11/13/2007 12:00AM

Pacer leaves legacy on, off the track

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - This is about a horse you never heard of, even though he has won 27 races, $2,122,376, and built 15 homes for the poor in Haiti. He has a street named for him in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

His name is Lis Mara and he is a pacer, harness racing's older pacer of the year last year in both the United States and Canada. He was retired at the end of October after finishing first or second 40 times in 63 starts, racing week in and week out against the best pacing horses in the world.

He was bred by Tim Rooney, who with his brothers owns Yonkers Raceway in New York and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he was named for the Rooneys' close friend, the late Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants.

Rooney, who has raced harness horses for decades, sold Lis Mara as a yearling in 2003. The owner who bought him thought he would have to go to $100,000, but his trainer paid only $12,000.

The owner, Andy Willinger, owner and CFO of a Cummins engine distributor, was at his daughter Meggie's softball game in Louisville, Ky., 60 miles away, when the trainer called and said, "You need to get up here to Lexington because there must be something we missed, something wrong with him. But I do have two buyers willing to give us a profit."

Willinger and Meggie took off and when they got to Lexington, Willinger got the colt out of the stall and said, "Well, he's perfect. Let's have some fun."

He told his buyers: "Sorry, he's not for sale."

It would be nice to write that Lis Mara was an immediate success, but as a 2-year-old he started only nine times, won once, and was second once, earning $5,447.

At 3, he improved, winning seven races and finishing first or second 12 times in 20 starts, while earning $175,089. Early in spring 2006, he finished next-to-last in a race, and providence stepped in.

Mike Gulotta, a major harness horse owner who is chairman of Chicago-based AonConsulting USA, an insurance brokerage and human resource consulting business, got a call from a friend and scout in Canada, Gerald Bloch, saying he found a horse Gulotta should consider. Coincidentally, Gulotta's trainer, Erv Miller, was in Canada, only a few miles away, due to take a plane that day. He rushed over, looked at the horse, and called Gulotta.

"You need to own this horse," he said.

It was Lis Mara.

Gulotta says Miller, harness racing's trainer of the year in 2005 and North America's leading harness trainer this year, is very understated, humble, and quiet.

"He never said that before," Gulotta said.

So, Gulotta called Willinger. The two had never met. Willinger's business is numbers, and he's good at it. He told Gulotta he wanted $245,000 for a 70 percent interest in the horse. He and his accounting partners would retain 30 percent.

"Sold," Gulotta told him.

Erv Miller took over training, and Lis Mara wound up earning $967,485 last year. He added another $974,355 this year.

But the real story is not the horse. It is the men who own him. Gulotta, 56, and Willinger, 47, are cut from the same bolt of cloth, both born humanitarians.

Willinger and his wife, Reggie, have five children, but two years ago they adopted a special-needs child, Camille, from an orphanage in southern China. They named her Cami, and a year after leaving China, she was standing with the Willingers and their other children in the winner's circle at the Meadowlands.

"God works in a special way," Willinger says. "They told us she had nerve damage from birth and would probably never be able to use her right arm. When we got her in the government office over there and they handed her to me, she squeezed me, with her right arm."

Gulotta and his wife were in church in Montreal last year, just before Lis Mara won the Canadian Pacing Derby, and saw a sign for a program called Food for the Poor that was building houses in Haiti.

He told his wife, "If he wins, we'll build a house."

He did, and after that, Gulotta built three for every victory, and got to 15 before retiring Lis Mara last month.

Gulotta also owned the filly Worldly Beauty, who won $1.9 million, and will breed her to Lis Mara.

Together, Gulotta, Willinger, and their partners also have contributed tens of thousands to the Standardbred Retirement Fund, which has placed more than a thousand former racehorses in new homes.

"It's been one heck of a ride," Willinger said.