As Beach Towel, with the look of a tight end being chased by a squad of wide receivers, legged powerfully through the final turn at Pompano Park in Florida, Seth Rosenfeld, the 24-year-old wunderkind who had purchased the burly pacer for a bargain-basement $22,000, felt a sense of dread. No standardbred had ever won $2 million in a single year. Now Beach Towel, with more than $1.9 million already in the till, was two furlongs from achieving that milestone and winning Harness Horse of the Year honors too.
If he held on to triumph in the $370,000 Breeders Crown for 3-year-old colt pacers on this night in November, it would be the climax of a storybook trip that began in October 1988 at the Tattersalls Yearling Sale in Lexington, Ky. Up in the stands at Pompano, the slender, bespectacled Rosenfeld was on the verge of an achievement that men twice his age have only dreamed about. With his dark hair cut neatly short, he looked more like a high school senior blowing his paper-route money at the racetrack than an owner on the verge of making harness racing history.
Rosenfeld began his racing career as a chubby, 12-year-old student of standard-bred bloodlines, spending his summers mastering the complexities of harness racing genealogy. His father, Jack Rosenfeld, and an uncle, Alan Leavitt, were partners in Lana Lobell Farms, a successful New Jersey breeding farm, where Seth got started working with horses. As a teenager, he represented the farm at standardbred yearling sales around the country and became so expert that experienced horsemen sought his counsel. When he enrolled at Cornell, where he majored in government and American studies, his goal was to graduate and return to the family business. But when he was a sophomore, his father and uncle had a clash of philosophies and sold the farm.
"It was a tough time for me," Rosenfeld says. "I realized it wasn't going to be easy to stay in the horse business." For the college student, the setback was only temporary, although it did spur him on to stronger scholastic effort. While he was still in college, Rosenfeld formed Uptown stable with four investors, all friends.
As the managing partner with a 20% stake, Rosenfeld now runs Uptown Stages out of his Manhattan apartment. His strategy is appealingly simple: Buy cheap, sell fast. The idea is to purchase five or six horses a year at the yearling sales and hen turn them over when their value increases, all the while searching for the elusive superstar. The first year, '87, was he only year the enterprise has been in the red. Since then, Uptown has broken even or turned a profit.
Rosenfeld started out in 1988 with a bankroll of $150,000, but purchases at earlier sales had left him with less than 525,000 to invest. His plan at the Lexington sale was to bid on a number of yearlings, with the hope of getting lucky on one. He had already bid on 12 horses, but ill—fortunately, as it turned out—exceeded his budget. Then, in the second week of the sale, he studied the breeding of a yearling out of Sunburn, a mare he loved, by French Chef, a sire he considered underrated.
One of the colt's great-grandsires, on the French Chef side, was Nevele Pride, a dominant trotter in the late 1960s. Mead-JW Skipper, one of the most outstanding racing sires, is the colt's grandsire, also on the French Chef side. The result of this unusual pedigree, Beach Towel, is an anachronism—a powerful pacer in an age in which there are few. He has the look of a trotter, with a deep chest and strong, thick legs, but he is a natural pacer. "He is just a great natural athlete," says Dr. John Steele, one of the leading veterinarians in harness racing.
At the sale in Lexington that night, French Chefs offspring were generating little interest. Rosenfeld joined the bidding for Beach Towel at $12,000. By $15,000, only one other bidder was left, and that one dropped out at $22,000. 'That's it," cried the auctioneer, dropping the hammer just as Bob Burgess, a late entry, raised his hand to bid $23,000. Burgess, who had won $2 million with two other French Chef yearlings, had come in a split second late.
Rosenfeld turned the big, playful yearling over to Ray Remmen, who is something of an anachronism himself, one of a dwindling group of harness horsemen who drive what they train. Ray, a transplanted 43-year-old Canadian, and his two brothers, Larry and Gordon, have trained and raced Rosenfeld family horses since 1982. A winner of more than 2,300 races, Ray Remmen has made his green-and-white silks popular with harness racing's chalk players.
As a 2-year-old, Beach Towel won 11 of 13 races, earning purses worth $478,497. This time the owner had no intention of selling for a quick profit. "It was a dream coming true," says Rosenfeld.
Still, Beach Towel's racing future wasn't certain. By comparison with thoroughbred racing, harness racing purses for 2-year-olds are enormous. By the time many young stars race as 3-year olds, they have been burned out. Not Beach Towel. Going into the Breeders Crown, he had won 17 of 22 races in 1990 and $1,908,394. One of his losses was the result of breaking stride as he led the $1 million North America Cup final in Toronto in June.
For the Breeders Crown, a 20-knot wind was blowing into the faces of the pacers on the Pompano backstretch. Beach Towel got away cleanly and quickly from the 3 position, but as Remmen guided him to the lead along the rail, he glanced worriedly over his left shoulder. There, dangerous on the outside, were Kiev Hanover and In The Pocket, both tall and lean, with the sleeker, racy thoroughbred look of today's pacers. Kiev Hanover had two wins over Beach Towel this year, and In The Pocket one.
Remmen, who didn't want to use up his horse fighting off a wearing challenge from In The Pocket, momentarily ceded the lead to the rival colt, then made a quick move back to the front. That left In The Pocket in the 2 hole, where Remmen knew he would be content to stay, waiting for the stretch challenge. Kiev Hanover, who was parked two horses wide, in fifth place behind Global Assault, was less of a threat. Still, in both his victories over Beach Towel, Kiev Hanover had come on to win from an outside position.
Beach Towel set a blistering pace, clocking 26[4/5] for the quarter and 54[2/5] for the half mile. As Beach Towel powered into the stiff wind on the backstretch, Rosenfeld felt his stomach tightening. Too fast, he thought. Flying swiftly through the backstretch gusts, Beach Towel slowed to a 29[2/5] for the third quarter. Fred Carmody, a 46-year-old bewhiskered ex-barber who is now Beach Towel's groom, smiled. "Go get 'em, Bozo," he whispered.
"He's fearless but intelligent," says Carmody, who nicknamed him after the famous clown. "And thank god he doesn't know how powerful he is. If he did, it would be all over for me." Beach Towel used to enjoy wrestling with his slightly built groom, who would wrap both arms around the powerful colt's neck and let the horse swing Carmody's 160 pounds about the stable. Then one day Beach Towel slammed the groom into a wall, and Carmody gave up the game.
Looking down from his Pompano Park perch, Rosenfeld saw In The Pocket and Kiev Hanover coming out of the turn in their preferred positions: In The Pocket primed in the 2 hole, Kiev Hanover wide and eager to explode. Dèjà vu. But Global Assault faded under the exhausting pace and forced Kiev Hanover even wider, taking him out of the chase. Not that it mattered by then.
"Coming out of the turn I could feel the power flowing from him," says Remmen, who shifted Beach Towel into a higher gear. For a moment, the pursuers appeared to stand still. There was no chase to the wire. Beach Towel increased his lead by three lengths over the last quarter, covered in 27[3/5]. Beach Towel, making three turns on a‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄ-mile track, paced the mile in 1:51⅖ smashing the old Breeders Crown record of 1:53. The winner's share of the purse, $183,466, increased Beach Towel's 1990 earnings to a single-season record of $2,091,860.
It may have been Beach Towel's last campaign. He could earn $1 million next year, but there are no major classics for 4-year-old harness horses, and he would have to grind it out mostly in chunks of $30,000 to $50,000, and always at the risk of injury. Rosenfeld already has begun negotiations with major breeding farms and would consider syndicating Beach Towel if the numbers are right. "I would love to see him run next year," he says, "but all the breeding farms we have talked with want to see him stand right now. I can appreciate why they feel that way."
For Rosenfeld, it's back to the sales to look for another diamond in the rough. Uptown bought seven horses at this year's yearling sales. One is Ferrari Seelster, a full brother to Falcon Seelster, the fastest standardbred ever over a half mile. Rosenfeld paid $43,000 for Ferrari Seelster, a relative bargain. But that's the future, perhaps the opening pages of another storybook. It will take something spectacular to beat the Beach Towel tale.