By T. D. Thornton
Robert John Lothenbach, a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who was a passionate booster of horse racing in his home state of Minnesota and also enjoyed success in the sport on the national level, has died unexpectedly. He was 64.
The Minnesota chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (MHBPA) announced his passing late on Monday. The cause of Lothenbach's death has yet to be publicly disclosed, and funeral arrangements are pending.
Shortly after Canterbury Park first opened in 1985, Lothenbach and three friends each put up $1,000 to claim a single horse. That partnership led to Lothenbach branching out on his own with a racing stable that grew to around 100 horses competing in his royal blue silks with red diamonds.
Lothenbach Stables, Inc., eventually won multiple leading ownership titles at Canterbury, and the operation morphed into a bloodstock venture that grew into a broodmare band of 30-plus.
Lothenbach's racehorses earned over $30 million in purses with 793 winners in a 23-year span, not counting partnership ventures. He hit the winner's circle with multiple Grade I winners, most notably Bell's the One, who ran third in the 2020 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. The stable has been nationally ranked in the top 20 ownership entities for both victories and purse earnings from 2020 through 2022.
Beyond his racing endeavors, Lothenbach was an entrepreneur who started a printing company from scratch in 1988. It began in a warehouse garage, and he eventually parlayed it into a nationally prominent company that employed 1,300 workers before he sold a majority stake in it in 2016.
Lothenbach's business acumen afforded him a transition into philanthropy, anchored by the formation of the Lothenbach Family Foundation and contributions to the Literacy Matters Foundation.
According to several published profiles, Lothenbach worked to overcome literacy and learning hurdles as a youngster, and he told the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) in a 2020 article that he wanted to help others “to deal with what I dealt with or still deal with, [because] it's a big deal to me.”
Just this past July, Lothenbach was inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
“To say that the world of Thoroughbred racing, especially here in Minnesota, is in shock would be an understatement,” the MHBPA post about his passing stated. “Not known to many is just how much Bob Lothenbach gave. When he made generous contributions he insisted it was to be done anonymously.
“Unknown to many is that there is a very special program in Canterbury's stable area called Furlong Learning. What began as a tutoring program for a handful of children a few years ago has now blossomed into an educational, experiential and ethical program for over 40 backstretch kids,” the MHBPA post stated.
Lothenbach was a client of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, and that company's president, Sid Fernando, recalled him fondly.
“Bob Lothenbach was a sportsman who thoroughly enjoyed racing his horses, particularly the homebreds,” Fernando said. “He was also a man of great integrity and character. He never sought the limelight, and he was always generous in crediting others for his success. He'll be missed.”
Lothenbach won his first Canterbury leading owner title in 2002. Two years later, his homebred Mayo On the Side won the GI Humana Distaff H. at Churchill Downs on the GI Kentucky Derby undercard.
Lothenbach campaigned nine graded stakes winners in his own colors. He also owned a portion of multiple graded stakes winner Saint Ballado, North America's leading sire by progeny earnings in 2005.
After being named as TOBA's outstanding breeder of the year for 2019, Lothenbach said, “I'm passionate about Minnesota and also about the racing industry, and just anything I can to do help it, I want to. When I was a kid, 17, I used to drive to Chicago to go to the races. I just loved horses.”
A 2013 profile in the printing industry publication Printing Impressions discussed how Lothenbach worked to build up what began locally as Bob's Printing into the nationally recognized company Imagine! Print Solutions that generated annual sales measured in hundreds of millions of dollars.
“My mother and father stressed honesty and integrity,” Lothenbach said. “My dad always said, 'If I teach you a good work ethic, I'll never have to worry about you being able to take care of yourself.' That's something he instilled in all three of his sons. It's benefitted me, and all three of us have done well.”
A complete list of Lothenbach's survivors was not available at deadline for this obituary.
A separate TDN story notes that decisions on the Lothenbach racing and breeding stock are pending at this early stage after his passing.
Pessin: 'He's Someone You Really Wanted to Do Well For'…
Neil Pessin was introduced to Bob Lothenbach the better part of 20 years ago through his friend and colleague Chris Block, who trained for Lothenbach at the time and had an overflow of horses.
“For the first year and a half that I had them, I couldn't tell you what Bob looked like or sounded like,” Pessin said. “Once I started getting a few more horses for him, I talked to him more–not a lot, but more. He was on and off the phone usually in a minute. Over the years, we became very good friends. Besides owner/trainer, it was more of a friendship than it was a business relationship. He's someone you really wanted to do well for. He was passionate about the game, he was loyal to a fault, almost, and he enjoyed it. And he put up his money.”
Pessin continued, “He allowed me to buy horses I never could have bought in the past. I bought Eden Prairie [a future four-time stakes winner named for Lothenbach's home town]–I spent $50,000 for her and that was the most I'd ever spent on a horse in my life. Bell's the One was $155,000, Happy American was $350,000. He gave me access to good horses.
Over the last handful of years, Lothenbach–a “hands-off owner who let us do our jobs”–improved the quality of his stock dramatically and, accordingly, his spend at the yearling sales. At this year's Keeneland September Sale, for example, Lothenbach helped fortify the middle market to the tune of 14 head for $2.96 million.
“At the sales, we would pick out what we liked without any input from Bob, sometimes we didn't like the same horse, but he would let us buy them if we liked them, just one of us. He didn't really have the words 'stop' or 'no' in his vocabulary. He loved to buy and he loved to race. Selling was not his forte.”
Bell's the One was a candidate for the 2021 GI Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, but eventually the pin was pulled on those plans owing to overly cumbersome travel arrangements. Lothenbach took everything in stride, said Pessin.
“I didn't like the layout of what they had set up for us at all, especially for her,” Pessin said. “She was a high-strung filly, we had to ship to Indianapolis, wait on the tarmac in a van, be put in a crate with two others. I just didn't know how she'd handle that and I had really deep reservations about it. Churchill had the race at their track [the week after the Breeders' Cup] that if we won, we made more money than if we ran second [in the Filly & Mare Sprint]. And that's without any expense.
“I called Bob and I laid it all out and Bob said, 'Do what you think is best.' I said, 'I think it's best not to run' and he said 'fine.' There was no second-guessing, just straight do what you think is best. That's the kind of person he was. Everyone wants to run in the Breeders' Cup, including myself, but I didn't feel it was right for her with the situation they had.”
With Lothenbach making a rare on-track appearance, Bell's the One went on to win the $300,000 Dream Supreme S. at Churchill Downs. –Alan Carasso