Day At The Track

Rich Fisher conversation - Seth Rosenfeld

05:26 PM 05 Jun 2013 NZST
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Seth Rosenfeld Sweet Future with Sweet Lou at foot
Seth Rosenfeld - Has more than 25 years of experience as a breeder
USTA/Mark Hall photo
Sweet Future with Sweet Lou at foot - Only broodmare in history thats produced 2 in 1:48 or faster
Seth Rosenfeld photo

Seth Rosenfeld, harness racing principal of Birnam Wood Farms, is a lifelong Yankee fan who is getting the same production from 4-year-old male pacer Sweet Lou as the Bronx Bombers got from Sweet Lou's namesake, Lou Piniella, back in the 1970s.

Sweet Lou, bred by Rosenfeld, became history's fastest 2-year-old colt pacer in 2011 when he set the world record of 1:49 in the Breeders Crown at Woodbine Racetrack. That same night, Sweet Lou's half-brother Bettor Sweet won the $500,000 Breeders Crown Open Pace, giving Seth two winners on one night.

As a 3-year-old, Sweet Lou won more than $1 million but still had what could be termed a disappointing season due to the high expectations put upon him. Part of that may have had to do with a nagging virus that kept the horse from performing at 100 percent much of the year.

But hopes are high for a big comeback year, as Sweet Lou won the $100,000 Meadowlands Maturity for 4-year-old pacers on May 18 at the Meadowlands and finished second in the second round of the TVG Free For All Championship Series at the Big M last weekend.

Rosenfeld has more than 25 years of experience as a breeder and has used two of the best around as role models -- Jim Harrison, who wrote "The Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer," and his uncle Alan Leavitt, who has bred numerous champions in a career spanning five decades.

Birnam Wood Farms' mares and foals are kept at three breeding establishments in North America: David Meirs and family's Concord Stud Farm in Cream Ridge, N.J.; Chris Coyle's Olive Branch Farm in Wingate, N.C.; and Walnut Hall Ltd. in Lexington. Ky.

Seth, who just returned from the Elitlopp in Sweden, took some time out of his schedule to talk with ustrotting.com about his hopes for Sweet Lou and some of the nuances of successful breeding. He says sometimes it's not as complicated as one might think.

USTA: Let's start with Sweet Lou. He made over a million last year despite being a little inconsistent. It may sound funny to ask if you were happy with a horse that made a million, but because of that virus he didn't quite meet his high expectations. How did you feel about him from last year?

SR: I'm in touch with the owners and with Ron (trainer/co-owner Ron Burke) and I mean it sounds weird for a horse that took a record of (1):47 and a piece and made a million dollars to be disappointed but I think everyone was a little disappointed. We all felt he was such an exceptional horse that every time he doesn't win you think you could have done better. And so frequently he was so devastating in eliminations and didn't put it together in the final. It sounds bizarre to be disappointed with it, but yeah, I think a little disappointed is fair to say.

USTA: Was it the virus he had that bothered him or did he just underachieve in finals? What was the reason?

SR: I'm sort of not qualified to really talk about it. But they talked about just little things, where Ron said, and I read this in an interview recently, that it's such a tough group of horses that if you're at 95 percent, even a great horse like him is going to lose. That was sort of the case with him.

USTA: He had a nice trip at the Meadowlands Maturity and a lot of folks think he's looking bigger and stronger than last year. When you look at his breeding, is he one of these horses that could get better with age? Is there anything from his parents that can benefit him?

SR: He was turned out, he's been turned out the last two years for his winter vacation at Chris Coyle's place in North Carolina. Chris said he's a big horse to start with but he was really impressed with the development he showed between (ages) 3 and 4 just from the short time he was there. Just looking at him on the racetrack, the little opportunity I've had to see with my own eyes, he certainly looks big and strong. (laughing) The only thing I qualify that is by saying he certainly looked big and strong last year, too. There was never much about him that said he was an immature horse mentally or physically.

He has a lot of advantages, but one advantage he had over a lot of his competition at 2 was that he's such a nice horse to work around. (Driver) Dave Palone has always talked about what a nice horse he is to drive. His first baby race is on the Internet, I've watched it a lot of times. Just watching him you'd never think this was a horse making his first qualifying start. There weren't any mental issues for him to overcome I don't think, like there are with most horses. But physically a lot of times bigger, stronger horses, sometimes are the kind of horses that do peak at an older age.

The other thing that he's really got going for him is if you look at the Burkes, they do so many things so well, but if had to pinpoint one thing, they keep horses at the highest level for a really, really long time. These horses don't burn out like a lot of horses do. Especially going at the incredible speeds they have to go so frequently these days for the long year we put these horses through.

USTA: He's trying to become just the second male pacer to win divisional honors at ages 2 and 4 without winning as a 3-year-old. Can you see that happening?

SR: (laughing) I hope I don't jinx him, the first horse that comes to my mind, when you say a horse was a champion at 2 and can he be a champion of 4 -- his career reminds me a little bit of Artsplace. Artsplace was a great 2-year-old. His win in the Breeders Crown was one of the maybe greatest performances I've ever seen by a 2-year-old. And I'd put Sweet Lou's win in the Breeders Crown on the same level as Artsplace. That's pretty elite company.

Artsplace also had somewhat of a similar 3-year-old season. On paper he did a lot of good things, he made a lot of money, but based on how good the horse really was intrinsically it was a disappointing year. Then he bounced back at 4. In this day and age, Artsplace was undefeated, I don't think we'll ever see that again from a 4-year-old. But I wouldn't be surprised if he is able to have an exceptional 4-year-old year kind of like what Artsplace did. That's my hope at least.

USTA: He's a half-brother of Bettor Sweet, who has had a great career after age 4. Are there any similarities between the two?

SR: (pause) I hope so. Bettor Sweet didn't accomplish nearly as much as a 2-year-old and didn't really get going until 3 but for sure the fact he's gone on for so long and at such a high level for so long, that's a huge factor in Sweet Lou's favor. And the fact (Bettor Sweet) has been able to do it for so many years. Again, not to jinx him, but he does have a lot of things in his favor going forward. If you had a horse that you bred if you were rooting for things to go well, he's certainly got all the tools and he's certainly got all the right human beings around him.

USTA: How about with his parents. Does he share any traits with (sire) Yankee Cruiser or (dam) Sweet Future?

SR: I know Sweet Future a lot better than I know Yankee Cruiser but I'm a big fan of Yankee Cruiser too. The most dramatic thing that you notice is all the white. The whole family going back generations on the dam side has pretty dramatic white markings and each one is a little different. The second dam has a sort of reverse question mark on their forehead. They all have these distinctive white markings, for no other reason you can always pick them out in a field.

USTA: How about personality traits?

SR: It's interesting, out of this mare they've all had different -- I have to qualify that by saying I'm not around them very frequently myself -- but by all reports they pretty much all have very different personalities to be around.

They're all charismatic. But he was always a very smart horse and a really good horse to work around. (Bettor Sweet's trainer) Tom Cancelliere uses a really good phrase when he says he's his own man or something like that, which is great. Bettor Sweet is a tough horse and he's not the easiest horse to be around and Tom deserves a lot of credit for how he handles him. There's a lot of quality about them. But they have different personalities. Maybe their qualities are reflective of the sire more than anything else, now that I think about it.

USTA: I've heard that Ron Burke wants to race him at least this year and next year. Do you see it going any further than that?

SR: (laughing) If Ronnie says it, yeah. When Ronnie says that, it may seem wild to think of making over a million dollars year after year but Ronnie does it, and I think he said at least this is the best young horse they've ever been around. If he says he can keep going, to be able to put that kind of money in the bank, and I think any horse that can go on and race that long if he can, is really good for the sport. I know the sport's trying to emphasize longevity of keeping great horses on the race track and it's pretty exciting that they plan to.

USTA: Yeah it is. It gives people more time to identify with horses, maybe get a rooting interest, things like that.

SR: Yeah, for sure. That is one of the great qualities of the Standardbreds is that they are more durable than the Thoroughbreds. Any Standardbred in my opinion has a better chance of returning in the next year than a Thoroughbred. That's one of the qualities that the breed has going for it. It's nice to be able to show it up.

USTA: Where did the name Sweet Lou come from? Is he named after anyone in particular?

SR: I did. His name is from (former Yankee standout) Lou Piniella. They used to call him Sweet Lou. They've all had a sweet aspect to their names and so I had Yankee Cruiser, sort of the Yankee connection. I put the sweet and the Yankee part together in my mind and came up with Sweet Lou.

It shows you how old I am but I remember Lou Piniella as a player. I remember the first time I heard Lou Piniella announced live at Yankee Stadium and I was 10 or 11 years old, and everyone was going ‘Loouuuuu!' with that chant. I was horrified. I turned to my dad and said ‘They're booing Lou Piniella!' I was horrified. Booing Lou Piniella is just terrible. But he told me they were chanting Lou.

USTA: How would you describe your emotions when Sweet Lou and Bettor Sweet were Breeders Crown winners? One of your better nights I am guessing?

SR: That was as good a day as a breeder can hope for. It was unbelievable. Bettor Sweet won the last race of the day. I was in a state of shock. Even though he was the logical pick and had a great chance, but it was just unbelievable.

USTA: Let's talk about you a little bit. You learned a lot from Jim Harrison and your uncle Alan (Leavitt). What kind of impact have they had on your career?

SR: I mean, you know, both of them huge. (laughing) Mr. Harrison literally wrote the book and I think my uncle could easily have written a book and I've probably learned a whole lot more than a book's worth from him, so, I mean, it's hard to condense it into a couple of sentences.

USTA: So you could write a book on what they've done for you!

SR: Yeah, exactly. I mean, breeding horses requires patience more than anything else, I think. And I think to a certain extent, you just sort of have to keep the faith because sometimes you see something and you kind of feel you're on to something with a blood line and you just have to sort of wait it out. I think the toughest part about being a breeder sometimes is sort of waiting for the market to catch up with you and see if you're right.

I think if you feel that there's sort of a quality there you have to show patience. The other thing, you're always walking a fine line between trying to breed commercially and trying to breed successfully. Usually they intertwine but not always. With mares by Falcons Future, Sweet Future's by Falcons Future and Yankee Cruiser is certainly an excellent stallion, but none of them have been sort of strong commercial choices but I think they turned out to be right in these particular cases. Sometimes it's easier to do that when your horses aren't that super commercial horses to start with.

USTA: Let's talk about breeding horses. It is obviously a very scientific profession that involves tons of research and knowledge. But if you were to explain it to a person who knows nothing about breeding, what is the simplest explanation you can give as the key to breeding a quality horse? Is there one thing you look for above all others in pairing horses up?

SR: Jim Harrison said people always ask him (about) some of the great horses that he was responsible for the mating; he told me the story of people would ask him "How did you come up with the mating for Bret Hanover?" He said "I think I was sitting there with Mr. Sheppard and he said Brenna Hanover to Adios and we said yup." I don't know if Mr. Harrison came up with this himself or if he was repeating it but he used to say breed the best to the best and hope for the best.

USTA: (laughing) So this science I am mythologizing here isn't exactly a science at all?

SR: Exactly. So many of the best horses didn't take a lot of creativity. A lot of the times you're just going for what you can afford. What sort of fits into the best you can get within your budget, before you even start looking at the bloodlines or any other aspect.

USTA: How about when a horse is young? Are there some you can just sense right away that they have that something special? Or is it too early to tell until they get a trainer working with them and all that stuff?

SR: Umm...good question. There are definitely horses, sometimes when you breed you're looking for a certain something that you're trying to accomplish something. Sometimes you can tell right away. I've had Dave Meirs call me 24 hours after a foal's born and he'll sort of say "Bingo! We got it! We've accomplished what we wanted!" And I'll be like "How can you tell?" We were scared a certain sire produces horses that look a certain way so we felt we had a mare that would match well with a certain sire and sometimes he makes a sort of a real quick declaration that this worked. And in fact, he's usually right. To tell you the truth I would never be able to make that kind of determination after a foal was just born.

USTA: Along those same lines, knowing trainers the way you do, can you watch one of your horses at a young age and say "So and so would be a great person to handle this horse," just because of the horse's early personality?

SR: I don't think so. I think most of the time the good trainers can handle all different types of horses. In general I'd say most trainers will tell you the most important thing about training a good horse is getting a good horse.

USTA: What about some of your younger horses? Are there any you have bred recently that we should be keeping an eye on? Or would that be the ultimate jinxing?

SR: (laughing) Hey you have to be an optimist. There's a Well Said half-brother to Bettor Sweet and Sweet Lou, the 2-year-old the Cancelliere brothers have (named Sweet Talkin Clyde). They're very pleased and excited with him so far. I've got another one to sell this fall, he's a very, very nice colt. I'm obviously very excited about him.

USTA: Anything else you want to say or get out there?

SR: In terms of Sweet Lou it's funny, as much as he's done well it seems like Yankee Cruiser is still under the radar. I'm sort of continuing to breed to him. Sometimes it's a little hard to distinguish whether you're enthusiastic because it's worked for you or you just think you're truly being objective.

That's one thing I'd say my uncle always has sort of done for 50 years probably, is buy a stallion that has done exceptionally well with limited opportunities. That's a very specific thing, he's sort of jumped on them before they're commercially acceptable. I've talked about this with Yankee Cruiser before, when I saw his first crop race in Ohio I thought that was something important.

USTA: So it's like the stock market. Buy low, sell high.

SR: Yeah, and one of the advantages of that, is if you're right, great. If you're not you're probably paying market value anyway. So it gives you a lot of upside.

USTA: Seth this was fascinating. Thanks so much for the time.

SR: Yeah it was great talking to you too Rich. Thanks.

by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

Courtesy of the United States Trotting Association Web Newsroom

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