- Published: Thursday, 13 March 2014 19:58
Every morning between 8:00 and 8:30 Arnold Heft would pick up his telephone and call trainer Tim Keefe to find out how his horses were doing. But two weeks ago, the calls stopped coming and Thursday morning Keefe and other members of the Thoroughbred community began learning that Heft, 94, had died.
“He loved his horses,” Keefe said. “But the last two weeks he didn’t call me. I was calling him and I began to prepare myself. I could see and hear the decline. I knew it was coming. Arnold was a wonderful man who loved his horses, loved sports and cared about people.”
Heft died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night at Sunrise at Fox Hill Senior Living Facility in Bethesda. A graveside service to celebrate Heft’s life will be held at 2 p.m., Friday, Mar. 14, at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, 14321 Comus Rd., in Clarksburg, Md. The family will receive friends afterward at Sunrise at Fox Hill, 8300 Burdette Road, in Bethesda.
Long time Maryland horse racing fans know Heft and his wife Sylvia for the campaigns of multiple stakes winners - Pulverizing, Baldski’s Choice, He Is Risen and Red’s Round Table among them. Most recently, the Hefts experienced what Arnold called “their happiest moments” in sports through the efforts of Eighttofasttocatch, a horse he named for Washington Capitals’ all-star Alex Ovechkin and a horse that delivered two Maryland Million Classic titles (2011 and 2013) and a Maryland-based Horse of the Year Award.
“Though I owned the Bullets and the Capitals with Mr. Abe Pollin, we never really had a champion (when Heft was involved in the partnership),” Heft said in the Winner’s Circle after Eighttofasttocatch won the Classic for the first time. “This has to be the biggest thing for my wife and me. This is my first real champion – and I’m 92 years old.”
Heft,was given the Maryland Racing Media Association’s highest award - the Humphrey A. Finney Award for lifetime contributions to the Maryland horse racing industry last year -, after owning thoroughbreds for decades. But his involvement in sports goes back much farther.
Born May 29, 1919, he grew up playing baseball. He began a minor league pitching career in that sport when he was 20, playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ Double-A International League team. He went 2-0 that season before moving on to other teams. His best season came in the D League in 1941 when he won 22 games for Owensboro, Ky. Over his five year career, he went 30-25.
Baseball and horse racing might have been enough for most people. But after finishing his baseball career, he became an NBA referee, running the floor from 1945 to 1961. A few years later, in 1964 he contacted Abe Pollin about buying the then-Baltimore Bullets. He, Pollin and Earl Foreman put a partnership together almost overnight and bought the team for $1.1 million.
Heft sold his stake in the Bullets in 1968, but as NBA Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld remembered Thursday, that wasn’t the end of his interest.
“I was coming to the Bullets as he was selling his ownership interest,” Unseld said. “But everyone knew Mr. Heft. Even though he wasn’t part of the ownership, he kept coming to our practices. He was always coming around on his way to or from visiting his horses, I think. He was just a real sportsman.”
And an understanding horse owner.
Keefe, his trainer for the last nine years, said Heft never put any pressure on him to win.
“When he was at the races, he’d see I’d get nervous,” Keefe said. “He’d pat my back and say, ‘This isn’t the only race . . . As long as the horse comes out of the race OK, that’s all that matters.’. He was always happy and always seemed to care more about the horses and the people around him than about winning, though he loved to win.
"He'd never want the horses to be rushed into a race and when he’d call me all those mornings, he’d never start out asking about his horses. He’d say, ‘How’s your wife?’ ‘How are your kids?’ My oldest boy is 12 and he was concerned my son was playing football. He’d been reading about contact sports and concussions and thought we might want to rethink football. And then, after all that, he’d say, ‘By the way, how are the horses?’
“He was a great guy. He loved his horses. He always wanted what was best for them.”
An example: Eighttofasttocatch was what trainers like to call “a handful” when Keefe first purchased the Not for Love gelding for Heft. But Keefe came up with the idea that a goat might calm him down. So Keefe brought Gigi, a pigmy goat, to live with the horse and the results, good ones, started piling up. Heft would laugh and shake his head at the very idea of Gigi, but he wasn’t about to tell Keefe the horse could do just as well without his companion.
“I have nothing to do with the goat,” Heft said, with a soft laugh. “That’s all Tim. But if it’s good for the horse, I’m all for it.”
Keefe said he has been in touch with Heft’s representative and given him a rundown of Heft’s stable of eight horses. He believes the operation will continue as usual for now.
“There will be a meeting with the family, but it sounds like we will continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We’ll run them until they’re done and then we’ll find good homes for them.”
As if scripted for an almost perfect send off, Heft has a filly scheduled to run Friday at Laurel. The horse’s name: “Don’t Stop the Party”.