When Joe Lighthill lowered his whip, Ivan Axelrod nearly went speechless.
The date was Oct. 11. The location: Los Alamitos Race Course.
Lighthill, a veteran horse trainer, was driving a sulky harnessed to Rowdy Mariah, a horse owned by Axelrod. As the sulky approached the finish line, Lighthill put aside the whip and let the horse finish without further coaxing. At that point, Axelrod knew he had a winner.
"It was the most exciting moment I've had in the horse racing business," Axelrod said. "As the horses were turning for home, I knew it would be close. It was kind of touch-and-go."
Not only did Rowdy Mariah win, the Ventura County gelding set a track record in the one-mile trot. Axelrod has had other winning horses during his nine years of breeding and raising them, but this triumph was the sweetest thus far.
"That was the first horse we both bred and raised," he said. "To see him win this kind of race was a culmination of what we are trying to do."
So what exactly is it that Axelrod and company are trying to do?
The answer comes in three parts. A visit to Axelrod's Mariah Ridge Farm in Upper Ojai provides the first part: They are trying to breed competitive racehorses.
The 13-acre property, which Axelrod and his wife, Nikki, bought in 1987, is home to six brood mares. The corral is situated in front of a new log cabin in which the Axelrods live when they aren't at their Tarzana residence.
According to the California Breeders Assn., Mariah Ridge is one of just two horse breeding operations in Ventura County. And the key to the operation is, of course, the mares. The horses they bear are auctioned off or kept with plans of training them to be winners.
Which leads to the second part of the answer: They are trying to become heavily involved in all aspects of standard-bred racing, as opposed to thoroughbred racing.
"Standard-bred racing is more of a family business than thoroughbred racing," Axelrod said. "It's not the sport of kings, it's the sport of everyone else. Standard is casual. It's not snobbish."
Ivan Axelrod, 44, has been hooked on horse-racing since he was about 9 years old, when he began hanging out at the race track with his father. In 1981, thanks to a nice income earned as a financial consultant with the national accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath, Axelrod was able to purchase some horses of his own.
Axelrod kept his horses in Riverside for the first six years and lived in Tarzana. But finally, wanting to have more control over the operation, he purchased Mariah Ridge.
"I felt I could have much more involvement with the business that way," he said. "Sometimes I even think of riding, but then I wake up."
Although most of the actual hands-on work in caring for the horses is the responsibility of farm manager Al Dubkin, Axelrod can talk convincingly about proper feeding, breeding and worming techniques.
Being a businessman on and off the ranch--he is president of Recreation World, which develops bowling alleys, roller-skating rinks and miniature golf courses--Axelrod says he is concerned about the condition of his on-the-hoof product.
"It's like with a human being," he said. "If a horse is raised without a lot of food, it's not as strong. They get sick. Worms can deteriorate the horse too. You're going to have an uphill battle. You're going to train a horse, and it's not going to reach its full potential."
Which leads to part three of the answer: Axelrod is trying to make money. Not only is it profitable to own a horse that wins a race, it's also profitable to have bred a winning horse.
The breeder of a horse bred in California gets 10% of any winnings, even after giving up ownership. So the more horses a breeder has out in the racing world, the more money there is to be made.
"You multiply it over the years and you have checks coming in every day, and there's no overhead," Axelrod said. "But it takes five to seven years to get where you want to be."
He compares the patience needed by a horse breeder to that of a parent. "It's like taking a son to the Super Bowl," he said.
"If we started today, it would be 11 months gestation period before we had a baby and then another two years before we race the horse." And even if the horse is sold, it does not leave the home feeding trough until it is 1 1/2 years old.
So far, Axelrod is pleased with his success. Four of the five horse he has raised have gone on to race and the other was sold for $7,500.
And having a good business sense, he knows how to market himself.
Folks in the horse-racing business know him as the western regional representative of the U.S. Trotting Assn. He is also a member of the board of directors of both the Western Standard Bred Assn. and the California Harness Breeders Assn.
But, perhaps more importantly, he is also known from his horses' names. Each one carries the name of the farm, Mariah.
"I was driving up Pacific Coast Highway one day and the radio was playing, 'They Call the Wind Mariah,' he said. "I always liked that name."
UP CLOSE IVAN AXELROD
Occupation: Horse breeder and entrepreneur.
Hobbies: Antique cars and traveling to the Caribbean islands.
How he chose to breed horses in Upper Ojai: "We looked everywhere from Lancaster to Palmdale to Acton. . . . We really fell in love with this area. There's lots of property in Lancaster, but Lancaster is a desert."
On the difference between winning and losing a race: "When you win, everyone congratulates you when you walk down toward the winner's circle. When you lose, it's just kind of on to the next race. There isn't any consoling."