10/28/2011 12:28PM

Hovdey: Siegel leaves the stage a class act

Jockeys Guild
Declan’s Moon, with Victor Espinoza riding, wins the 2004 Hollywood Futurity as part of the juvenile championship year he brought owner Mace Siegel.

Mace Siegel woke up Wednesday morning in his own bed, at home in Beverly Hills, to the sounds of his daughter, Samantha, working the phones with their horse trainers around the country and to the bustle of the indispensable Sandra DeSalvo busy with household chores. After spending a month in the hospital and in rehab, already Mace was having a good day.

With DeSalvo’s help he sat for awhile in his new therapeutic lounge chair (the “Made in USA” tag still dangling) and enjoyed a small cup of coffee. Moving with the deliberation of a man who didn’t quite trust the beating of his own heart, Mace had two scrambled eggs, then washed his face, combed his hair, and settled in to watch the races from the East on the hi-def big screen commanding a corner of the main room.

And that was it.

A couple of hours later, the great and good life of Mace Siegel came to an end. It was “quittin’ time,” as he liked to say, always at the end of a memorable evening stocked with friends, food, and Frank Sinatra. “Quittin’ time” because every party had to end, or how else could the next one possibly begin?

Siegel spent a good portion of his 86 years making money in real estate and indulging his passion for Thoroughbred racing. He became a respected leader in both arenas, as much for his quiet persuasion as for any financial clout he brought to bear.

Descended from Austro-Hungarian dairy farmers who eventually settled in Brooklyn, Siegel embraced horse racing long ago, at the racetracks of New Jersey and New York, where he met and fell in love with his future bride, Jan Winston, on a blind date at Aqueduct.

Together, Jan, Mace and daughter Samantha cut a memorable swath through the sport. The house they shared sparkles with the plates and cups, the silver trays and handsome doodads representing 40 years at serious play in the game.

Jan, who died in 2002, got the ball rolling with good horses in the late 1970’s with California stakes winners Ardiente and Singular. Let the record show that the Siegels went from that point to see their name listed among the winners of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Hollywood Futurity, the Hollywood Starlet, the Santa Anita Oaks, the Hopeful, the Spinaway, the Sorority, the Strub, the Pennsylvania Derby, and the Delaware Handicap, and many other historically significant events.

Ron Ellis has trained for the Siegel family longer than anybody.

“I’ve been asked by reporters what Mace was like as an owner, and I tell them that he understood racing better than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Ellis, who trained the Siegels’ champion 2-year-old of 2004, Declan’s Moon. “But that represents such a small part of what Mace truly was,” Ellis added. “He meant so much to so many people you couldn’t begin to count them all.”

Bill Beatson, Siegel’s closest friend, met him at lunch in New York in 1967. The business they did that day led not only to the development of the Annapolis Mall, in Maryland’s capital, but also to a lifetime of good fun, mutual admiration, and real estate deals that changed the face of the American landscape.

“We traveled the country,” Beatson said. “I could name more places than you could count.”

Beatson recalled one trip in particular that tested his and Siegel’s culinary boundaries.

“We were in Vicksburg, Mississippi, once, and to buy the shopping center we wanted we had to go to this restaurant on the river for lunch,” Beatson said. “We had catfish. They served the whole catfish – head, eyes, whiskers and all. Mace somehow kept a straight face.”

Siegel, in fact, was a red meat and potatoes man.

“Yeah,” Beatson said, “but we had to eat the friggin’ catfish because we wanted to buy this piece of real estate from them.”

Siegel made his fortune in the acquisition and renovation of aging shopping centers, then spent a good hunk of that fortune on building hospital wings, funding endowments and educational grants, and helping all manner of charities.

“Mace would always see the big picture,” Beatson said. “He had an ability to get to the bottom line of the thing quickly, without the b.s. and the natural obstacles that most people throw in their way.”

In late December of 1958, when Siegel was 33, he found himself in the stands at Yankee Stadium for the NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. Sports historians like to call it the greatest football game ever played – there were 12 future Hall of Famers on the field that day – ending as it did in 23-17 Baltimore victory after a 13-play, 80-yard drive engineered by Johnny Unitas in sudden-death overtime.

Siegel was a Giants fan, but to hear him talk about the game years later you would think he’d sold the Colts their shoes.

“Watching Ray Berry and Lenny Moore perform that day was a privilege,” Siegel would recall. “That’s the way the game was meant to be played.”

Siegel took such things to heart. He saved his greatest appreciation for those who could imbue complex endeavors with grace and style, in sports, in business, in the arts.

“He liked the game and he liked the teams, but his interest was primarily focused on the athlete,” said Beatson, who is a part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles and once served on the board of the Maryland Million with Jim McKay.

“I’ll never forget watching tennis, the U.S. Open, and Mace said he couldn’t enjoy the men’s game anymore,” Beatson noted. “ ‘How much harder can you hit the ball?’ he said. ‘Look at the women – they’ve got to know all the shots and play them well. That’s my kind of game.’ ”

Earlier this year, Siegel underwent surgery to implant a pacemaker.

“You can’t believe how much better I feel,” Siegel said after the procedure. “Now if we can just win a few races.”

Siegel celebrated his 86th birthday on Sept. 1 in the traditional fashion, taking over most of Red Tracton’s Restaurant across the street from Del Mar. Within the month, though, his cardiovascular problems flared anew.

“In talking about his health, he wouldn’t bitch and moan,” Beatson said. “He didn’t have time for that. He would really talk about it, like he was trying to understand how to solve a problem. I told him how incredibly proud I was of him, working so hard to start walking again, because he’d become so weakened in the hospital.

“I’ve been talking for two solid days to people I wanted to call with the news before they read it in the Wall Street Journal or somewhere,“ Beatson added. “Now what I feel is sadness. But more than anything else it’s an empty void. I only hope everyone knows how lucky they were that Mace was part of their lives. I think they do.”