Dunkin Donuts and this kid

by Alan Leavitt

I met Bill Rosenberg in 1969. It was a year after Rosenberg had gone public with Dunkin Donuts, and he was getting into harness racing in a big way. We met because Rosenberg had called Jim Harrison, who was running Lana Lobell for me, and offered him a job. Harrison said he already had a job, but, if he wanted some good advice, he should call me.

Rosenberg called, and I wound up spending a long weekend with him in his palatial home on his New Hampshire farm. It was a nice piece of property that Rosenberg had fenced with a single strand of straight wire. My first major contribution was explaining that the single wire had to be replaced with a real fence, or his stock would soon be roaming the countryside.

From that first weekend came a relationship that lasted for many years, and at one time our partnership owned over 80 mares that included the Hambletonian winner, Speedy Somolli.

Rosenberg, himself, was often a contradiction in terms. But more about that later. From our first meeting, we agreed to buy four broodmares in partnership. Three of them were, at best, good not great, but the fourth one was Canny Imp. We bought her from Dick and Helen Ricketts, who were oil people who were brought into harness racing by Ken Owen, a fellow oil man.

By the time they bought Canny Imp as a yearling from Walnut Hall, they had gone out on their own with a private trainer, Lou Huber, Jr.

Canny Imp was sired by Florican, a useful Castleton stallion, but out of the reigning world champion 2-year-old trotting filly, Impish. Impish had broken all the 2-year-old speed records one afternoon at the Red Mile when she won in straight heats for Frank Ervin in 1:58.3-1:59.2.

Canny Imp only had a record of 2:04.2, but she came with a story. As a 3-year-old she was warming up for a stakes race at the Red Mile, and at the same time one of George Alexander’s yearlings was being led to pony in front of the grandstand. The two horses met on the track, Canny Imp got spooked and fell over the turf rail. That fall did enough damage to end her racing career.

I knew the story, and it didn’t take an equine Einstein to recognize that the filly had a pedigree to salivate over. But, beyond all that, this kid had also heard a story about Stanley Dancer warming her up for a race when her trainer, Lou Huber, somehow didn’t get there in time.

After Dancer went his last trip with her, he climbed off the bike and said, to anyone within earshot, “That’s the fastest thing I ever sat behind.”

Through her daughters, Canny Imp became a modern day version of a foundation mare, and her blood runs through many of today’s trotting champions. And she was the first of many horses Bill Rosenberg and I came to own together.

But Rosenberg’s activities in our sport were far from confined to deals with me. In1974, I happened to be in New Zealand for the finals of their Inter Dominion Festival. Rosenberg wasn’t there, but Bob McArdle was, and he had Rosenberg’s ear.

I was looking for useful racehorses, and I found a few that were money-makers on the New York circuit. But the star of that particular show was a beautiful, Australian bred pacing horse named Mount Eden. He was a gifted horse, but he spent every race there in Christ Church trying to make up impossible ground after making stand-still breaks at the start.

At the time, all the Inter Dominion races were from a standing start. They were de rigueur in New Zealand because it was the only way they could accommodate fields of up to 25 horses, many of them with various distance handicaps. So, they would all take their appointed places, behind the tapes stretched across the track at whatever their assigned handicap was, and stand there until all the tapes snapped at once, and they were off.

There were some really sharp New Zealand and Australian horse trainers, but the guy who had lucked into Mount Eden wasn’t one of them. I watched him every morning he trained his prize horse, and he always trained him on the trot. So, naturally, when his tape sprang, the horse would try to trot out of there, get tangled up in the hobbles, and break. By the time he finally hit pacing, the rest of the field was long gone. But he’d then put on a dazzling display of speed in a doomed attempt to catch the field.

The finale of the Mount Eden caper, as we card carrying members of the Mystery Guild Writers of America would say, was a primitive time trial on the day of the Inter Dominion Final, at Addington Race Course. I note in passing that New Zealand consists of two islands, North and South, and they’re upside down from our standpoint. Although from their standpoint, we’re upside down, and not just geographically; which this kid frequently agrees with.

In any case, Mount Eden paced in 1:56 in his time trial, and Bill Rosenberg bought him, through McArdle, for $600,000. That, however, was not the only horse he bought that week. A few days before the final, on McArdle’s advice, he bought a gelding named Junior’s Image for $30,000. Junior’s Image had been a contender, but not much of a threat during the preceding legs of the Festival.

But lo and behold, after a demolition derby in which the favorites wiped each other out, it was to Junior’s Image that the crowd, me included, was shouting,

“Hip, hip, hooray!”

“Hip, hip, hooray!!”

“Hip, hip, hooray!!!”

It’s a nice touch, but somehow I can’t see it catching on in New Jersey.

But back to Bill Rosenberg, who suddenly found himself the owner of the winner of the biggest race in the Southern Hemisphere, the Inter Dominion final. And bought for the bargain price of only $30,000. In gratitude to the man who made this possible, Rosenberg immediately wired another $5,000 to Bob McArdle.

Alas, that story didn’t end well, when the post race drug tests for Junior’s Image came back very positive for some high-powered stuff. Not only did they take the race away, Junior’s Image was banned from ever racing again in the Southern Hemisphere.

Which brings me to a Bill Rosenberg story that is, in its way, illustrative.

Junior’s Image had found his way to Rosenberg’s racing stable, and on this particular night he was racing in a $25,000 feature race at Yonkers. I was there, with four friends, at an eight-seat table on the glass, when I noticed Rosenberg and another guy being led by the M’aître D to a table in the nose-bleed zone. Since we had three empty seats, Rosenberg and his friend were invited join us.

We all had drinks and dinner. Then came the big race of the night, and Junior’s Image won it. We all congratulated Bill and then our party left.

The next time I saw Rosenberg, he accused me of deliberately stiffing him with the dinner bill.

“But Bill,” I said. “You had just won $12,500 with your horse.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” he shot back.

Things also didn’t go well with Mount Eden. The horse went through a succession of trainers, but couldn’t stay sound enough to ever start in a race in North America. His final stop was with Stanley Dancer, at his training place in New Egypt. At the time, Ronnie Dancer, Stanley’s son, was helping his dad, both with the training and some P.R.

One day Ronnie Dancer called Rosenberg, saying he had some good news.

“Mount Eden just broke the track record here at New Egypt,” Ronnie said, “He paced in :58.4!”

“How much money did he win?” Rosenberg asked.

Shortly thereafter, Mount Eden left New Egypt to be permanently retired.

Over the years, Rosenberg and this kid enjoyed a friendship that included standing together in the winner’s circle at Du Quoin after Speedy Somolli won the Hambletonian, and watching Tarport Hap beat the best male free-for-allers time after time.

And we wept together after Hap’s fatal heart attack while in the lead in the feature race that night at The Meadowlands.

But looking back, one story Rosenberg told me stands out.

“I was on a flight to New York from Boston last week,” Rosenberg said. “I was up front, in first class, and a friend of mine was in the back, in tourist. Just before we took off, my friend yelled up to me, ‘Have a safe trip, Bill.’”

So, in this time of so much turmoil and pain, I want to say to anyone who happens to read this, “Have a safe trip, everybody.”