Remembering the late, great trotting king Mack Lobell.
by Dean A. Hoffman
Trainer Chuck Sylvester and driver John Campbell never quite knew which Mack Lobell would show up when he went behind the gate.
When Mack was good, he was great. No trotter could touch him.
When Mack was bad, he presented challenges that took all the skills of Hall of Famers Sylvester and Campbell.
I saw Mack at his best and his worst moments and he never ceased be marvel.
After Mack won the Elitlopp in Sweden in 1988, a European journalist said to me in the pressroom at the Solvalla track in Stockholm, “He’s like a horse from another planet.”
But I also saw Mack when his mind would wander and he lost — or nearly lost — races he should have easily won.
The internationally renowned trotter was put to sleep earlier this week at age 32. His home for many years was Menhammer Stud in Sweden, where he was treated like the royalty he truly was by owner Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg.
Mack won the Hambletonian, the Elitlopp twice, and set all sorts of speed records back in the 1980s. Most importantly, he won the admiration of every person lucky enough to see him. He was an outstanding sire, despite suffering from compromised fertility that was the birthright of many males from the Victory Song line. He will likely be best known for the contributions of his daughters as they are found in the pedigrees of many European stars.
He was not, however, a horse that inspired awe when you saw him. He didn’t look like a world champion. He didn’t look like much of anything. But Mack had the motor of a Maserati inside him.
Mack showed promise early as a freshman in 1986 and finished second in the Peter Haughton Memorial behind Ditka Hanover. A month later, the two met again at DuQuoin, IL.
I was standing at the finish line just inside the rail taking photos, and watched as Mack held a comfortable lead nearing the wire. Then suddenly he broke into a gallop.
I later told Campbell that I feared that I’d spooked Mack.
“Oh, no, his mind just starts to wander at times,” Campbell replied.
That wasn’t the only time Mack’s mind wandered. Like a bored but brilliant kid in a classroom, Mack often simply didn’t pay attention. He was at his best when he was in a dogfight with another horse’s nose right at his throatlatch.
Mack lowered the speed standard for freshman trotters to 1:55.3 at The Red Mile and later took the Breeders Crown handily. But it was his sophomore season that was truly remarkable.
He set a Hambletonian record of 1:53.3 in winning in straight heats, but kept things lively by scoring down on the pace before one heat and then breaking into a gallop the moment after he crossed the wire. Mack’s feet were stinging him, but he still got the job done.
Two weeks later he became the fastest trotter ever with a remarkable 1:52.1 mile at Springfield.
By then harness racing had come to expect the impossible from Mack. His victories were expected and often routine. It was his defeats and close calls that made things memorable.
Two weeks after setting the all-time speed standard, Mack dropped two heats in the World Trotting Derby to Napoletano. Three weeks later, he just edged out Spotlite Lobell at Delaware.
He’d won the Yonkers Trot and Hambletonian and was expected to become the first Triple Crown winner since Super Bowl in ‘72 by winning the 1987 Kentucky Futurity. But Napoletano nailed him deep in the stretch that day to deny Mack the crown.
Was Napoletano now the better colt? Anyone who suffered from those illusions learned otherwise in the Breeders Crown at Pompano when Mack won by an astonishing 12-and-three-quarter lengths in a record time of 1:54.1.
With ‘87 Horse of the Year honors in hand, Mack went off to stud bearing a genetic handicap as his patrimony. His great-great grandsire Victory Song was never a robustly fertile stallion and the same was true for his son Noble Victory. It was a curse that carried on through Mack’s grandsire Noble Gesture and sire Mystic Park.
When fertility tests were poor, Mack was put back in training and aimed at Mission Impossible across the ocean. He would have some prep races in May and cross the Atlantic to tackle the monsters of Europe in the Elitlopp.
I recall seeing Mack’s ‘88 debut at Raceway Park and clearly trainer Chuck Sylvester was nervous. He is a native of northwest Ohio and got his start at Raceway and the Ohio fairs. He felt enormous pressure in front of his old friends and was positioned to make a quick escape if Mack did something silly.
Chuck need not have worried. Mack was supersonic, not silly. I watched the race with a trainer/driver who’d left the harness business and he was simply at a loss for words. “Campbell drove him like Mack was a free-for-all pacer,” he marveled.
Mack arrived in Sweden carrying a substantial reputation, and when Sylvester slated a training mile, there was a media frenzy to watch the marvel from America go.
But Mack didn’t go. Instead he went on strike. No amount of coaxing from Chuck, no amount of pushing or pulling from grooms, could make Mack move. Sylvester took him back to the quarantine area and called it a day. But later Sylvester told me that he “educated” Mack a bit the next day when they were not in the spotlight.
Mack was meeting one of the best Elitlopp fields ever. Expatriate Sugarcane Hanover had become a sensation in Norway and a friend told me at the time that Norwegian trotting fans had no doubt that they were seeing the best trotter in the world when Sugarcane humiliated his rivals in early spring.
Also, there was the indefatigable mare Grades Singing, International Trot winner Callit, and, yes, there was Mack’s old nemesis Napoletano.
Mack’s team was clearly worried. Not about his ability, but instead about his attitude. Veterinarian Ken Seeber was summoned to Stockholm to fire up Mack. Kenny told me later that prior to the race he shadowboxed with the champ to animate Mack’s mind and get him fired up.
I was standing in the infield near the middle of the backstretch before Mack’s elimination heat. Campbell jogged Mack the wrong way of the track, then slowed Mack to turn him.
Mack planted his feet, and didn’t move. Campbell, ever the professional, yelled at his horse and shook the lines. He didn’t want Mack to have much time to think.
Campbell won. Mack moved.
Mack really moved in the Elitlopp, totally destroying the best Europe had to throw at him.
I had breakfast the next morning at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm with Sylvester and owner Lou Guida, and they were deservedly basking in the moment.
“A horse named Mack,” mused Guida. “It’s so American.”
That horse named Mack broke Nevele Pride’s 19-year-old mark in early August on a twice around with a 1:56 win in the Breeders Crown at Saratoga.
If Mack could trot in 1:56 at Saratoga at night, how fast could he go over the soup-bowl at Delaware, OH, during the day?
Sylvester brought back to Delaware to find the answer. Campbell sent him to the front and set comfortable fractions for the first lap.
Then he put the whip on Mack’s tail. Mack’s hindquarters dropped noticeably and he began to flat-out fly. It was a stunning sight and he quickly opened a sizeable lead.
Into the far turn (near where Mack stabled), however, Mack began to slow and his margin narrowed.
In true Mack fashion, he’d simply lost interest. He couldn’t hear other horses, so he probably figured the race was over. Campbell had to remind him otherwise, and Mack rallied to win. But there was no world record.
Mack met his European foes again that fall in the March of Dimes Trot. Campbell sent him to the front and soon found the French monster Ourasi on his flank.
Rather than worrying about the pressure, trainer Chuck Sylvester was delighted.
“That’s just what Mack needed,” he said. “Another horse right at him to keep him interested.”
In deep stretch, however, Ourasi wore down Mack, but then both were swooped by the late surge of Sugarcane Hanover.
Mack was thereafter a Swedish horse, being purchased prior to the Elitlopp by a partnership headed by John-Erik Magnusson.
Mack spent much of the rest of his career in Europe, burning the candle at both ends by breeding and racing.
His daughters show up in the pedigrees of many top trotters such as Commander Crowe, Jaded, On Track Piraten, Sanity and Malabar Circle As.
The late Olle Jonsson, a longtime fixture at the ASVT (Swedish breeders association) told me he once advised Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg never to part with a daughter of Mack.
Mack even sired a daughter from a thoroughbred mare. When that daughter was bred to Mack’s old rival Spotlite Lobell, she produced the remarkable Human Behaviour, a trotting winner 40 times in 66 starts.
Many of Mack’s records have been erased, but those who saw Mack will never forget his brilliance.