Millionaire Wendell Rosso has a king-sized bed. One week he sleeps on one side of it and the next week on the other side. That way he only has to use his apartment building's washing machine twice a month, which cuts laundry costs in half. When Rosso comes to New York on business trips, he brings some sandwiches along in a paper bag. Things are more reasonable back home in Norfolk, Va.
There is only one thing in which Rosso is not frugal and prudent, and that is in his involvement with racehorses. He bets on them heavily and he buys them prodigally. As a bettor, he is quite capable of losing $20,000 at the track on any afternoon. He wagers such sums fairly casually. He tells of once putting $2,000 on a horse at Bowie and realizing after the horses broke from the gate that he had bought tickets on the right number, but the wrong race.
It is in the past 20 months that Rosso has extended his high-stake gambling to the ownership of racehorses. At the Kentucky sales in July 1968, he paid a record high of $405,000 for a Sea-Bird filly. In a bidding duel he bested Charles Engelhard, one of the thoroughbred sport's tycoons. The animal Rosso bought was a year old, unbroken and untried. A month later she was attacked with a pitchfork by an angry groom, or so the story goes. Now 3, she is still unraced and has hardly worked up a sweat. She costs Rosso $25 a day—which is probably more than he spends on himself—to keep in training, but he is unperturbed. "I've got expectations, she may be the champion 3-year-old filly this year," he says with a gambler's optimism. Three Sea-Bird colts that he purchased for $197,000 at the same sale have not been earning their oats either: one has won $3,932, one, $2,750, the other nothing, but the year is young and Rosso persists in being cheerful. "Buying horses is the same as buying a carload of merchandise," he says. "There is a chance to make a profit."
Rosso is no business innocent; he parlayed an open-air fruit and vegetable stand in Norfolk into a multimillion-dollar chain of supermarkets. Even as a child of 12 he was using ingenuity in making money. Not satisfied with the $5 a week he earned sweeping out his father's tailor shop and running errands, he enrolled in a correspondence course in raising poultry. Soon the attic was full of broilers, and there was a hen house in the backyard. When his hens began laying poorly in the dark days of midwinter, young Rosso rigged up lights in the chicken house that could be turned off and on from his bedroom. He would set his alarm for 4:30 a.m., reach out of bed to switch on the hen-house lights and then go back to sleep. "There were always eggs in the nest by the time I left for school," he says.
March 23, 1970
Rosso is now 58, and he owns a shopping center, food processing and wholesaling firms and 29 supermarkets in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Some of the stores operate 24 hours a day, and some are so elaborate they have banquet rooms on the mezzanine. Rosso has more than 3,000 people working for him, and since he had a severe automobile accident several years ago, he has more or less retired. But in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. this month, when he wasn't at the beach or a horse park, he was bargaining with local wholesalers for such things as a trailer full of chrysanthemums and stopping to sample produce at Cuban food stands in South Miami.
Rosso has been around racetracks for years, one of those anonymous men with rolls of big bills. Even before his semi-retirement, action at the $100 window was his relaxation, and through the winter months he would fly north to Bowie every Saturday morning with his wad and his binoculars. No matter how bad the horses were, Rosso played them and played them big. He'd bet $2,000 a race on horses at the half-milers, and if a man has survived that hazard with any optimism and any cash, he is certainly experienced enough to become a thoroughbred owner.
Three years ago Rosso bought his first horse, a $10,000 claimer named Gem Richmond. "He was a beautiful animal and would have been a top-allowance horse," Rosso says, "but he developed green osselets. He won me a race after a year and I lost him for $3,500." Then came Clever Kid. "If he didn't have a spur on the knee, he would have been a helluva horse," Rosso declares. "Rags Regalbuto, the boy who exercised him, used to say, 'If only he was sound...if only he was sound.' I claimed another horse called McGun. He was fast, but he had a bad ankle and I had to give him away. And I bought a few others—Mr. W. Harrison was one; but he fractured a sesamoid."
Weathered by these disappointments, and wiser, Rosso decided to get out of the claiming market and try buying the best racing stock available. "I've decided to go for the tops," he explains. "I'm not satisfied with mediocrity. As a businessman I buy the best equipment for my supermarkets. The best freezer does not break down as often. I believe the same reasoning should apply to racehorses. If you work with quality material, the profits are automatic. If equipment breaks down in the store, I have a crew of top mechanics. For my horses I have a top trainer. The basic principles are the same. Handle the best merchandise with the best equipment and the best available crew and tools."
Having settled on his new credo, Rosso set out in July 1968 for Lexington, Ky. for the Keeneland yearling sales. He was especially interested in some colts and a filly by Sea-Bird. Rosso had seen Sea-Bird win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and he had carefully saved for years some newspaper clippings in which Sea-Bird was called one of the great horses of the century. Rosso had decided by the time he arrived in Lexington that he had to have a Sea-Bird. He heard talk around the sales paddocks that the prize of the auction was a filly, a half sister to two classic winners, by Sea-Bird out of Libra. "I was going to get her if it killed me," he says. But platinum king Charles Engelhard, who owned the filly's two half brothers, was equally determined to have her. Engelhard is a large figure in racing, a powerful presence who seldom is denied when he sets out to make a purchase at a yearling auction. Rosso appeared to be a nondescript little man in a wash-and-wear shirt and a bow tie. As a hushed arena watched, the two men battled and the bidding spiraled: $200,000...$275,000...$325,000...$375,000...$390,000. "Four-hundred thousand," Engelhard declared firmly. He was sweating. "Four-hundred-five thousand," Rosso said. And that was it. The Sea-Bird belonged to a Virginia grocer.
"There's more people who eat bananas than buy platinum," Rosso said cockily later. "I'll guarantee I'll make more money by just selling my bananas for half a cent a pound." Swept up in the excitement of the auction, Rosso bought not only the filly but three Sea-Bird colts as well.
The four yearlings were sent to Middleburg, Va., sleek, unmarred golden-red animals. Rosso had them photographed and the pictures, framed in gold and green, his racing colors, hang in the dining area of his Fort Lauderdale apartment. As Rosso quickly learned, though getting bananas to market has its hazards, they hardly compare with what can happen to a horse. A month after he purchased her, the filly, which Rosso had named Reine Enchanteur ("I call her Reenie," he says), was found in her stall one morning with puncture wounds in a knee and leg. The wounds were apparently from a pitchfork. Rosso believes that a disgruntled groom attacked Reine Enchanteur in the middle of the night, knowing she was the most valuable horse in the stable. Luckily, the pitchfork missed the vital joints, but it was six months before the swelling completely subsided.
Reine Enchanteur's training was finally resumed, and Rosso's spirits rose, only to be dampened again when the filly bucked her shins and had to be sent to the farm and pinfired (which is the equivalent of having a severe bruise tattooed with a hot iron). Last November she came back to the track but then decided not to eat for a while, which delayed her training. And now, well, right now she has a minor foot ailment. Which is what horse owning is all about. If there are no further mishaps, Rosso and his trainer George Poole will have Reine Enchanteur make her debut this spring at Aqueduct. And Rosso is still confident about his $405,000 investment. "I have a right to have expectations about her," he says. "I know she is fast, quick and smart. If someone offered me half a million dollars for her, I don't know whether I would take it or not. I'd have to think about it." Others are less optimistic about the filly's racing potential. A horseman who saw Reine Enchanteur work out last year was unimpressed. "They better bathe her in holy water before sending her to the post," he said, "because it'll be a miracle if she wins much of anything."
Even if she is not much of a race-mare, there are ways one might recoup her purchase price, besides using her as a tax write-off. For one thing, Reine Enchanteur probably should be racing, or at least trying to race, in England or France, for she is bred to go long distances and the sprints in the U.S. are not likely to suit her. In England it is often possible for an animal of limited capabilities to win a race with a fine-sounding name like the Roseberry Stakes or the Lympne Stakes. These are small events that often draw few starters and that are held at such undistinguished tracks as Teesside and Folkestone. But on Reine Enchanteur's record such victories would look just fine. She then could be gracefully retired from competition and bred to Ribot, the sire of her successful half brothers. She and her foal would command a price equal to, if not more than, what Rosso paid for her.
However, when Rosso decided to send one of his Sea-Bird purchases abroad, he picked Par Excellent, a colt from the same family as Arts and Letters, for which he paid $102,000. "I figured with his breeding, and being a colt, he would have more chance to win this year's Arc de Triomphe," Rosso says. "He is trained at Chantilly by the man who had Sea-Bird." Par Excellent did win one of his two starts last year—a $3,932 maiden event (Rosso flew to Paris in a cargo plane to see the horse run)—which is enough to keep Rosso's Arc hopes afloat. Rosso is admittedly less enthusiastic about his other two Sea-Birds, but then they cost him less. One, bought for $30,000, could not keep his mind on racing, so he was gelded and is at present recovering on a New Jersey farm; the other, Son Excellence, purchased for $65,000, finally won last week after losing eight straight. Despite the red ink on his ledger, Rosso went back to Keene-land last July and bought three more yearlings—though no more Sea-Birds—for a total of $215,000. Plainly, he is enjoying himself. On the afternoon of the recent Flamingo Stakes he was sitting happily in his box high up in the Hialeah stands. He consulted his notes on his program as the feature race neared and reported he was already $20,000 down for the day. But he seemed un-fazed. He stayed through the 10th race and then walked slowly down the track's elegant arched stairway, across the paddock and into the barn area. The shed rows were quiet. Rosso moved down one, stopped at a stall and looked in. There was his beloved Reenie, pretty as a dining room picture. He petted her affectionately and promised her sugar, and then in the gathering Florida dusk, he moved to his car, a gold Cadillac parked by the barn. An hour later he was in his apartment on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. There he tossed his losing pari-mutuel tickets into a Carnation milk carton. It held hundreds of others. On a table was a silver plate, a trophy won for him not by one of his Sea-Birds but by a claimer. There was not the slightest aura of disappointment about the man, no losing-gambler's anger, no unfulfilled-owner's annoyance.
Rosso went into the kitchen. He likes to cook, and he brought out of the refrigerator for close inspection a pot of chicken soup. He sniffed it once, forecast its excellence and explained that he had made it from chicken necks for which he paid five cents a pound, and that the whole pot cost only 25 cents.
Later, sitting in the dining room, he looked up at the pictures of the four Sea-Birds—$602,000 worth of horseflesh. "Don't you think that the way they look they really ought to be fast?" he said.