08/28/2008 11:00PM

Siegel has karma to spare

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The idea of a charitable gesture being its own reward still seems to have legs. Do good/feel good is the basic equation. There are also those altruistic acts of gratitude, writ large, going far beyond the simple coverage of debts perceived. And then there is just good business, priming the pump with charity specifically intended to inspire change for the better in the way things are done.

Mace Siegel, whose Macerich Co. develops and operates shopping malls nationwide, pleads guilty to all three variations on the theme. Over the course of more than 40 years in the racing business, the success of his company has allowed his family to race such top runners as Urbane, Suave, Love of Money, Miss Iron Smoke, and champion 2-year-old Declan's Moon.

It was less than two weeks ago that Siegel could be found front and center at the fundraising poker tournament for the newly launched California Retirement Management Account. Created by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the Carma fund is designed to help finance Thoroughbred rescue and retirement operations that offer safe haven to hundres of discarded racehorses, most of them with extensive records of parimutual service at California tracks.

Siegel presided over a ceremonial opening hand at the Carma tournament, and found himself dealt face-up a royal flush in hearts. It was good theater, inspiring Siegel to double his intended donation to the cause.

"It had to be hearts, of course," Siegel said afterwards. "After all, we are talking about karma, and the fate of Thoroughbreds who serve us so well." This Monday at Del Mar, where the crowd will include a cadre of U.S. Marines wounded in action, Siegel, in his role as vice president of the TOC, will lead a chorus of gratitude and place a certain sum at the disposal of their commandant for the care and rehabilitation of his men.

"I'll feel guilty giving so little, because they've saved America so many times," Siegel said. "It will be my privilege to spend some time with them in the afternoon, then hopefully they'll be able to spend some time with me that evening."

Siegel will be celebrating his 83rd birthday Monday after the races in the company of not only those Marines, but also Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, another early September child. Siegel insists that the theme of the gathering - apart from the significance of the date - will be that "you don't need a reason to have a party." He's got that right.

However, any collaboration of Siegel and Nicholson - social or otherwise - deserves attention. Nicholson is spearheading Keeneland's move into the 21st century with an expansion plan that could position the privately owned sales and racing company in an even greater leadership role, a development applauded by Siegel, one of the original founders of the TOC.

Siegel was way ahead of his time in the 1980s when he formed an ad hoc organization called Thoroughbred Owners Against Drugs. There were TOAD bumper stickers and TOAD lapel buttons, and there is still the odd stack of TOAD letterhead in circulation. To hear Siegel intone the acronym in his basso profundo always raised a smile, but he wasn't kidding.

In more recent years, Siegel has lobbied for the control and direction of horse racing to remain in the hands of horsemen - not corporations - and he includes under that umbrella those with a visceral stake in the game, namely owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders.

"It's time to take the game back," Siegel vowed.

Siegel and his daughter/racing manager Samantha have pressing work on the racetrack this week as well, with a pair of promising 2-year-olds they bred in Kentucky.

On Monday, their colt Precious Package is scheduled to run in the closing-day Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. A son of Golden Missile out of a Silver Deputy mare, Precious Package turned in one of the most electrifying performances of the upstate summer with a 6 3/4-length maiden win on Aug. 2, over a group sprinkled with highly touted talent. Rick Dutrow trains.

"You never know, but he looked awfully good," Samantha Siegel said. "Indian Blessing's brother was in the field that day."

Later that same afternoon at Del Mar, the Siegels's Thunder Gulch colt Believe in Hope jumped up to win his debut by a length at a gracious 13-1, going 5 1/2 furlongs. Trainer Ron Ellis, hardly known for popping at first crack, had some explaining to do.

"I had no intention of him winning first time out, since I didn't think he was that type of horse," Ellis explained. "Being by Thunder Gulch, I figured he'd certainly get better going longer."

Such a view, of course, is prehistoric - and welcome. Young Thoroughbreds need experience, and Ellis is the kind of trainer who lets them have it when appropriate.

"I was raised around Charlie Whittingham," said Ellis. "Blame it on the way I was brought up."

Believe in Hope is running in the Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday, also a closing day.

"I'd trained his mom, Hope Rises, and she could sprint or go a middle distance," Ellis noted. "He's not a Declan's Moon type. He doesn't have that huge amount of ability, or the stride to go with it. But he's a very fluid mover, and he's about as smart a 2-year-old as I've ever trained. You could say that he just gets it."

Just like Mace Siegel.