PHOENIX — There are not many more pleasurable ways of spending two hours than having lunch with Art Rooney at a quiet resort hotel, with a piano player recalling Gershwin and Cole Porter tunes in the background.
En route to Rancho Mirage for next week's National Football League meetings, the 85-year-old owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers stopped here with his son Tim for the Harness Tracks of America convention. Tim Rooney runs Yonkers Raceway in New York, one of several family operations that include the Steelers and a couple of greyhound tracks.
Art Rooney is widely known as a football man, but before he bought the Steelers, he was an intrepid horseplayer. Rooney still likes to handicap horses ("The only trouble is, the Racing Form gets a little blurry after I read it for about an hour") and is looking forward to another trip to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in a couple of months.
Rooney, a breeder and owner of a modest racing stable, saw his first Derby in 1926 and has missed only a few of the races since then. His Steelers have won four Super Bowls, but it's still the Derby that gives him the most thrills, even though he's never had a horse good enough to run in it.
"I've been to Super Bowls, World Series and championship fights, but there's nothing to compare with the Derby," Rooney said.
Rooney says that Citation, who won the 1948 Derby and went on to sweep the Triple Crown, is probably the best 3-year-old he's ever seen.
"But it's funny," Rooney added. "You remember other winners for personal reasons."
Rooney had a reminder of the 1929 Derby just the other day. Coming home first that year was Clyde Van Dusen, the seventh and last gelding to win the Derby.
Pat Lynch, a former New York newspaperman and handicapper extraordinaire, recently sent Rooney a copy of a letter that Bert Bell had sent to the head of the New York Jockey Club. Bell, a pioneer of the NFL and later to become the league's commissioner, had made a big bet on Clyde Van Dusen in the Derby and for reasons of propriety wanted the Jockey Club official to collect his money.
"What a lot of people forget," Art Rooney said, "is that Bert was quite a bounder before he met his wife, who was Frances Upton, a Ziegfeld showgirl. The priest and Frances made Bert promise that he'd mend his ways before they got married."
It was Twenty Grand's victory in the 1931 Derby, and his win a few weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, that have special meaning for Rooney.
"I got married a day or two before the Belmont," Rooney said. "We went right to New York, and the Belmont, for the honeymoon.
"I made a big bet on Twenty Grand as soon as we got to the track. In those days, there were no pari-mutuel machines in New York and you bet through bookmakers. Shortly before the race, this bookmaker I knew came up to me and said he needed some more money on Twenty Grand in order to balance his action. I loved the horse, so I gave it to him. My wife thought I had made a $50 bet, but it was a lot more than that."
Rooney regrets that thoroughbred racing never lasted in Pittsburgh, his hometown. He applied for a license to run a thoroughbred meeting at a harness track near Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, but the permit was given to another group. They lost about $750,000 in the first season of operation and went out of business soon afterwards.
"There were never many real horseplayers to speak of in Pittsburgh," Rooney said. "Somebody once told me that it had to be a good horse town because there'd always be a bunch of Pittsburghers who'd go all the way to Baltimore to bet the Preakness.
"But all it was at Pimlico was about 30 guys, with a dollar bill in one hand and an Iron City (a Pittsburgh beer) in the other. The only reason it looked like a lot of people was because they made so much noise, you knew they were there."
Rooney still goes to the Preakness, the Belmont and the races at Saratoga, where a score of undocumented but wild proportions gave him the money to buy an interest in the Steelers for about $25,000 in 1933. He has also added to his race-going schedule the Breeders' Cup and the Irish Derby in recent years.
"When dad takes the time to take about a one-hour nap in the afternoons, he can keep up with anybody," Tim Rooney said. "I wish I had time to take an hour nap so I could keep up with him. "
The other night here, Art Rooney was still engaged in lobby talk well past midnight. He calls his sons "wise guys," but he still lets them run the Steelers and the race tracks pretty much the way they want.
"We'd like to sell Yonkers, it doesn't do that well anymore," Rooney said.
"But who would be silly enough to buy it?"
At Rancho Mirage, as at other NFL meetings, Rooney will be cautiously friendly toward the Raiders' Al Davis.
"Despite what the other owners say about Davis," Rooney said, "you can't deny the fact that he's a solid football man. But I get a kick out of him holding up his hand to me, as if to swear he won't do this or will do that.