By Bill Heller, Trainer Magazine
Many people wonder what they can do to help people in need. Other people just do it. That’s how Earle Mack, who received an Eclipse Award of Merit earlier this year for his contributions to Thoroughbred racing, has fashioned his life. So, at the age of 83, he flew from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, to the Hungary/Ukraine border to deliver food and clothing to desperate Ukrainian refugees who fled their homes to escape the carnage of Vladmir Putin’s Russian thugs.
“I’m going to the front,” he declared in early March. “I woke up and said, `I have to do my part.’”
He’s always done more than his part. Besides being an extremely successful businessman, he was the United States Ambassador to Finland. An Army veteran, he is helping veterans with PTSD through a unique equine program. He supports the arts. He is an active political advocate. And he has enjoyed international success with his Thoroughbreds—breeding and/or racing 25 stakes winners, including 1993 Canadian Triple Crown Winner and Canadian Horse of the Year Peteski, a horse he purchased from Barry Schwartz; $3.6 million winner Manighar, the first horse to win the Australian Cup, Ranvet Stakes and BMW Cup; and 2002 Brazilian Triple Crown winner Roxinho. Two of his major winners in the U.S. were November Snow and Mr. Light. And he founded the Man o’ War Project, which helps veterans with PTSD via equine-assisted therapy.
“I love my country,” he said. “I love the arts. And horse racing is in my blood.”
Literally, Ukraine is in his blood. He discovered through Ancestry.com that he is two-thirds Ukrainian. “My great grandfather fled Ukraine to go to Poland,” he said.
So he had to go to Ukraine.
“He’s an extraordinary man,” owner-breeder Barry Schwartz, the former CEO of the New York Racing Association and the co-founder and CEO of Calvin Klein, Inc., said. “I’ve known [Earle] a very, very long time. He loves the horse business. He’s extremely philanthropic. I’ve been on the board with him for the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University [where Earle served as chairman for 14 years]. I get to see a different side of him. He’s smart. He’s articulate. He’s a class act.”
In early March, Mack, a trustee of the Appeal Conscience Foundation, called owner/breeder Peter Brant (a fellow member of that foundation) and former New York State Governor George Pataki (whose parents are Hungarian) to head to one of the most dangerous locations on the planet. Brant supplied the plane. His wife, Stephanie (Seymour), brought 40 big duffle bags of clothing, “She spent over $30,000 buying the clothes,” Mack said. “I took clothes off my racks. I brought all the fruit that we could find and a couple boxes of chocolate.”
The delegation landed on March 10th, two weeks after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and began an unforgettable experience. Displaying yet another talent, he wrote about his trip in an op-ed published by The Hill, an American newspaper and top political website, on March 16th:
“How would you feel, in this day and age, if you were fleeing your home with only the few things you could carry in freezing winds and winter temperatures? How would you feel sitting in your car for 17 hours, waiting to cross a border, all the while worried that the sound in the sky above might be a missile or bomb bringing certain death? How would you feel trapped in your basement or a public bomb shelter, food and water running out, afraid to leave and face death? How would you feel if your city was under attack and you watched as civilians were shot up close by Russian soldiers and neighborhoods were rubbled from faraway artillery? How would you feel leaving your fathers, husbands and brothers behind to fight against impossible odds?
“This is what I have wondered, listening to heartbreaking stories that have brought me to tears, told by Ukrainian refugees on my recent trip to the Hungarian border and into the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo, where hundreds of thousands have fled the war with Vladmir Putin’s Russia.”
Mack went on to share his experience of Ukraine, “Ukraine has cold winds. Thirty-five feels like 15. Lots of hills and farmland. Peter and his 17-year-old daughter stayed at the border. We went into Mukachevo, a city of about 20,000 to 25,000 people. At that point—two weeks into the war—there were more than 500,000 people in that area, hoping that there’s something to go back to.
“We went into a children’s hospital ward filled with children. We looked at a COVID ward with kids lying down. We went into a school converted into a dormitory. We saw all these kids, ages two to eight with their mothers. Men, 16 to 65, weren’t allowed to cross the border. The kids were crying. Not much to eat. We brought in the fruit. We brought in the chocolate.
“I started handing out the chocolates. These kids ate all the chocolate. I have the empty box. I put it on one of the six-year-old kid’s head and started singing, `No more chocolates; no more chocolates.’ That kid takes the empty box and puts it on another kid’s head. They’re all singing, ‘No more chocolates; no more chocolates.’ When I was leaving, the director of the center came running after me and said this is the first time they laughed in two weeks.”
Mack wrote of this bittersweet moment in his story in The Hill: “As we prepared to leave, there was a 12-year-old girl who literally begged me to take her with us. I can’t describe how hard it was to walk away from this young girl whose life is forever changed.”
This from a man whose life is forever changing.
Terry Finley, the CEO of West Point Thoroughbreds, said, “Although we’ve never owned a horse together, we try to make a point to spend a couple of races at Saratoga, just the two of us in the box. I pick his brain. He’s such a good person. He’s got a world of knowledge. He’s a fun guy. He’s a caring guy—as cool a guy as there is in the industry.”
One of four boys born in New York City, Earle’s father, H. Bert Mack, founded The Mack Company, a real estate development company. Earle was a senior partner of The Mack Company and a founding board member of the merged Mack-Cali Realty Corporation. He has served as the chairman and CEO of the New York State Council on the Arts for three years and produced a number of plays and movies. His political action included an unsuccessful attempt to draft Paul Ryan as the 2016 GOP presidential candidate.
His entry into horse racing was rather circuitous. He learned to ride at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club in North Tarrytown, N.Y. “All the juniors and seniors were allowed to use the trails at Sleepy Hollow County Club,” he said. “I was 16, 17. I got to ride on the course. That’s how I learned to ride.”
Just after graduating college, he returned to Sleepy Hollow. “One day, I was dismounting; the riding master who taught me how to ride came over to me and said, `I’m very sorry to tell you this, but my wife has cancer and needs surgery. I need $2,500 to pay for surgery.’ He owned a horse who won a race up in Canada.”
Mack went inside with him to examine the horse’s papers. “I said, ‘I’m buying a $5,000 horse for $2,500’; I bought it on the spot. I thought this sounds like a good deal. The horse’s name was Secret Star. He stayed in Canada and raced at Bluebonnets and Greenwood. The horse won about $20,000.”
Flush with excitement, Mack bought four horses from George Kellow. “They did well. I said, ‘This game is easy.’”
He laughs now—well aware how difficult racing can be. That point was driven home in the late 1960s after Mack had graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Fordham School of Law. He served in the U.S. Army Infantry as a second lieutenant in active duty in 1959 and as a first lieutenant of the Infantry and Military Police on reserve duty from 1960–1968.
In the late 1960s, he was struggling with his Thoroughbreds. “My horses weren’t doing that well,” he said. “I bought two seasons to Northern Dancer. His stud fee was $10,000 Canadian. When the stud fee came due, I didn’t have the money to pay for it. I walked over to my dad’s office. I said, ‘I need a loan.’ He said, `No, you’re in the wrong business. Get out of that business.’”
Mack walked back to his office. “I started to think, ‘How am I going to get this money?’ Twenty minutes later, my father threw a check on my desk. Then he got down on his knees, and he said, ‘Son, sell your horses. Get out of this business. You’re not going to make money in this business.’”
He might have had a good thought. “The two Northern Dancers never amounted to anything,” Mack said.
That seemed like the perfect time to follow his father’s advice and give up on racing. But Mack stayed. “I just loved the business; I loved being there. I loved the horse. I loved the people. I just loved it—that’s why. I still love the sport. I love to go to the track. I love to support the sport. I love to help any way I can. I’ve given my time and my efforts to our industry.”
That list is long: Board of Trustees member of the New York Racing Association 1990-2004; chairman of the New York State Racing Commission (1983–89); member of the New York State Thoroughbred Racing Commission (1983–1989); member of the Board of Directors of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Corp (1983–89); and senior advisor on racing and breeding to Governor Mario Cuomo and Pataki.
The Earle Mack Thoroughbred Champion Award has been presented annually since 2011 to an individual for outstanding efforts and influence on Thoroughbred racehorse welfare, safety and retirement.
He has been a long-time backer of The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation.
In 2011, he established the Earle Mack Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Award. The first three winners were Frank Stronach, Dinny Phipps and famed chef Bobby Flay.
His brother Bill, the past chairman of the Guggenheim Museum and Guggenheim Foundation, also owned horses, including $900,000 earner Grand Slam and $500,000 earner Strong Mandate. But he did better with investments in art. “He bought art; I bought horses,” Earle said. “Guess who did better? Much better.”
But who’s had more fun? Mack bought Peteski, a son of 1978 Triple Crown Champion Affirmed out of the Nureyev mare Vive for $150,000 from Barry Schwartz after the horse made his lone start as a two-year-old, finishing fifth in an Ontario-bred maiden race on November 14, 1992.
After buying Peteski, Mack sent the horse to American and Canadian Hall of Famer Roger Attfield. Peteski and Attfield put together an unbelievable run: seven victories, two seconds and one third in 10 starts, finishing with career earnings of more than $1.2 million.
Mack told the Thoroughbred Times in October 1993, “Bloodstock agent Patrick Lawley-Wakelin originally called the horse to my attention. I’d always liked Affirmed as a stallion and together with my connections, we thoroughly checked the horse out before I bought him. I was lucky to get him. There were other people trying, too, but I had long standing Canadian relations and was able to move fast. They knew I was a serious player.”
All Peteski did was win the Canadian Triple Crown, taking the Queen’s Plate by six lengths; the Prince of Wales by four lengths and the Breeders by six. He followed that with a 4 ½ length victory in the Gr. 2 Molson Million. In his final start, Peteski finished third by a head as the 7-10 favorite in the Gr. 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.
“The thrills he’s given me are something money can’t buy,” Mack told Thoroughbred Times. “One of the reasons for staying in Canada for the Triple Crown was because of the wonderful and nostalgic feelings of my youthful days spent racing there. This is the greatest horse I’ve ever owned.”
Mack would race many other good horses, but the ones who may have had the greatest impact are the anonymous ones he helped locate who participated in the Man o’ War Project—perhaps Mack’s greatest gift. In 2015, out of his concern about the mental health crisis facing veterans, he created and sponsored the Man o’ War Project at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center to explore the use of and scientifically evaluate equine-assisted therapy to help veterans suffering from PTSD or other mental health problems. Long-term goals are to test that treatment with other populations. Immediate results have been very promising.
There is a sad reality about veterans: more die from suicide than enemy fire. The project was the first university-led research study to examine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy in treating veterans with PTSD.
“My love for the horse and my great respect and empathy for our soldiers bravely fighting every day for our country and not getting the proper treatment led me to do this,” Mack said. “Soldiers come home with the strain of their service on the battlefield. The suicides are facts. There was no science or methodology proving that equine-assisted therapy (EAT) could actually and effectively treat veterans with PTSD. All reports were anecdotal.”
The project was led by co-directors Dr. Prudence Fisher, an associate professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia University and an expert in PTSD in youth; and Dr. Yuval Veria, a veteran of the Israeli Armed Forces who is a professor of medical psychology at Columbia and director of trauma and PTSD at New York State Psychiatric Institute.
After a pilot study of eight veterans lasting eight weeks in 2016, 40 veterans participated in a 2017 study also lasting eight weeks. Each participant underwent interviews before, during and after the treatment period and received follow-up evaluations for three months post-treatment to determine if any structural changes were occurring in the brain. Each weekly session lasted 90 minutes with five horses, using the same two horses per each treatment group. The veterans started by observing the horses and slowly building on their interactions from hand-walking the horses, grooming them and doing group exercises.
“We take a team approach to the treatment,” Fisher said. “We have trained mental health professionals, social workers, equine specialists and a horse wrangler for an extra set of eyes to ensure safety during each session.”
The results have been highly encouraging. A 2021 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded “EAT-PTSD shows promise as a potential new intervention for veterans with PTSD. It appears safe, feasible and clinically viable. These preliminary results encourage examination of EAT-PTSD in larger, randomized controlled trials.”
Mack was ecstatic: “This is a scientific breakthrough. You could see the changes. It’s drug free. Before, you had to take more and more and more drugs. Before you know it, you’re hitting your family.”
The Man o’ War project works. It helps. It could possibly help a lot of people besides veterans. That would be the biggest victory of Mack’s remarkable life.
“That would be my Triple Crown,” he said.
Mack was asked how he does what he does in so many varied arenas. “Pure tenacity, drive and 24/7 devotion to the things that were important to me and public service,” he replied. “I’ve devoted my life to public service, my business, horses and the arts.”
And now, to Ukraine. Lord bless him for that.