by Victoria Howard
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Rosalia Villante was destined to be a standardbred owner.
“Both of my uncles, Giuseppe “Joe,” and Pietro, owned harness horses that raced at Atlantic City Race Track, Freehold, Garden State, Meadowlands, Monticello, Roosevelt, Yonkers and Pocono,” she said. “Every weekend my father would take my brothers and me to Englishtown, New Jersey, where Uncle Joe lived on a farm with riding and racehorses. That was when I began riding horses.
“One day, dad came home with three saddles: a medium one for my brothers, a small for me, and a large one for himself.
“When I was 10 years old, dad’s work was slow and since he did a lot of work with his brother he decided to move us to New Jersey, where he purchased seven acres — from my uncle — and built a home next to his brother’s.
“It was my uncle that taught me how to harness and jog. From that point on, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to come home from school and work with the horses.”
In 1982 Rosie went to help groom her Uncle Pietro’s horses stabled at the South Florida Trotting Center. We would watch the races at Pompano Park, where, at that time, the grandstand was packed with enthusiastic fans.
Shortly later, Huff got a job at Pompano Park working on the training side for the dynamic team of Joe Caraluzzi and Mickey McNichol.
“They said the grandstand was packed with celebrities, but I was never lucky enough to see any. These were the days when Pompano was ‘the place to be’ and everyone in the business wanted to be there. The fans loved the sport, the owners adored their horses, and the horsemen did a fabulous job running the track. It’s so sad to see how it has changed. I wish owners today loved it as much, but many see it as a casino business.
“It’s heartbreaking to see how our livelihood is trying to be destroyed by the casino owners who don’t care about the horses, horsemen, or harness racing.
“I love our sport and owe a lot to it. My main job is office administrator at FSBOA (Florida Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association) where I handle all the office banking, memberships, and the Florida Stake Program,” said Huff.
“But the greatest thing I got from harness racing was meeting my husband, Jake. It was 1993 and I was working for legendary trainer/driver Stanley Dancer. I was jogging my horse on the training side at Pompano when I saw a man I’d never seen before training a horse. I guess you could say, ‘It was love at first sight’ for when I was done jogging I went back to the barn and told my friend, ‘I just saw my future husband.’
“At the time I had just gotten out of a six-year relationship and wasn’t looking to get into another because I would soon be leaving Florida for Pennsylvania to race stake horses.
“I didn’t know the man’s name or whom he worked for, but I couldn’t get him out of my mind. A few days later, I saw him again and got the courage to say hi, but he ignored me. I was so hurt and thought he was stuck up until I learned he was deaf in his left ear and he never heard me.”
I was telling my friend Dan O’Mara about the situation. He said the man was Jake Huff — trainer for Gordon Norris — and he could introduce me. We finally met and that was the beginning of our life.”
Harness racing was nothing new to Jake. He started with his dad and two uncles at Shiawassee Farm in Durand, MI where he broke and drove the 1981 Hambletonian winner Shiaway St Pat as a 2- and 3-year-old, until the horse went to race in the Hambletonian for brothers, Larry and Ray Remmen.
Jake then went to work for Pompano Park trainer Gordon Norris. After working for Norris, Huff worked for Stanley Dancer, before returning to the Norris stable.
In 1997, top driver Bruce Ranger partnered with Huff starting the Huff & Ranger Stable. In 2001, Jake ventured on his own and has been very successful.
“We owe much of our success to our owners and partners Jean Durnye, Pat Biddy, Charlie Angelillo, Ron and Gina Cusimano, John and Elizabeth Swider, Erika Sirianos, Henry Tanzer, John Campagnuolo, Paul Mandel, Gene Kurzrok, Marcia Gingold, Vincenzo Villante, Jean Bryar and Ed Rudner.
“Presently, we own 10 horses and feel blessed to have such great owners.”
I asked Rosie if she had a favorite horse and who was her best.
“I have had a few I broke as yearlings, such as Speedy Quilt, Katie Almahurst, Triangle Park (for Caraluzzi and McNichol), and the horse At The Top who I took care of for Stanley Dancer.
“I did take care of the great horse Nearly Perfect for about a month when he was second in the Kentucky Futurity. That was very exciting to watch and be part of, but as an owner, my best horses were Western Guy and Lady Netty N.
“Netty is probably my number one for she raced until she retired at 14 and was the only mare with 100 lifetime wins.”
Today Rosie works with Joe Pennacchio, Dein Spriggs, and the board of directors at Pompano Park helping horsemen as much as she can.
“I love living in Florida and have always loved working at Pompano Park.
“The sport has been so good to me and has brought me my happiest times. I met and married my husband and we have raised two great young men: Ronnie, who will be 21, and Ryan, who will be 20. They are both in College at Webber International University in Florida, majoring in Criminal Justice and Business Management.
“Our sons enjoy jogging and training with their dad and working with the horses, but know how the business has its up and downs — so getting an education is important.
As for me, I’m hoping for positive things to happen that will allow us to keep moving forward with the sport we all love.”