George E. Smith, known as “Pittsburg (sic) Phil,” was a horseplayer of renowned skills.  In fact, when he died of tuberculosis in 1905, at age 43, he was legendary.  Smith led a temperate and unostentatious life, precisely the opposite style of Diamond Jim Brady, another fabled handicapper of the era.

The book “Rooney, A Sporting Life” (published 2010) demonstrates that Smith was not the only celebrated horseplayer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.   Arthur J. Rooney Jr. (1901-1988) is most remembered as the founding owner of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers.  But he also had a lifelong devotion to horse racing and handicapping.

The book is replete with information and anecdotes about Rooney’s adventures at racetracks.  The authors said about Rooney:  “He loved his racing routines just as he loved to say the decades of Hail Marys around the circular strings of beads.  He based his life on the rhythms of racing, football, and Catholicism.  His year started at Florida’s tracks.  Come spring, he frequented East Coast venues.  The Kentucky Derby in May and the Belmont Stakes were annual rituals, and he usually attended the Preakness.”

When Art and his wife Kathleen or “Kass” McNulty married in 1931, they began a cross continent track-to-track journey—beginning with the Belmont Stakes and ending in Tijuana.

Particularly interesting is a chapter called “Rooney’s Ride” about how Rooney at the 1937 Saratoga meet won $300,000 ($4.95 million in 2015 dollars) from the bookmakers, followed up by huge paydays at Aqueduct.  (He did not like it at all when horse racing in the United States switched from bookmaking to pari-mutuel wagering.)  The Pittsburgh Press wrote:  “Since his big splurge at Saratoga several weeks ago, he hasn’t had a minute of peace.”  Rooney’s reputation as one of the greatest horse-racing handicappers ever was sealed.

In addition to the Steelers, Rooney and his sons owned several racetracks.  The family still owns, for example, Yonkers Raceway.

Rooney also bred Thoroughbreds at his Shamrock Farm in Maryland.  It remains in business and is owned and operated by Rooney heirs.  The farm today stands Nicanor, a full brother to Barbaro.

One of Rooney’s favorite horse-related stories was as follows.  Rooney once gave a Thoroughbred broodmare to Steelers’ Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.  She was in foal to Rooney’s stakes winner Christopher R.  After the mare foaled, the Louisiana-born and Quarter-Horse owning Bradshaw asked Rooney to take her back because he did not know anything about keeping Thoroughbreds and the Louisiana weather was supposedly too hot for the mare.  Rooney complied and Bradshaw traded the mare’s foal for an elite-bred Quarter Horse filly.  As fate would have it, the Thoroughbred foal Bradshaw traded went on to earn $500,000 in purses, a sum more than Bradshaw received in five years for quarterbacking the Steelers.

Art Rooney came from a working-class family on Pittsburgh’s Irish Northside, where his father was a saloon keeper and other close relatives labored in steel mills.  His friends and acquaintances included people from all walks of life—from U. S. presidents, sports figures, and entertainers to groundskeepers–and he treated them all with respect.  Byron “Whizzer” White played for the Steelers and eventually became a Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.  One of Rooney’s close friends was Tim Mara, founder of the NFL’s New York Giants and “an established legal bookmaker.”  (Rooney Mara, the actress, is a descendant of Art Rooney and Tim Mara.)

Art Rooney handed out untold sums of cash to people down on their luck and he kept on hapless football coaches and players past their prime long after they should have been gone.  His franchise was an habitual loser until his sons began to run the football operations.  Rooney frequented places like Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia when he could have been at Royal Ascot.  We, unfortunately, may never see his likes again in this age of sport as big business.

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