Today is Kentucky Derby Day. It is the custom in our household on Derby Day for family members to reach into a paper bag and blindly pull out the names of the horses running at Churchill Downs. We repeat the ritual two weeks later when the Preakness is run at Pimlico Race Course.
The person who chooses the winning horse gets to behave badly, to claim that he or she is much smarter than the rest of us. I have yet to win.
My interest in thoroughbred horse racing is short-lived. It fires up on Derby Day and goes into hibernation after the Belmont in June. But this week, as the Derby drew near, I checked in with a man afflicted with long-term racing fever. Willie Rosen has spent most of his 88 years working at racetracks, mingling with its denizens, playing its angles.
From 1948 until 1995, he tended bar at a variety of Maryland tracks, including those in Upper Marlboro, Cumberland, Hagerstown, Bowie, Laurel, Timonium and Pimlico.
A willing talker, Rosen speaks in the argot of the track. A five-dollar bill is "a fin." He doesn't watch someone; he "clocks" them. Phrases like "he put the finger on me," as in "one of the boys inside the cop car put the finger on me," fall from his lips.
Although some leg surgeries -- he has "bad wheels," in his parlance -- have recently "put the kibosh" on his once-rigorous physical-fitness routines, his mind is lively and his memory sharp. "I may not be the smartest guy in the world," Rosen told me during several long telephone conversations from his Northwest Baltimore apartment, "but I got a long memory."
One of seven children, Rosen grew up in Northeast Baltimore and bailed from school at the age of 15. His initial connection to the track was selling newspapers that carried the late racing results.
"I would hop on the No. 19 street car at Preston and Central," Rosen said. "I had the 10-Star News, the All-Star Sun and the pink Post," he said referring to late-afternoon editions of three Baltimore newspapers.
He was introduced to "the sporting life" when he worked as a caddy at the old Rodgers Forge Country Club, earning $1 for carrying a bag of golf clubs 18 holes. One day, his wages ended up in an illegal dice game being played at the 15th hole, and he ended up in the Baltimore County jail, but only after a chase.
"I looked up from the game and a county cop coming down the fairway said, `Halt in the name of the law,'" Rosen said. Instead of halting, Rosen broke into a run, taking refuge in woods behind the ninth hole. He made his way to York Road, where he planned to make his escape by catching the No. 8 streetcar. "But son of a gun, the car was a little late," he recalled.
The squad car, carrying one of the dice players in the back seat, rolled up, he said. The player "fingered" Rosen, and he spent the night in jail. He was bailed out the next morning by his mother and father.
Drafted into the Army during World War II and eventually stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., Rosen ventured into nearby Louisville in May of 1942 to see his first Derby. "It cost me a fin to get in. Shut Out won. I did not have him. But I sneaked through the tunnel that runs under the track to get on the infield with the big shots."
After the war, he landed in Jacksonville, Fla., read a book on how to be bartender and got a job pouring drinks at a local hotel. One day a relative from Maryland showed up in Jacksonville with a ticket to Baltimore and word that his mother wanted him back home.
"I have been home ever since," Rosen said.
From his vantage point behind the racetrack bar, Rosen has seen a few things, played a few hunches and, he admits, made a few mistakes.
One mistake was basing a bet on a man's wardrobe. "One day I see Jack Van Berg [a trainer] at Pimlico. He is wearing a brand-new suit. The more I see of that suit, the more I think he's a winner. So the more money I bet on his horse. You know what happens. ... [the horse runs] out of the money."
His horse-playing habits did not always please his late wife, Mildred Ruth Rosen, he said. "She was tight as a doornail," he said. He admits that "when he got lucky" at the track, before heading home he would stash cash with a cousin who ran a pharmacy at York Road and Cold Spring Lane.
Today, Rosen said, he probably will watch the Derby at the home of a niece. He scoffed at my notion of picking horses by drawing names out of a bag. "That's an office thing," he said.
He will watch the spectacle on television. One of his favorite parts of the Derby is when the horses parade to the post. Even a racetrack "sharpie" like Rosen admits that "when they play `My Old Kentucky Home,' a chill goes through me."