Montreal horse-racing legend Irving Liverman dies at 94

Montrealer Irving Liverman, who started selling light bulbs door-to-door, built Super Electric to a $35-million a year appliance business and was inducted into Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2002, died on Saturday, April 29, 2017.
Richard Arless Jr. / MONTREAL GAZETTE

Irving Liverman, an unassuming Montreal businessman who became one of most remarkable and enduring success stories in North American horse racing, has died at age 94.

Liverman died Saturday at his home in Hampstead, where he spent most of his life, never having fully recovered from a stroke in 2011.

Despite being unable to walk, he kept tabs until the end, via satellite television, on the exploits throughout North America of the racing stable he began in Montreal in 1969 and which his son, Herb, has managed with great success since the 1980s.

Horses owned or co-owned by the Livermans have won many of the biggest harness races in North America, including two of the richest — the Hambletonian and the Meadowlands Pace. Several of their horses topped $1 million in earnings. One, trotting mare Bee A Magician, made more than $3 million.

And it all began with an investment of less than $7,000 almost 50 years ago.

Liverman, who operated an appliance business called Super Electric, happened to meet leading local racehorse trainer Roger White through mutual acquaintances in 1969. White asked if he would partner with him in purchasing a young horse.

“I said okay. I was making a good living by then and I wouldn’t be depriving my family of anything by spending on a horse. But I didn’t want to pay more than $5,000,” Liverman recounted in a horse-racing publication.

The horse White purchased for them, for $4,000, was called Keystone Wish. She was ordinary, but provided enough thrills for Liverman to agree to a second purchase in 1970. This time, he upped the limit to $10,000.

White spent $9,500 to bring back a yearling called Silent Majority, who started his career with eight straight wins in 1971 and developed into one of North America’s leading pacers.

That fall, White invited Liverman to join him on a private flight to the yearling sales in the U.S.

“I was thinking about it,” he said in the interview, “but when I mentioned it to my mother, Ruth, who worked for me answering the phone, she reminded me it would be the Jewish high holidays.”

Liverman stayed home. White perished when the plane went down in the Pocono Mountains.

Racing for other trainers at 3, Silent Majority went on to earn more than $300,000 and, eventually, was syndicated as a stallion for more than $2 million, providing financial security to White’s widow, Aline, and their young children.

When Liverman followed up Silent Majority with a $12,000 purchase called Handle With Care, who won her first 24 races and would twice be named Canada’s horse of the year, he got a new nickname: Lucky.

“He genuinely liked racing, and we didn’t miss too many big races, especially in the early days,” said Herb, 70. “I remember him chartering a plane once just to go see Handle With Care race in Jonquière.”

Liverman’s remarkable track record got him elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2002. But there was so much more to the man than his success with standardbreds.

The youngest son of a Montreal clothing factory foreman, he went from selling light bulbs from the back of his car upon leaving the air force after the Second World War to overseeing a multi-million-dollar appliance importing and distribution business. “My approach was trying to sell myself before trying to sell product,” he said.

One of Liverman’s early business contacts was Elmer Lach. The then-Canadiens star worked for a transport company in the off-season and Liverman gave him his company’s transportation contract for New York. Through Lach, Liverman met and befriended many Canadiens players and executives, including Jean Béliveau, Dickie Moore, Toe Blake and John Ferguson, who gave the introductory speech when Liverman was inducted to the horse racing hall of fame.

Friends remarked on Liverman’s gentlemanly nature, devotion to family and friends, generosity and loyalty. Longtime Montreal racing executive Michael MacCormac noted: “He did things for a lot of people in the (racing) industry and would say ‘don’t mention it,’ and he meant it. That’s the way he was.”

Montreal hockey writer Red Fisher, a friend of Liverman’s for more than 50 years, said in an interview published in 2000: “Irving is down-to-earth and has always loved people. He knows more of them in this city than I would ever hope to know. What’s remarkable about him is that the people he’s really friendly with extend from the best doctors and richest people in town to people some would describe as pretty low on the social scale. He’s just a great person, a gentleman in everything he does, always quick to help out friends in times of need.”

Predeceased in 2009 by Shirley, his wife of more than 60 years, Liverman is survived by his children Carol and Herb and their families. The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Paperman & Sons at 3888 Jean Talon W.