By Dave Briggs
don’t come much bigger than Toronto real estate tycoon Marvin Katz
, but it wasn’t always champagne and winner’s circles in the horse racing game.
Katz has owned horses for more than 40 years, but the first two decades were relatively unremarkable. That was until 1997 when Dream Away won the $1 million Meadowlands Pace. That victory elevated Katz and partners Sam Goldband and Al Libfeld into the upper echelons of the sport where the trio have played ever since.
“The Meadowlands Pace win for Dream Away… was just beyond exhilarating,” Katz said in an interview in The Canadian Sportsman
in 2013. “We hadn’t had a lot of success prior to that. He was one of the favourites. He wasn’t a longshot, but he wasn’t the favourite. It was timely. It just made us feel that we could do it.”
Katz has had tremendous success in the standardbred business ever since thanks to a string of champions too long to mention; many he bred with Libfeld. That duo has been so successful their peers have voted them Canada’s Armstrong Bros. Breeder of the Year the last three straight years at the O’Brien Awards.
Katz and Libfeld recently retired their latest champion, a 4-year-old trotting mare named after pop star Ariana Grande — Katz and his wife, Lynne, are both fans. Ariana G earned $2.6 million, won two Breeders Crowns, the Hambletonian Oaks and the Elegantimage and posted a record of 26 wins in 40 career starts.
Katz said Ariana G — a daughter of top sire Muscle Hill out of Katz and Libfeld’s mare Cantab It All — is the complete package.
“(Ariana G) is unique to me, in that she combines almost everything that you’d want in a filly. She has a great pedigree, she has an incredible high speed that she can carry for a long distance and she has grace, talent and charisma,” Katz said, adding that Ariana G simply did what “most horses can’t do and don’t."
“That’s really what makes them so extraordinary, with each experience so unique. Poor posts, bad trips, bad conditions, they just sail through and they just win. They just win,” Katz said.
Even more incredible, Ariana G is the second straight filly out of Cantab It All to put up exceptional results on the track.
“One of the things that people have forgotten is that she was preceded by a magnificent filly called All The Time, who did nothing short of being a tick under a million dollars, won the Breeders Crown, won the Hambletonian Oaks and survived a massive, life-threatening event with colic. She survived emergency surgery to come back and compete in the Breeders Crown as a 3-year-old, even though she had surgery seven weeks prior. It makes it an even more enhanced experience because (Ariana G’s) sister, who was magnificent, preceded her,” Katz said.
“We have the uniqueness of winning the Hambletonian Oaks two years in a row with sisters – no one has ever done that before. The historic impact was one of the considerations for why we went into the Oaks instead of the Hambletonian (Ariana G). That’ll never be done again – to breed consecutive winners of the Hambletonian Oaks.”
In his professional life, Katz owns KG Group with Goldband, a private real estate company that has been in business for more than 40 years. KG Group’s holdings include owning and managing over 2,000 rental apartment units in Toronto.
A polished, articulate speaker, Katz is a silver-haired 70-year-old as happy talking apartment buildings as he is about chasing the ultimate dream of breeding his own Hambletonian winner (he won the Hambletonian in 2010 as a part-owner, not breeder, of Muscle Massive).
Born in Germany, Katz was five when the family moved to Canada and settled in Toronto.
Katz’s father, David, had a taxi business and owned a Gulf gas station on the corner of Queen St. and Larchmount that was about 10 blocks west of Greenwood Racetrack.
Early in his teenage years, Katz started going to the races with his father.
“After the night shift would get out, we would go to the track for a few races and try to pick the double,” Katz said. “Going to a Leafs game would have been too expensive and impossible to get a ticket. Going to the races was a far easier proposition.
“I can clearly recall going to Greenwood and watching Ron Feagan and Keith Waples. I’m aging myself. It was a great era for harness racing. I can remember when the Grand Circuit would come to town and Joe O’Brien and Stanley Dancer and Billy Haughton would come and good horses would be on display. My dad and I would be excited to go down. He’d get the program. We’d handicap the races. It became something that we did together, which I enjoyed.”
Katz met his future business partner, Sam Goldband, at Oakwood Collegiate where they played on the high school football team together. Katz was an all-city all-star as a linebacker and guard on a team that won the city of Toronto championship.
After high school, Katz briefly went to York University principally to play football. Later, he switched to the University of Toronto. He pursued political science, but left to start a career in real estate before earning his degree
In the real estate game, he started out buying gas stations and used car lots that he redeveloped into mixed-use buildings, essentially, “stores with apartments above.”
At the same time, Goldband was pursuing similar real estate ventures.
“We both went into it separately and did a couple of projects separately from each other and then pooled our resources after a couple of years and thought we could be a little more advanced by… building together,” Katz said.
Katz’s love of trotters — particularly trotting fillies — had been deeply ingrained in those early Greenwood years.
“The first horse I fell in love with was a trotting filly named Ima Lulu. I thought she was awesome,” Katz said. “When she came to Toronto, I think she had already won six or eight in a row. She was a monster. I was young and it seemed like she would be the kind of horse you would just love to own. She was a great horse. She had a long career. She went on to race against the colts.”
In fact, Ima Lulu and Joe O’Brien won the 1977 Maple Leaf Trot against the boys at Greenwood in a moment that would foreshadow the future for Katz.
Twenty-nine years later, a trotting filly named Peaceful Way — owned, in part, by Marvin Katz — also beat the boys in the Maple Leaf Trot.
Katz began owning horses in his mid-20s when he bought a horse trained by Charalambos Christoforou, father of driver Chris Christoforou.
“I always knew if the opportunity presented itself I would like to own horses and I’d like to do that. As my financial capacity permitted, I started doing it at a pretty young age.”
More than four decades later, Katz still is one of the most enthusiastic owners in any winner’s circle after a stakes race.
“There’s many parts to (horse ownership) and everybody wants different things in their personal experience. For me, it’s the competition,” Katz said. “We compete at a very high level and are fortunate to have the ability to do so… certainly I’ve made friends with people who I enjoy very, very much now. And the sense of accomplishment, doing something that is incredibly difficult, against the odds… it feels like winning the Stanley Cup, winning the Super Bowl, when you win some of these major events. It’s comparable to that.”
Katz said breeding his own champions takes that feeling of accomplishment to a higher level.
“It’s really consistent with my own professional experience – creating buildings and communities from just an idea or vision and then to go through the entire process. It creates a vertical company in the sense that you have the idea, you buy the filly, you race her, you decide on the mating, you participate in the raising of the foal, then you race it — if it’s something you maintain ownership in — through its racing career,” Katz said.
As for how to attract and retain new horse owners, Katz said he’d like to see a mentorship program established in Ontario in which new owners could pick the brains of experienced, successful owners such as himself, Libfeld, Brad Grant, Clay Horner and others.
“There could be half a dozen or so that would be available and be a resource for people for them to ask the questions they want, not just explicitly relying on trainers or friends to guide them into the process, but people that are much more familiar to the nuances as a participant would be. It would also bring creditability,” Katz said.
“People who are articulate, intelligent and well-informed in the sport and could offer something to someone. It’s a resource that could be provided to people. For someone thinking about coming into the sport, talk to people that are comfortable and knowledgeable. I think that can only help.
“I do think if someone had three people (to consult) I think it would help people that wanted to participate and have the credibility of people that have no vested interest – I’m not a trainer, I’m not looking to be a trainer, I’m just looking to be helpful.”
Through it all, Katz said he never forgets that his early years as a horse owner yielded limited success.
“The years in the business make me appreciate when we accomplish something extraordinary,” he said. “We really appreciate it and recognize the challenges that you have to go through to accomplish that. We went through many years when we didn’t accomplish those things, so it just makes the taste of victory that much sweeter.”
Photos by Dave Landry