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Give Back to Mattress Mack

by Jeremy Plonk

November 27, 2017

The most impactful Thoroughbred racehorse owner of 2017 has been Jim McIngvale, and it’s not even a close race. When the Sport of Kings honors its “Best of ‘17” at January’s Eclipse Awards, there ought to be a hardware handoff to a guy who made Houstonians’ lives better this year, all the while making each of us better from afar who watched his grace under fire.

Mattress Mack’s on-track performance has been markedly down this year. In fact, through Thanksgiving weekend he was 0-for-14 with his starters. This was no 2015 for him at the races to be sure; that year his Runhappy blitzed through the Breeders’ Cup and earned champion sprinter honors. He’s won 16 percent of his races with more than 1,000 starters dating back to a 1997 debut in the owner’s box.

But McIngvale’s 2017 taught us way more about life than we ever deserve to get from watching anyone’s horses run around a circle. His quick and honorable actions following Hurricane Harvey literally brought food and shelter to thousands of residents of greater Houston when he opened the doors to his Gallery Furniture store. He did what local, state and federal governments often are responsible to provide; and he did it decisively and with open arms and heart.

This wasn’t Mack’s first act of charity. In 2005, he also opened his stores to a few hundred displaced Louisiana residents who fled Hurricane Katrina. And just last week, he served an estimated 5,000 local diners a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, ham and all the trimmings with the help of 500 volunteers. In-between he paid for Harvey first responders to attend the World Series, won by the hometown Houston Astros. For once, we got a real feeling of what hometown heroes are all about. The Astros were a great sports story. But it was McIngvale who proved heroic.

What makes Mack so deserving of a 2017 Eclipse Award is two-fold. His philanthropy has been inspiring and worthy of praise, no doubt. But the racing industry could benefit its own soul by embracing McIngvale. Most in this industry got Jim McIngvale wrong. Very wrong.

In his early days of free-spending and limited success on the big Thoroughbred stage – horses like Wimbledon and During led the charge – the racing establishment laughed at McIngvale. He went through trainers quickly (firing Hall of Famers Nick Zito and Bob Baffert), then employed completely unconventional non-racing people in their place like night watchman Leonard Atkinson and his sister-in-law, Laura Wohlers. Mattress Mack was roundly dismissed as a buffoon not worthy of the Thoroughbred industry’s stage. When I called Gallery Furniture and interviewed him for ESPN.com in 2004, he dead-panned: ”Hell, it’s my money. We had fun with Laura and Leonard Atkinson. They said we went from a Hall of Fame trainer to the night watchman. Well, screw you; that’s what we did.” 

And even in his greatest on-track glory and vindication, the 2015 championship year of sprint star Runhappy, the media and public relations narrative missed on Mack. Maria Borell, his young trainer, got all the sympathy, credit and adoration for Runhappy’s success, while vile rage was pointed at McIngvale when he fired her in the days after the Breeders’ Cup. As it turned out, her social media snapshots and “National Velvet” persona were a horrible ruse that duped nearly everyone…except Mattress Mack.

Honestly, it’s been appalling to witness some traditional racing media attach themselves to McIngvale in the wake of Harvey. They acted as though they’ve been in his corner all along, when, in reality, they simply were piggy-backing his coverage in mainstream places like Good Morning America and Time Magazine. They wanted the feel-good bump.

My thought in honoring Jim McIngvale with an Eclipse Award as outstanding owner or the Eclipse Award of Merit of 2017 is not for good publicity, but to make amends for being so damn wrong about someone. There’s not enough contrition in this world, and the first step toward Thoroughbred racing admitting its own faults and welcoming all to come embrace it, is to start with a fresh outlook on a past misjudgment.

The last time I interviewed McIngvale, he told me “Horses aren’t my business, furniture is.” But after seeing the outpouring of love he has shown his fellow man in 2017, we all now know that Mattress Mack is a lot deeper than either furniture or horses.

Those we shower with honors and awards ought to be as well.