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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.
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.