Every year during the Triple Crown hype, my thoughts return to my days spent as a racetrack publicist and of the many characters I met and now fondly remember. One of my favorites was Rosie. Of course, that was his racetrack nickname, earned because he sold roses outside the racetrack so he could bet horses inside the track.
As a seller of roses, he was very good. As a horseplayer, Rosie wasn’t so good. It never seemed to faze him. I never saw him cash a bet. But, it didn’t seem to matter. He was always happy-go-luck. Oh, how we envied Rosie.
And, how we loved him. We wanted to be like Rosie. Most of us never picked winners. How come we could never be as jolly as Rosie? We cried when we ripped up our tickets. Not Rosie. He just smiled. I never saw him cry.
None of us knew what Rosie did in his full-time job. All we knew was about his part-time job. Every Saturday ”” rain or shine ”” Rosie showed up outside the track with roses by the dozen. He always wanted to sell out before the races. That would give him more dough to play the ponies. But, despite his clever salesmanship, Rose sold most of his roses at the end of the races.
The guys in the press box (there were no girls around in those days) knew when Rosie couldn’t sell out. Without fail, he would come to the press box with bundles of roses in his arms. With roses he couldn’t sell and horses he didn’t pick. Rosie’s generosity never faded.
"Here," he would say, "take these home to the missus."
On one specific Saturday, a week before the Kentucky Derby some 40 years ago, Rosie told us a story:
"You won’t see me here next weekend. I’m going to the Kentucky Derby! I’ve never been there before. Did you know that? This will be my first Derby.
"I’m loading up my old Tin Lizzie to the roof with roses. I’ll be packing a lot more than I’d ever bring around this joint. Everybody tells me the Derby crowd will buy roses on Roses Day. I’ll make a big bet. It will be in the Derby and don’t anyone dare tell me who they like. Rosie will do that for himself, thank you. And, I won’t make up my mind until I get in line to bet."
I wish the story ended there. We could let our imaginations run wild.
But, it doesn’t end there!
On Derby Day we were at our posts in a press box not far from Churchill Downs. Our thoughts were more on Rosie than the Run for the Roses. We wanted him to get lucky. Oh, how we wanted him to get lucky.
By the time the Derby was over, someone suggested we place a call to the press box at Churchill to find out about Rosie.
"Forget it," advised one writer wise to the ways of Churchill Downs. "Rosie would have a better chance getting into Fort Knox than getting up to the press box at Churchill on Derby Day."
Most of us agreed.
A week later we found out.
Rosie had sold out of every rose he brought with him before the Run for the Roses. "I would have sold more, but I couldn’t get any more into the car," Rosie explained.
With a wad of cash in his fists, Rosie went inside to bet his Derby choice. Since it was the first time in years Rosie didn’t have any roses to carry back anywhere, his choice was obvious: Carry Back. The year was 1961. Rosie thought about the horse’s name. He also thought about the simple truth that he was left without roses to carry.
Rosie ran to the window to make his bet but ran into a wall of people. The grandstand windows were loaded with people.
"They looked as if they were standing in line," Rosie explained, "but how could that be since the horses had reached the starting gate?
"I began to panic ... Where’s the end of the line, I asked? I got dirty looks everywhere. The end of the line was at least 50 feet from the windows.
"I got shut out," he exclaimed.
Carry Back won the race paying $7 straight. Rosie would have more than tripled his money. Instead, Rosie went home from the races for the first time in his life with money he didn’t get to bet.
He wasn’t his jolly self. In fact, he cried all the way home.
Tell me we horseplayers don’t need help!
BELMONT PICK: As a true lover of the sport, I, like many thousands like me, will be rooting for a Triple Crown winner. A War Emblem victory would be gigantic for the sport we love. But, I’ll also be taking a saver on Lone Star Derby winner Wiseman’s Ferry. The colt was bred by my old friend Bob Manfuso, former part-owner and operator of Pimlico Race Course. Old friends must be treasured. It helps that the horse could be 30-1!