man,” Lavin credits his father with passing on his gambling instincts, and he describes himself as the luckiest man in the world to have found his beloved wife and business partner, Bernice, who died in 2007. Bernice Lavin once was referred to by Fortune magazine as one of the 10 highest-ranking women in the U.S. business world, while Lavin described her as “a generation or so ahead of her time.” They were married for 60 years.

Lavin spent every summer until this summer at Del Mar, where his home in Rancho Santa Fe was adorned with vivid memories of his racing and business life. A place of honor was saved for the horse who put him on the racing map, the Fleet Nasrullah mare Convenience, who defeated Typecast in their historic $250,000, winner-takes-all match race at Hollywood Park in 1972. The thrilling event not only assured Convenience a place in racing history, it also signaled to the racing world that her owner – the guy from Chicago who sold hair-care products and deodorant – was destined to make a lasting mark in the game.

Lavin’s approach to racing was always a cool-headed blend of business savvy and gambler’s flair. He took his losses with firm-jawed resolve and his victories with the quiet delight of a man who’d just closed a difficult deal.

“I always thought my dad was the toughest man I ever knew,” said Tom Proctor, son of Willard and Lavin’s last trainer. “But Mr. Lavin went through an awful lot and put up with 50 years of us Proctors, so he might have been the toughest of all.”

In his autobiography, Lavin wrote this about the sport he loved:

“For those few minutes during each race, there was nothing to match the surge of power and rush of adrenaline as the splendid animals raced toward the finish line. The runaway enthusiasm of the fans. The fierce, striving beauty. The shared sense of hope and anticipation. And the sheer possibility of cheering on a winner.”

Craig Bernick, Lavin’s grandson, has carried on as head of the Glen Hill Farm breeding and racing operation since he was named president in 2008, with Lavin by his side in the role of peerless adviser. Now that Lavin is gone, Bernick will continue to ask himself, “What would my grandfather do?” when tough challenges arise. If he listens, the answer will come.