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Rose's Run

At 88, Trainer of Hal's Hope Trying to Beat the Odds With Derby Longshot

May 04, 2000|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Standing in front of Barn 42 at Churchill Downs, Harold Rose answered his cell phone.

Rose, 88 years old and looking forward to birthday No. 89 on June 30, is at the heart of an improbable story, an octogenarian trying to win the Kentucky Derby. While he is here, preparing Hal's Hope for Saturday's race, his aides are running the stable of mostly claiming horses at Calder Race Course in Miami, and now one of them was on the phone.

Rose listened for a minute or two and then said, "Five and 10, win and place. . . . That's with two zeros."

If Rose's telephonic shorthand can be understood, he was betting $500 to win and $1,000 to place on one of his horses at Calder.

If Rose has been betting Hal's Hope that enthusiastically throughout his career, he's much richer than the $582,160 in purses the smallish colt has earned. In Hal's Hope's first six starts, his average odds were 26-1; he was 32-1 when he broke his maiden, in his third start, at Calder in November, and he was 40-1 when he made his stakes debut in January by winning the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Since the Holy Bull, Hal's Hope has had a lively rivalry with High Yield, who'll be one of the favorites Saturday. High Yield beat Hal's Hope by 3 1/4 lengths in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on Feb. 19, but three weeks later, in the Florida Derby, Rose's horse held on by a head. That gave the breeder-owner-trainer of Hal's Hope his biggest win since he sold his New Jersey printing and publishing business to become a trainer in 1970. The rubber match between Hal's Hope and High Yield was in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 15, and it was no contest. High Yield won the race and Hal's Hope finished last in an eight-horse field.

Because of that outcome, and an unfavorable Derby running style that dictates Hal's Hope be on or close to the lead, Rose's horse will be a longshot again Saturday. He had run at 7-2, lowest odds in a nine-race career, in the Blue Grass.

"It's a mystery, the way he ran at Keeneland," Rose said. "He burned a heel a little in the race, but that's not enough of an excuse. We came to Kentucky because of the Derby, and we're going to go ahead and run. I just hope he gives a good account of himself."

Between Rose and Hal's Hope's only jockey, 43-year-old Roger Velez, there's enough potential melodrama Saturday to fill another of those books that the trainer's wife, Elsie, 85, has written about their life on the racetrack.

Rose suffered a mild stroke and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery last year, but there was no thought about retiring, not with a promising colt like Hal's Hope in the barn. Rose had never named a horse after himself before because he'd never had one with this potential.

There hasn't been a one-man gang win the Derby since Jack Price bred, owned and trained Carry Back, the best horse at Churchill Downs in 1961. Charlie Whittingham, 73 when he saddled Ferdinand in 1986 and 76 when he had Sunday Silence in 1989, is the oldest trainer to win the Derby.

"It's all been a dream come true with this horse," Rose said, "and we're still dreaming about winning the Derby. Will I retire if I win? I don't think so. Come see me when I'm 100. That's when I might start thinking about retirement."

Rose had only one stakes winner the first 13 years he trained. Then on the same day in 1983, he won both ends of the Florida Stallion Stakes. One of those winners was Rexson's Hope, whom Rose ran in the Derby in 1984. Like Hal's Hope, Rexson's Hope had also run like a camel in the Blue Grass, and as a field horse--considered by the track handicapper to be the unlikeliest of winners--he finished 10th in the Derby that was won by Swale.

"He was a come-from-behind horse in a 20-horse field," Rose said. "That kind of running style in a big field doesn't leave you with much of a chance. He passed 10 horses to finish 10th, but I really thought that he'd run better than he did. Hal's Hope is a better horse. He's got good conformation, and he showed a lot of intelligence when he was a 2-year-old. He's well-bred. The mare [Mia's Hope, a daughter of Rexson's Hope] was a graded stakes winner, and the sire [Jolie's Halo] was outstanding as a racehorse."

Velez, has ridden Hal's Hope in all his races, which makes Rose's horse one of only three in the Derby that after Saturday will have been ridden by the same jockey in all their races. Hal's Hope and the Rose stable represent a second chance for Velez, a native Floridian who won major races in New York early in his career, before a drinking habit turned into full-blown alcoholism. In the 1980s, Velez won only 16 races one year and rode in only 61 races in another, and by 1989 he was living with his mother, still drinking and working part time for a florist.

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