Bloomin' Miracle

By Scott Davis


Hal Rose
Photo by Bill Denver/Equi-Photo

Those who proselytized the world would end on Jan. 1, 2000, were wrong. The world actually came to an end on March 11 at 5:52 p.m. That was the moment when 28,033 people at Gulfstream Park, most with losing tickets in hand, stood and cheered, applauded, cried, and otherwise showed their affection for a racehorse named Hal's Hope, his diminutive 88-year-old breeder, owner, and trainer Hal Rose and Hal's wife Elsie. Losers joined winners in a group embrace so warm that, if fondness were a pari-mutuel wager, the minus pool would have put the track out of business.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," said trainer Bill Kaplan.
Fifty years from now, millions of people will tell their grandchildren they were at Gulfstream the day Hal's Hope won the Florida Derby (gr. I). Most will embellish the tale by including in it a winning ticket, although the colt was 6-1. What is it about this horse and these people that transcends winning and other partisan concerns while turning a racetrack into an equine version of a Shangri-la?
"Well, we are something of throwbacks to a different era," admit Hal and Elsie Rose. It should be noted the Roses complete each other's sentences so regularly it is impossible to attribute a quote to one independently of the other. "We firmly believe that, if you don't have something nice to say to somebody, you don't say anything at all."
Elsie is especially good at saying nice things. She has written three books chronicling their careers in racing: At Calder We Love You, Calder Loves Us, and Love and Horses. The books are filled with positive comments about everything and everyone involved in Florida racing over the past three decades. "The eighth race delighted our family when Tonka Pass won for E.C. Brinkerhoff and trainer Marty Wolfson," is a sample, from the middle tome.
Family is an overwhelming theme for Hal and Elsie. Their four children, 14 grand- and great-grandchildren, and assorted in-laws are deeply involved in the business, with a shared ownership, through Rose Family Stables Inc., in their homebreds and the few they purchase at sales. That started in 1984 when Rexson's Hope, a colt Rose bought at the Ocala sales for $6,700, was on the trail to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and their family began to show an interest in racing.
"Up until then, we couldn't drag them to the track," said Hal and Elsie.
Rose Family Stables is now hot on the trail again, this time with a colt named after the trainer.
"Hal's Hope is the best horse I've trained in my 30-plus years," Rose said. Hal's Hope is scheduled to run in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on April 15 and then the Derby. "In 1984, Rexson's Hope was a longshot (he ran 10th in a field of 20 horses)," Rose recalled. "This time we're going with a contender."
Rose knew early on Hal's Hope was a special colt. At the age of three days, he walked right over to his owner and allowed him to pet his nose, displaying his intelligence.
He was still winless after two starts on Aug. 23, 1999, when Rose suffered a heart attack and was rushed for an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. For many 87-year-olds, that might mark the beginning of the end. For Rose, it was the beginning of the beginning. "I couldn't wait to get back on my feet, knowing that Hal's Hope was in the barn," he said.
Family is an important concept in the horses Rose brings to the races. Rose owned and raced Hal's Hope's dam, Mia's Hope, a daughter of Rexson's Hope who herself was a multiple graded stakes winner and earner of $327,740. Rose bred Mia's Hope as well; her dam was Pia Mia, a filly he claimed for $6,000 as a 3-year-old, who went on to drop 16 winners from 18 foals, including three stakes winners. Rose went on to breed all 12 females Pia Mia produced. "Our foundation mare," Rose called her.
"Foundation" is a term that fits well with Rose's career--dignity and hospitality are others. Rose perfected the art of hospitality when, shortly after graduating from Bucknell University in 1933 with a degree in Business Administration, he and Elsie's brother, Barney, established Forest Lodge, a camp in New Jersey's Watchung Hills dedicated to day-outings by employees of large companies. They continued to operate Forest Lodge until 1968.
It was during their annual visit to South Florida in 1933 that the Roses became interested in Thoroughbred racing. Visiting Hialeah, someone handed Hal a copy of the Daily Racing Form. "It looked like Greek to me," Rose said. "So, with my natural curiosity, I spent the next 20 years learning everything I could about racing."
In 1951 he made the plunge, purchasing a colt named Oremurf for $1,500. When the colt broke his maiden at Cranwood Park in Ohio on May 12, 1952, and paid $49, Hal and Elsie were hooked. During the '50s and '60s they placed a handful of horses with Chester Bowles to train. "The stable was nothing outstanding," Rose said. "Just some useful breadwinners."
In the late '60s Rose sold his business and headed for Florida. At an age when many would be contemplating retirement, he now had the time to engage in his passion for horses. Initially, he spent hours each day at Bowles' barn "acting as an unpaid assistant trainer." Finally in 1970 he passed his trainer's test. "He was the only one to get a perfect score," boasted Elsie.
At first, Rose intended to train only for himself, but gradually others began to notice his eye for horses and high standards.
"Hal Rose is unfailingly honest," said Steve Schemer who, with his wife Esther, has owned horses, many in partnership with Rose, for 15 years. "He always has your best interest at heart."
At his height in 1988, Rose sent out 366 starters and maintained an average of 20-22 horses in training. "Every one of our owners had at least one winner that year," he said.
The winners, however, were, by and large, claimers and allowance-level horses. During his first 13 years as a trainer, Rose saddled only one stakes winner: My Budget, a son of Finance Minister out of his mare Pia Mia, who captured the $20,000 Beau Gar Stakes at Calder in 1976.
However, it all changed a single day. The In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, the finale of a three-race series for 2-year-old Florida-breds, is routinely competitive, with champions Smile and Holy Bull having won the race in its 19-year history. On Oct. 29, 1983, Rose sent out two colts he owned, My G.P. and Rexson's Hope, to capture split divisions of the stakes. Rose called that day his second proudest moment in racing, behind only Hal's Hope's Florida Derby win.
Rexson's Hope would go on to win eight of his 58 starts and earn $379,379. He won three stakes at Calder during the summer of 1985, and Rose's dedication to running him at home made the trainer a favorite among both fans and racing secretaries.
"I like giving people in Florida a thrill," he said, a notion that no doubt contributed to the reception he received after winning the Florida Derby.
Even as the quality of Rose's horses began to rise--Sir Leon and Muttering Around became stakes winners under his guidance during the late 1980s and early '90s--his affinity for home cooking never wavered. As he heads into the Blue Grass, Rose has never saddled a stakes winner outside of the South Florida circuit. For this, in large measure, Rose is enshrined in both the Calder and Hialeah Halls of Fame.
It should not be surprising Rose expressed a certain measure of dread when discussing his trip to Kentucky with Hal's Hope.
"I'm afraid I'll be under siege this time," he said, recalling the large crowds that surrounded the barn adjacent to his--D. Wayne Lukas'--during his last trip to the Derby. "I'd be happy if (the media) left me alone."
That's not likely to happen, since Rose's is a story worth telling. In this era of multi-million dollar yearlings, he remains decidedly small-time, having never spent more than $25,000 on a horse. And although he has saddled more than 600 winners in his training career, nearly 500 have come in maiden or claiming races; his stable has earned more than $4 million in maiden and claiming races alone.
"A win for him (in the Derby) would be a win for all of us little guys," said fellow trainer Jose Abdale, who has known Rose for more than 20 years. "He's as nice a person as you can find. Every single trainer here at Calder is rooting for him to win the big one with Hal's Hope."
Big guys, too, are on the bandwagon.
"It's a wonderful fairy tale," said Lukas, whose colt High Yield ran second to Hal's Hope in the Florida Derby. "Any time a guy dedicates his whole life to racing the way Mr. Rose has, there are certain rewards you deserve." Lukas added, though, that despite his fondness for Rose, he would still "go all out" to beat him when they meet in the Blue Grass and beyond.
And that's the rub, for as much as Rose is liked and respected, he and his horses must prove themselves every time out against increasingly tougher competition. Take, for example, his decision on a jockey. Despite the siren's call for a high-profile rider for Hal's Hope--Rose reported that, since the Florida Derby, he has heard from more jockey's agents than he knew existed--he is sticking by Roger Velez, the only rider the colt has known.
"Everyone says to get the best rider in the country, but there really isn't much difference between them and a journeyman," he said. "The most important thing is to know the horse, and Roger knows this horse very well."
Velez, whose career path has been far from smooth and is, at age 42, making a comeback, has never ridden in a Kentucky Derby. But, as he points out, he had never ridden in a Florida Derby before last month either.
" 'Papa' Rose makes you feel so comfortable that you want to ride your best for him every time," he said. "You know that he has complete confidence in you."
There are as many jockeys lining up to praise Rose as there are fellow trainers: Jorge Chavez, Paul Roberts, and Eduardo Nunez are just a few whose careers have been boosted by him.
"He put me on his horses when I was an unknown and few other trainers would use me," said Chavez. "And he's always pulling for you. It's a great feeling to ride for him."
So now Hal, Elsie, and a group of well-wishers so large that the trainer has booked 30 rooms at a hotel in Lexington, are taking their show prime time, and this unassuming man will have the opportunity to display to a national audience what has made him so popular in Florida.
They will see it is not the money that's important to the Roses, even though, with earnings totaling $582,160, Hal's Hope is already the richest horse Rose has raced. And they will know, even though Hal and Elsie's friends from around the country will be watching and rooting, just as they did when Rose spent $2,500 on pictures of the Florida Derby to distribute as gifts, that money is not their primary motivator. Fans will also know they're not inspired by fame, despite the enjoyment they admit to getting in seeing their colors displayed high on the wall outside of Gulfstream's clubhouse, in recognition of their Florida Derby win.
No, what will be obvious to anybody paying attention, is the looks of pleasure on the faces of the Roses when their youngest great-grandson, 4-year-old Dillon, shakes his fists in the air during the race and yells "Go, Hal, Go!"
Regardless of the race's outcome, that will be when the world stops for Hal and Elsie Rose.

Copyright © 2000 The Blood-Horse, Inc. All rights reserved.

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