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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.