March 8, 2000

Old Man and the Derby: Rose Dreams On


ALLANDALE, Fla., March 7 -- He is 88 years old, he had a stroke and underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery last year. But he still drives to the racetrack every morning before dawn, and he is the breeder, owner and trainer of a barn of about 20 horses, mostly claimers. But one of them ran first in the Holy Bull Stakes at 40-1 and second in the Fountain of Youth, and is now considered one of the favorites for Saturday's Florida Derby and maybe even for the Kentucky Derby eight weeks later.

 The man is Harold Rose, and his horse is Hal's Hope. And the only thing that bothers Rose is that for all of the above reasons, people seem more interested in him than in his horse.

"He might win," Rose ventures, working his horse into the conversation. "He has the potential to win. If you're not an optimist, you shouldn't be in racing."

If you want more evangelism than that, Rose is quick to comply, looking forward with clear vision despite his 88 years. "If you don't have the dream," he says, "you don't want to be in racing. The dream is the basis for everything."

Dreams come in all sizes, but they generally come in extra large for a man who breeds and sells mostly claimers, less desirable horses who can be claimed for a price when they are racing. As a breeder, he controls the horses in his barn at Calder Race Course near Gulfstream Park, where the Florida Derby will be run. As a trainer, he controls them as racehorses. And as an owner, he may keep some special ones for himself -- like Hal's Hope.

Gary I. Rothstein for The New York Times

Harold Rose, the 88-year-old owner and trainer of Hal's Hope, has his eye on the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 1984.

"They're mostly claimers," he said. "I did have one horse in the Swale Stakes in 1984, Rexson's Hope. He was strictly a come-from-behind runner. In the Kentucky Derby that year, he didn't have much chance. He closed to be 10th. It was probably my greatest thrill in racing. I thought: If I ever get there again. . . ."

Now it is 16 years and a lot of claimers later, and he has a shot at getting to the Kentucky Derby again, with Hal's Hope. And yes, Hal's Hope means exactly what it says.

"I bred him, his dam was by Rexson's Hope," Rose said. "I really thought this horse was going to be something from the beginning. I thought he was something special when he was a yearling. So, I named him for me."

The special name for the special horse didn't look so promising when Hal's Hope ran fifth in his debut and sixth in his second start. He is a dark bay or brown colt sired by Jolie's Halo and his dam is Mia's Hope, and he finally won a race at Calder in his third start. But he ran fifth the next time out before fulfilling whatever it was that Rose saw when he came up with the name Hal's Hope.

In December, he won an allowance at Calder, then in January faced the big boys in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. He won by five and a quarter lengths. If you bet $2 on him, you went home with $82.

"I don't know why he went off at 40-1," Rose mused later. "I wasn't afraid of the other horses in the race. I tried to tell everybody that I had the best horse down here. But it looks like nobody believed me."

More people believed him when Hal's Hope stalked High Yield throughout the Fountain of Youth two weeks ago after being bumped at the start, and then missed catching him by three and a quarter lengths. His jockey, as in all of his seven races, was Roger Velez. But the public had eyes only for Rose.

He was born in Newark and graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in mathematics, working mainly in printing and publishing but also dabbling in horse racing. When he retired in 1968, he took out a trainer's license in New Jersey, moved his family and his stable to Florida in the 1970's and became a full-time racetracker.

"I had a heart attack and a slight stroke last year," Rose said. "I had quadruple-bypass surgery. But so far, I'm fine now. I still keep going. I'm still at the barn every day."

Rose is making one change for the Florida Derby: Hal's Hope will run on the diuretic Lasix for the first time.

"He gurgled pulling up the other day," Rose related. "He didn't bleed externally, but there was something internally."

Still, visitors don't seem as interested in the horse's medical condition as in the trainer's. You know, 88 years old, a man who breeds claimers and sells them for a living, but occasionally keeps one special horse for his own. "I don't go on the road normally," he said. "I used to race on the Jersey circuit. I've nominated him for the Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky. It depends on how strenuous the Florida Derby is."

He meant how strenuous for the horse, not for him. "If you don't have the dream," Harold Rose repeated, "you don't want to be in racing."


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