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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Legendary Football Team That Horse Racing Built

On February 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers will attempt to become the first professional football team to win 6 Super Bowl titles—the “Six-Pack” as folks are calling it here in Western Pennsylvania (personally, I think “One for the Thumb” had a much better ring to it).

Since the Golden Era of the 1970s, when Hall of Fame players like Terry Bradshaw, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and “Iron” Mike Webster played, the Steelers have enjoyed great success, but that hadn’t always been the case.

The fifth-oldest NFL franchise endured over 40 years without a championship season, yet its team founder Art Rooney Sr.—“The Chief,” as Pittsburghers know him—and his family never gave up, committed as they were to their hometown. However, many folks don’t realize that the Pittsburgh Steelers may never have existed, or at least survived all those hard financial times (pre-network television contracts, sold-out stadia, and merchandising), racing.

On July 8, 1933, Art Rooney Sr. paid the $2,500 NFL franchise fee founding the Pittsburgh Pirates (they were renamed the Steelers in 1940), allegedly from racetrack winnings. Being raised above his father’s saloon on Pittsburgh’s North Side, Rooney was no stranger to bookies and horse players, and apparently demonstrated significant prowess as horse player. The franchise fee story has become legend, but it was a much bigger score in August 1936 that allowed the team to remain in the black (and gold).

The Chief’s son Art Rooney Jr., in his 2008 self-published book Ruanaidh (Gaelic spelling of “Rooney”), discusses those two fateful days in 1936:

“AJR was born to play the horses…in 1936, in two days at two tracks in New York, he made a killing that people talked about for years. Talked about and wrote about. Joseph Madden, a New York saloonkeeper with literary aspirations, was the first to record the details. They appeared in his book of memoirs, “Set ‘Em Up.” Under the caption “Rooney’s Ride,” John Lardner re-told the story in his Newsweek column. Other accounts followed, all describing how AJR picked as many as eleven straight winners in that two-day spree and won an indeterminate amount of money which may have totaled upwards of $380,000. Roy Blount, in his book about the Steelers and the Rooneys, said it was ‘probably the greatest individual performance in the history of American horse-playing.’ Nobody since has disagreed.” (p. 37)

Art Rooney’s winning streak began on an August Saturday afternoon at the Empire City track (later Yonkers harness track, which his sons purchased in 1972), and ended upstate on Monday at Saratoga. Rooney’s first bet was $8,000 on 8-1 longshot Quel Jeu (the then-six-year-old 1932 Remsen Handicap winner eventually won 25 races in 140 lifetime starts) who won in a photo finish, and it was the first of five long-shots he hit among his seven (on an eight-race card) winners. Exactly how much money Art Rooney won that day hasn’t been revealed, although every source agrees it was in excess of $100,000. In his book My Turf, Bill Nack quotes Saratoga bookmaker Reggie Halpern who claims, “Art Rooney won six straight races here and walked out of the betting ring with $105,000. I know. I took some of the action.” (p. 25)

However, in his book Art Rooney Jr. says:

“Madden and Lardner wrote that AJR cleared $256,000 at Saratoga that day. AJR told me it was more, but did not say precisely how much more. A friend of his, the director of racing at our Yonkers track, put the figure at $380,000. Other estimates are higher. Whatever he won, and the officials at Saratoga offered him a Brink’s armored truck to carry the money back to New York City, he won it at a time when working men were supporting wives and children on as little as twenty dollars a week.” (p. 38)

It wasn’t to be the last of Rooney’s big scores. As Gene over at EquiSpace noted recently, Time magazine reported on a $100,000 score at Aqueduct in September 1937 (although the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives reports the figure was $300,000—a photo of Rooney at the track is viewable here).

With his race track winnings, Art Rooney kept his financially-struggling football franchise afloat—the 1930s Pirates never had a winning season, and it wasn’t until 1974 that they won their first championship. In his essay on Rooney, sports historian Bob Ruck mentions that the Steelers’ early difficulties may even have been attributable in part to The Chief’s love of horse racing, as Rooney admitted:

“Although I understood the football business as well as anybody in the league, I didn’t pay the attention to the business that some of the other owners gave it. I was out of town a great deal of the time, at the racetracks. With me, the racetrack was a big business. And generally I’d have a head coach who was like me—he’d like the races.” (pp. 256-257)

The quintessential Irishman—who also loved boxing in addition to horse racing—Art Rooney had a wonderful sense of perspective and good humor. The Post-Gazette article relays the following example:

“According to one story, a priest came and asked Rooney for money to help start a Catholic orphanage. Rooney peeled off $10,000 and handed it to the priest, who asked, ‘Are these ill-gotten gains?’

‘Why no, father, I won that money at the race track,’ Rooney said.”

A regular attendee at the Kentucky Derby and Irish Derby, Rooney scaled back his betting on thoroughbred racing when the pari-mutuel system replaced bookmakers, according to his son. However, he and his family continued their involvement in the sport, as breeders and owners since 1948 of thoroughbreds (until the 1980s) and standardbreds through their Shamrock Farms in Woodbine, Maryland, and their ownership of Yonkers Raceway, where The Chief’s third son Tim has served as president since 1972.


William Nack. My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money and The Sporting Life (Da Capo Press, 2003) p. 25.

Rob Ruck. “Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers” in Randy Roberts, ed., Pittsburgh Sports: Stories from the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) pp. 243-262.

Art Rooney Jr., with Roy McHugh. Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan. (Self-published by Art Rooney Jr., 2008) pp. 36-38.

Gary Tuma. “From the PG Archives: Steelers’ Art Rooney in Retrospect” (reprint on August 26, 1988 obituary story). Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 14, 2007.

Caryl Velisek. “Shamrock in Winfield One of Top Maryland Breeders” from Horsin’ Around, A Special Supplement to the Delmarva Farmer Newspaper. June 24, 2003.


Anonymous said...

Great story!

The thought of pulling out a six figure score at the track is an absolute dream.

Granted, the only football franchise I'd be able to purchase with that lood today would be the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Right colours, wrong league!



Colins Ghost said...

Great stuff! Good luck with the Steelers...

Gene Kershner said...

Super (no pun intended) post Val, and thanks for the link.

Sorry about jinxing you this bad. :)

Superfecta said...

Nice use of ExplorePaHistory; I've been sending them a lot of images of late at work.

Wind Gatherer said...

Rather ironic, now, that Stonerside had to shut down in order to stay in the NFL.

Both games seem to be intertwined and yet on disparate paths.

Great post.