Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of Canada’s first million-dollar race

With the Pepsi North America Cup set for Saturday at Woodbine Mohawk Park, it is a perfect time to get Mark O’Mara’s memories about the 1987 North America Cup won by his trainee Jate Lobell.

by Bob Heyden

The 1987 North America Cup won by Jate Lobell was Canada’s first million-dollar harness race. And it was won by a nose over Frugal Gourmet.

Mark O’Mara was Jate Lobell’s trainer/driver and Joe McCluskey of Battle Creek, MI owned the son of No Nukes from that sire’s first crop.

Recently, we caught up with O’Mara, now 65, who had fond memories of Jate Lobell and the NA Cup win of 35 years ago.

You had been in Canada prior to the NA Cup. How was your experience that summer?’

“Well, we went to Greenwood and Flamboro and Blue Bonnets. I got married (to Martha) the day after the New Jersey Classic (where Jate Lobell set his lifetime mark of 1:51.2 defeating Run The Table at the Meadowlands). Then the day after that, I left for Canada for a while with Jate Lobell. They — the tracks and the management — were quite gracious. I would say they rolled out the red carpet for us. Jate Lobell, he was a rock star by that time. His profile had built up quite a bit from 2-3. Everybody wanted to know Jate, to meet him. It was quite a time.”

Did you say Rock Star?

“Yes. Being 16-for-16 at 2 can do that. His reputation grew off that season for sure.”

How did you come to get Jate Lobell?

“We went to the Garden State Sale to get a trotter. That year there was a lot of buzz about the first crop of No Nukes. He was well supported. But I knew that No Nukes was fast, but also erratic. Because of that, we weren’t looking particularly at his (offspring). It just kind of worked out and he fit into our budget. As it turned out, we wound up with the best one. To be honest with you, we thought we bought a raceway horse, maybe one for the New Jersey Sires Stakes.”

Jate was 16-for-16 at 2 the same year Forrest Skipper was 15-for-15 and voted Horse of the Year.

“We hadn’t staked him to a lot at 2. He was not Breeders Crown eligible. We did supplement to the Kentucky Pacing Derby and that was a big race for us. By the end of the year it seemed everybody wanted Jate Lobell — Lou Guida included.”

Joe McCluskey owned. How was he dealing with all the new found notoriety and attention?

“He was kind of a nervous guy to start with. The pressure was with him mostly, not so much me. I really didn’t have any. Especially at 2. Joe was now talking to a lot of people and eventually his new partners. The deal to syndicate him was made between 2 and 3.”

For 2 to 3, was there a big difference in Jate Lobell?

“He grew into himself. He never did have the weight I wanted on him, but that was because we raced him a lot back then. Today they have shorter schedules. As a 3-year-old he was not a big horse, but thick and muscular. It seemed that a different horse was coming at him each week at 3. That wasn’t the case at 2. One was better than the next. They caught up to him somewhat at 3.”

What was Jate Lobell’s best quality?

“He covered the ground easily. A natural? Yes. Easy gaited. Light on his feet. You were going faster with him than you felt. From the start, he seemed to do things easier than the others. Ralph Lunsford deserves a lot of the credit early with Jate. Jate was in Florida initially with dad (Frank) but Joe McCluskey had another horse and wanted to be able to see them both train. Lexington was closer to Michigan than Florida. So, that is where he wound up training down at 2. I didn’t get him until a month or so before he raced at Maywood. “

Were you “on the map” prior to Jate Lobell?

“I don’t think so. We had done all right up until then. My father might have been, but not me.”

Take us to the North America Cup. You were the first odds-on favorite (35 cents on the dollar) in the North America Cup, which was in its fourth year. So, basically, you were supposed to win.

“I didn’t know when we crossed the wire. Frugal Gourmet was on my back and had been getting sharper. It was a great experience.”

In the fourth straight NA Cup photo, Jate Lobell held on a nose. He returned $2.70 to win in a nine-horse field starting from post 1. The fractions were: :27.3, :55, 1:23.3 and 1:52.3. It was a new NA Cup record by nearly two full seconds.

Jate was seventh in the Meadowlands Pace three weeks later after getting stuck in New Jersey Turnpike traffic earlier.

He wasn’t undefeated at 3, but was easily the 3YOCP of the year and banked $1.6 million — for a $2.2 million career that led to the Hall of Fame.

“I’m quite proud of the Hall Of Fame for him. I know he sired three winners of the North America Cup in his first few years (1992-Safely Kept, 1995-Davids Pass and 1997-Gothic Dream) but I am especially proud of the broodmares that are carrying on his name,” O’Mara said.

“Jate Lobell was the first horse we had that could go the whole route. Remember that in 1987 I had Firm Tribute as a 2-year-old. Nobody paid much attention to him, but he was second in the 1988 Hambletonian from post 13.”