As track bartender, Rosen has seen it all

April 17, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

What Willie Rosen has acquired in spending almost 50 years as a racetrack bartender is a fascination for people, a personal study of the passing parade, be they high rollers, have-nots, pretenders, regular players and casual visitors. He caught them in variable moods, either celebrating with a victory toast or drowning their sorrows after being beaten in a photo-finish.

He remembers when Maryland's entire racing season numbered only 100 days at Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico with 12-day stops along the half-mile circuit at Upper Marlboro, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Timonium and Bel Air. Now it's full blast year-round, with the schedule confined to Laurel, Pimlico and a brief interlude at Timonium.

The game has changed and so have the spectators. Instead of the crowd cheering as the horses hit the stretch, most of the attention is now directed at the closed-circuit television outlets. Fans scream at an electronic box that produces a picture. Racing around the country has become more of a betting room atmosphere than a sporting arena.

Rosen, who is 76 and counting, knows he can't alter other lifestyles and doesn't try.

"They still come up to me and say, 'Hey, Willie, who you like?' But I can't tell them," he says. "If I knew, I'd keep it to myself and make a fortune. I've made only a few wagers off my own handicapping. As employees, we aren't supposed to bet but, after all, it is a racetrack, not an ice cream parlor."

As a bar-keep for 47 years, the career of Willie is winding down. The upcoming Preakness may be his grand finale, but he's still keeping the option open.

"I've heard a lot and seen a lot," he says. "Characters like Mr. Diz and Horse Thief Burk. I haven't seen Foto Lewis for years. I hope he's still around. Nothing is like it used to be, so why should racetracks be any different?"

The drinkers around the bar, once ordering the best brands of whiskey, are now buying more beer than ever. He also notices the taste for vodka has increased, taking over in popularity from the Canadian brands of liquor.

"I often tell myself how much the racetrack is similar to life itself," Rosen says. "You see good people, bad people, all kinds of people. And every owner will tell you his horse can't lose."

He has known bettors who couldn't buy a winner and, when street cars were running, gave them 10 cents in carfare to get home. Maybe that was what Willie was all about, a willingness to hear a sad story and, if he could, try to help. The goodwill he created at Pimlico and Laurel made him something of a public relations man for his employers, although they weren't paying him for that.

"I've seen men so desperate after a bad day they'd actually sell their wristwatches," Rosen says. "And once, a man took out his glass eye and said if someone would let him borrow a fin [$5] he'd let them hold his glass eye for security until he paid it back. He got the money, but was told to keep his glass eye."

The largest investment Willie ever made was $1,000 in the Preakness, betting on Riva Ridge in 1972 because he heard trainer Lucien Laurin say his horse "could run on any kind of racetrack." It came from an emergency fund he had put aside. Riva Ridge lost but Willie "bet him back" in the Belmont and made a financial recovery.

He remembers a racing official, a part-owner of a track, who liked to back heavy favorites to show. "It was only a four-horse field and he bet $10,000 on Marion Bender at 1-to-9 to finish third," said Rosen, "but the horse, I believe with Nick Shuk riding, broke down and finished last. How do you like that? Like in life and the races, you just never know."

Rosen made it to one Kentucky Derby, during World War II, when he was in the Army. He said chills ran down his spine when he watched the crowd rise to its feet to sing the state anthem, "My Old Kentucky Home." That was in 1942 but the memory is still with him, even though his horse, Valdina Orphan, a long shot, finished third. But even Eddie Arcaro, the Hall of Fame jockey, couldn't tell the right horse from the wrong one that day.

It was Arcaro's call, Rosen remembers, to decide which of the two-horse Greentree Stable entry he wanted to ride -- Shut Out or Devil Diver. Arcaro e took the latter and got whipped while Shut Out won under another jockey, Wayne Wright.

Still later, Rosen made it to Europe with the 13th Armored Division and once was in an audience of soldiers who listened to a colorful discourse from Gen. George Patton.

The most positive aspect of Maryland racing comes from the ongoing popularity of the Preakness. "I think Chick Lang, when he was general manager, revived the race," says Willie. "They were having crowds of 25,000 and 30,000 but then Chick discovered the infield and the race took off in its acceptance."

Rosen has observed and listened to the conversational sounds of the sport from a different perspective, behind the bar pouring drinks, and fondly remembers when men and women dressed in their finest clothes to turn a "day at the races" into something of a fashion show. That, too, has undergone change.

He never owned a race horse or rode one, only made an occasional bet, but Willie was there to provide service and became a part of the scene, with a reputation for pouring an honest drink and being attentive to the customers. In the eyes of the patrons he was, indeed, a winner.

He found out, through the course of events, that the best tips he could get were the kind he was able to put in his pocket.

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