One of Utah’s most successful TV contestants isn’t human. Ace, a 10-year-old border collie, and his owner, Mark LeBlanc, are the winners of “The Pack” on Amazon Prime Video — and they brought home the $500,000 first prize.
After winning the 10th and final leg on a show that is sort of “The Amazing Race” with human-canine teams — a show that took them across the globe and back to Utah — LeBlanc was overcome with emotion.
“Ace and I have a soul connection,” he said. “I typically don’t believe in things like that, but I had to recognize that there’s something special that can’t be explained on paper. He’s definitely my soul mate.”
No, LeBlanc’s wife, Elizabeth, isn’t jealous. “She understands the relationship I have with Ace, and she doesn’t need to be labeled on a chart above Ace to know that she’s above him,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s worth mentioning that, before the show, I probably would not have said that” about Ace, he added. “And that didn’t mean it wasn’t true. The show forced me to really appreciate what I have with Ace.”
And to appreciate all that the dog could do — as they rappelled down a waterfall in Costa Rica, dug for faux earthquake victims in Mexico, ran through the streets of Vienna, Paris and Florence, and competed in the snow in Switzerland.
(All 10 episodes of “The Pack” are streaming on Amazon Prime.)
‘We were so ready’
LeBlanc is, in the words of his fellow contestant (and Utah native) Mitra Yosri, an “outdoorsy, adventurous guy.” You can check that out for yourself on his Instagram (@markcleblanc) or on Ace’s instagram (@acethetraildog). He and Ace spent a lot of time together in Utah’s wilderness, and “put a lot of effort into preparing” before heading out with “The Pack.”
“For several weeks, our schedule was — wake up, do some training on specific behaviors, go for a 5- to 10-mile run, do some more training, play some Frisbee, and then do some more training,” he said. “In a lot of ways, being on the show was so much easier than the weeks leading up to it. Once we got on the show, things were actually rather relaxing.”
Well, there was the pressure of the competition. And when the contestants arrived in London for the second-to-last leg of the race, LeBlanc was suffering from food poisoning.
After coming from behind to survive that second-to-last leg in England — getting Ace to maneuver large balls around the grounds of Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) — LeBlanc got the news that the final challenges would be in Utah.
“Finding out that we were going home to compete in the final challenge in, basically, our backyard — I don’t know if I can describe that. We were so ready to go home, you know?” he said.
It may have been a psychological boost, but they weren’t familiar with the Huntsville area, where the final challenges took place. And you could certainly argue that it was tougher for a 34-pound dog like Ace to drag wooden “bones” over the Utah terrain than it was for the other two canines — one 60 pounds, one 80 pounds — who made it to the final episode.
A lot of reality competition series look more exciting than they are, through the use of clever editing. That was not necessary on “The Pack,” because LeBlanc and Ace beat Kioni “Kentucky” Russell Gallhue and his goldendoodle, Derby, to the finish line by less than 10 seconds.
“It was dangerously close. It was so close that I still get anxiety thinking about that last challenge,” LeBlanc said with a laugh. “I’ll be driving down the road sometimes and think back” to the final challenge, when he and Ace were behind “and I start sweating and my heart rate gets high and everything.”
And while he was, obviously, overjoyed when they crossed the finish line first, it was also “bittersweet.”
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’” LeBlanc said. “My second thought was, ‘This sucks,’ because my friend lost.”
Not only did LeBlanc get close to Kentucky, but to the other contestants and their dogs as well. “The Pack” may have been the nicest competition of its kind in TV history — the contestants rooted each other on, and were genuinely sad when it came time for them to be eliminated.
“I’m really proud to have been part of a positive show,” LeBlanc said.
‘Ace is the breadwinner’
As for Ace — one of the best-behaved dogs you’ll ever see — LeBlanc said he has seen a change in him since the competition ended earlier this year.
“I get the sense that he knows that he’s retired, because he’s doing things that he didn’t used to do before. He’s stealing butter off the counter and things like that,” he said with a laugh.
This from a dog he had trained for a decade to not do anything like that. And he good-naturedly blamed fellow contestant Lucy Riles, “because behind my back, she gave Ace food off her plate. She spoiled him. He was going to her for treats more than me.”
Now, Ace “just kind of expects to get whatever he wants,” LeBlanc said. “And you know what? Ace is the breadwinner, so I’ll openly admit that he’s getting pretty much whatever he wants.”
Half a million dollars is a lot of money, and LeBlanc is “a pretty conservative person financially.” So “aside from a couple of small things here and there — like paying off our cars and doing a couple of small projects around the house — it’s mostly going to get invested,” with an eye toward building the “financial freedom” that will allow them to travel.
And he bought some production equipment to upgrade his podcast, “Chasing Aces,” which is available on all the regular podcast platforms.
“I want people to be inspired to live the life that makes them happy, not the life that society has told them they need to live,” he said. “So one of my goals now is to create a podcast where I can expose the people who inspire me. … Everyone that I know who is extremely happy, they all have the same thing in common. They all try hard things. They all suffer in the outdoors and do things that make them feel alive.”
Like him and his dog.
LeBlanc wasn’t the only winner on “The Pack.” The show made donations to animal charities in every area where it staged challenges — including $25,000 to the Utah Animal Adoption Center in North Salt Lake.
As the winner, LeBlanc got to designate where a massive $250,000 donation would go — and he sent that money to Best Friends Animal Society, headquartered in Kanab. Which neither of them was expecting.
“I was very surprised when [producers] said, ‘You’re going to get to give a charity $250,000,’” LeBlanc said, “and that sort of changed the whole thing. There’s more on the line here and we can actually make a difference.”
“Mark and Ace’s incredible relationship and bond became evident throughout the series,” said Best Friends CEO Julie Castle, “and we’re so thrilled for their win and extremely grateful for their generosity.”
The donation will help support Best Friends’ efforts to make all of America’s animal shelters no-kill by the year 2025, and place dogs and casts in “loving homes, where they will have a chance to know the type of unparalleled friendship that Mark and Ace share.”
“It breaks my heart that animals get put down every day,” LeBlanc said. “It’s such a terrible thing. Humanity at this point in 2020 should be better than that.”