Al Libfeld: From houses to horses

Al Libfeld: From houses to horses

May 10, 2020

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The book on a breeder and owner that has few equals.

by Murray Brown

Alexander Jacob Libfeld, AKA Al Libfeld, represents the fourth generation of his family to be involved in the construction business.

His great grandfathers founded a flooring business in Kielce, Poland, before Al’s parents moved to Little Rock, AK in 1950.

After a few years there, Al says his mother longed for real rye bread while pregnant with him and the family moved to Chicago where Al was born. The family continued in construction.

Al pursued his higher education at American University in Washington D.C where he spent two years. He then transferred to the University of Illinois.

He had an uncle in Canada, who told him about the opportunities available in the Toronto area. So in 1974, at the age of 22 and determined to make his way in the world with his wife Sheila, Al moved to Toronto originally as a drywall contractor for nine years. In 1983, he established Tribute Communities, an entity that was destined to become one of the biggest and most prominent home building companies in Ontario.

Prior to moving to Toronto, Libfeld describes himself as having always been a gambler, but in terms of horse racing, his attendance at the racetrack was minimal and his knowledge of horses perhaps even less. In Canada, he met his future lifelong friend and partner Marvin Katz who quickly interested him in the purchase of a yearling pacing filly named Keystone Hera. The filly cost $100,000 and was trained by Dr. John Hayes. She earned all of her purchase price back on the racetrack and was subsequently sold to Hanover Shoe Farms for the same amount that the partnership paid for her.

Al Libfeld was hooked.

He soon decided that he preferred trotters to pacers, not so much for the reasons that most people give: because of the natural beauty of their gait, the challenge and great sense of accomplishment associated with getting a good one and winning major races. Rather, he found more consistency in their pedigrees and not only did he feel that it was easier to find good ones but also that they had more intrinsic value. It wasn’t at all because he didn’t like pacers, but almost entirely because he found trotters less challenging.

Several years later, Libfeld and Katz became involved with Bart Glass who was to become not only a great friend, but also their advisor on all facets of the business.

Recently I had a long conversation with Libfeld. This is what I discovered.

How are the terrible times we are going through affecting you and your business?

“I’m doing well, mostly enjoying life here in my cottage on Lake Simcoe. Our construction business is classified as essential, so we are lucky.

“It hasn’t slowed us down at all. We still have our full staff at work. In addition to our primary business of building homes and condominiums, we have now expanded into constructing and owning apartment buildings. I’m still involved, but not as deeply as before. My son Steven is the CEO and is in charge.

“We do have a strong executive team that we now teleconference with every Wednesday.

“I don’t view the horse business as being quite as healthy. In fact, I am quite concerned about its short term health. Unless we get to racing soon and get our horses on the racetrack, especially the young ones on which so much has been invested, we can be in a heap of trouble. If last year’s yearling buyers don’t get a return on their investments, it will almost certainly adversely affect the prices of this year’s yearling crop resulting in great damage to our breeders.”

Let’s talk about some of the people you are and have been associated with.

Bart Glass – “If there was a turning point in our transition from people who liked the business, liked horses and breeding our own, it came with our association with Bart. Bart was not only an extremely knowledgeable horseman, he was also a visionary. Much of our success we have today owes its genesis to Bart. He was not only able to evaluate bloodstock at a given point in time, but was also able to predict to a great degree how they would influence future generations.”

Perry Soderberg – “After Bart passed, Perry came along. There are very few, if any areas of the business in which Perry does not have excellence.

“His eye is at least as good as Bart’s was. In addition, he has so much hands on experience in every phase of the business. He likely looks at more yearlings than anybody else and he also knows their families cold. Chances are that he has looked at the dam and the grandam of most of the horses he looks at. He is an invaluable member of every aspect of our team.”

Marvin Katz – “A great guy and a great friend and partner. He is fair, bright, trustworthy and a fun person to spend time with. There is no doubt that I wouldn’t be in the business if not for him.”

Sam Goldband – “One sweet human being. He isn’t involved to the extent that Marvin and I are. He is a great friend and a good partner.”

Let’s talk about your trainers.

Jimmy Takter – “I know he’s retired. But he is still around. Certainly the greatest trainer of this generation and has to be included in any conversation of the greatest of all time.”

Nancy Takter – “A chip off the old block. Her success thus far has been incredible. She is much like her dad in that she is extremely focused and detail oriented. There’s always the thought in the back of my mind that if she encounters an insurmountable problem she has access to a man who is capable of conquering the insurmountable.”

Per Engblom – “Another graduate of perhaps harness racing’s greatest school. Per worked many years as Jimmy Takter’s number one man. In addition, he ran his own successful stable in his native Sweden.”

Julie & Andy Miller – “I first met them while we were in Sweden with John Bax, at the Elitlopp. We bought a filly from them and each year we’ve had at least several horses with them.”

John Bax – “He and his son Matt are wonderful horsemen and great people. John is a friend with whom I usually have a couple of trotters.”

What do you like most about the sport?

“Just about all of it that relates to the horses themselves. The challenges involved in breeding. Getting foals and seeing them grow into yearlings. Then it’s extremely satisfying to see them become successful on the racetrack. We have a strict policy of selling all of our colts and keeping a few of our better fillies that we hope one day will become great broodmares.”

What do you like least?

“Like just about everybody else, the bad actors which most industries have, but seems to be highlighted in ours. Hopefully these recent FBI arrests will take care of ridding us of some of them and scare others from straying to the dark side. All most people want is a fair playing field.”

Just from my observation, you seem to favor and find more pleasure in breeding, while Marvin seems to prefer racing.

“Actually, we enjoy both, but to varying degrees. I would guess that I favor breeding on a 60-40 ratio, while Marvin probably favors racing by that same ratio.”

Who are your three favorite horses?

“In order: Ariana G, Stubborn Belle and Armbro Monarch. They are all females. They represent the future in what we intend to do. I try to always look ahead.”

What has been your biggest thrill?

“Just the knowledge that we have made an impact — our overall success. Our earning the Proximity Award last year gave a great deal of credence to it.”

What has been your biggest disappointment in the business?

“In our early years of selling yearlings, it seemed like we were just giving them away. I don’t know if the product wasn’t that good, although we felt it was. Perhaps, as you suggested, maybe the fact that we also raced affected the public’s confidence in what we were selling. However, once it was firmly established that we were market breeders and that all of our colts were for sale, then they started selling much better. I suppose their success on the racetrack probably had a lot to do with it.”

What’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done in this business?

“Relying on Bart Glass and now Perry Soderberg to lead us in the right direction. Part of being smart is knowing what you don’t know and finding those abilities in others.”

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?

“When Captaintreacherous was a yearling I was offered a substantial piece of him and I turned it down. I can’t or maybe don’t want to remember why, but I sure missed the boat on him.”

Let’s talk about Maverick.

“It wasn’t difficult to determine that he was an exceptional colt. Even Stevie Wonder could see that. It was the general consensus that he was the best colt in the sale. I didn’t really think that he could reach a million dollars, because I had my doubts that there was that much money out there that people were willing to spend on a yearling. My expectations were somewhere in the $700,000-$800,000 range. BUT if there was someone willing to go a million on a yearling, I felt that he would be the horse that would bring it. As it happened, he wasn’t the only one, but he was the first.”

How about Maverick’s brother Greenshoe?

“Up until Maverick, Greenshoe was the best yearling we ever raised. His success on the racetrack was a source of great pride and satisfaction to us. When he was syndicated to stand at Hanover Shoe Farms, we purchased eight shares in him. Other than Hanover itself, I think we bought more shares in him than anyone else.”

What pleases you most other than your two businesses.

“Sitting here in my summer cottage enjoying life, hopefully in the company of my two children and grandsons.”

What special friendships have you made in the business?

“Quite a few, but especially with Jimmy Glass, Bart’s son, and Kentuckiana Farms’ Bob Brady and their respective families. The Glass family raise our yearlings and Kentuckiana Farms keeps our broodmares and represent our yearlings at the sale. They are all great people.”

Despite all the success you have achieved in life, you have also been subject to an inordinate number of physical challenges and personal tragedies. Would you want to speak about them?

“No one is immune to tragedy and personal hardship. You have two choices: either you give up and just fade away or you do your best to live with life’s afflictions. You need to pick yourself up and go forward.”

I’m making Al Libfeld commissioner of Harness Racing. What are you going to do?

“I think the one thing we need above all others is unity. We need one set of rules. I understand the notion of states’ rights and individual states powers, but it can’t be that hard for all the commissions to get together and establish one set of rules and guidelines including medications that the entire industry needs to work by.”

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