BACKER OF A BEARBACK RIDE

Except for lions, which get too gentle, any reasonable animal can be trained, or so says Jonny Rivers, who provides Gulfstream Park with its wildest contests
June 27, 1971

Delma Rivers, carrying a tiny bear cub in one hand and a baby bottle in the other, slogged slowly through the freshly raked dirt of Gulfstream's racing strip. Half a furlong ahead Jonny, her husband, was wheeling a long low red trailer into position in front of the winner's circle. The tiny windows of the trailer were barred. From inside came growls, deep, throaty and vicious. "I don't even want to look," said Jockey Eddie Maletto. He was clothed in the classic attire of an elf: a long green stocking cap and pointed green slippers, both belled, a green jacket with spiked red collar, a blue leotard and a slightly sheepish look. Maletto turned to a friend, Norman Reagan, a jockey in civilian clothes. "You go look," he said. Reagan laughed, moved to the trailer and peered in through the bars.

"What do they look like?" Maletto asked.

"They look like bears, you dimwit. What did you think they looked like?"

"Yeah," Maletto said, unhappily.

Jonny Rivers climbed down from the cab of the truck. "O.K., let's get those bears out here," he said. "They want to meet the jockeys."

"He means they want to cat the jockeys," said Reagan, laughing. Maletto gave him a pained look.

"You want all three bears?" Bob Leonard, a handler, asked Rivers.

"Naw," said Rivers, waving a large, grainy hand. "Just bring out Barney and Becky. Leave Beulah in there. She's sort of a surprise."

"A surprise for whom?" he was asked.

Rivers looked around and noted there were no jockeys within hearing distance. Still, he whispered, "A surprise for the jockeys. I don't want to scare them off. That Beulah, she's still got her front claws. She's crazy. And quick. When we turn her loose she's liable to take off for the lake. She ought to be good for a few laughs on Saturday."

This was Wednesday morning, three days before the 1971 Florida Derby, and the only chance the jockeys, all volunteers, would get to meet their mounts before the pre-Derby wild-animal race. In the past they and others had ridden such exotic beasts as Brahma bulls, zebras, camels, yaks, ostriches, buffalo, llamas, guanacos and baby elephants, all painted in the orchid colors of the Derby. Most of the rides since 1959 had been short and painful. For trying, the jockeys get $100 for riding and an extra $100 for winning.

"Come on, Eddie," Rivers said. "Climb up on old Barney and let's see what happens." Rivers has trained all the animals for the Gulfstream zoo racing classic, and he has never lost his curiosity about what will happen when one of the little people first boards one of his steeds. "Usually," he says, "they wind up on their butts. Or their heads."

Old Barney was a 4-year-old, hand-raised from a cub, and as a full-grown black bear weighed in at close to 400 pounds. He was muzzled and his front claws had been pulled. Still, he looked as though he belonged in a cage, not a starting gate. "Don't worry, Eddie, his claws are gone," Rivers said soothingly. "The ones he uses to rip open stomachs. Get on."

Sighing, Maletto climbed up and slipped quickly down and off the bear's back. Onto his butt. Barney is not quite as tall as a Shetland pony, and his back is nearly as narrow as a porch railing. "He's too small to ride," the jockey complained. But he tried again. This time he dug both hands into Barney's fur. Roaring, Barney spun, sending Maletto flying. "Don't grab his fur," Rivers said mildly. "It makes him angry."

"Now you tell me," said Maletto.

"Hey, Eddie, grab him by the ears," offered Reagan, laughing.

"You jump in the lake," said Maletto. "We've got a deal. If I don't grab anything of his, he won't grab anything of mine. Are you sure this muzzle is on tight?" A moment later Barney broke the pact. After tossing Maletto, the bear whirled and climbed on the fallen jockey. Two great furry forelegs hugged Maletto's slender chest.

"Ride him, Barney," Reagan yelled. "Give him the whip."

"Get this crazy son-of-a-gun off of me," Maletto yelled.

"Don't call him names," Rivers admonished, trying not to laugh. "It just makes him mad." Finally, he pried the bear loose from the jockey. Maletto stayed down with his head cradled in his arms. Finally he looked up at Rivers. "Are you really going to turn those things loose on Saturday?" he asked.

"Of course," said Jonny Rivers, taking off his 10-gallon white Stetson.

Late that afternoon, with the air conditioner humming its own race against the humid Florida heat, Joe Tanenbaum, Gulfstream's energetic information director, sat in his office and took all the blame for the madness of racing bears and such on a thoroughbred racetrack. "The only bad thing," he said sadly, "is that instead of bears this year, I thought we'd have hippopotamuses. I've always wanted hippos."

The whole thing began 12 years ago when Tanenbaum moved from racing editor at the Miami News to his post at the track. He wanted to put on something really spectacular for Derby Day, but he was not sure just what. He went to see a friend, the late Herb Kelly, then the amusement editor of the News and once an ardent $2 horse bettor.

"Herb," Tanenbaum said, "when are you coming back to the track?"

"When you run elephants instead of horses," Kelly said.

Tanenbaum blinked behind his glasses. "That's it," he said. "Elephants! We'll race elephants. And zebras. And, and, well, all sorts of things." He frowned. "But where will we get them?"

"Are you serious?"

Tanenbaum assured Kelly he was.

"O.K.," said Kelly. "Let me make a few calls." Half an hour later he had a name—Jonny Rivers. "He's some kind of cowboy out of Missouri who puts on acts with diving mules," he told Tanenbaum. "Find him and maybe you have your man."

Jonny Rivers entered the world an orphan of sorts. He was born in 1917, the year his father was killed by a German machine gunner in France. Without funds or family, his mother moved from Dodge City, where his grandfather, Frank Culbert, had once been a marshal, to Omaha, and when he was six he was sent to Father Flanagan's Boys' Town. The practice at the time was to hire out the home's larger boys to work on farms in the summer. When he was 12, Rivers was 6' and weighed 165 pounds, which was considered more than big enough. A farmer came and took him to a cornfield, where he handed Rivers a hoe. He worked 16 hours a day and made $15 a month. The first time they handed him $15 he took off. He did not even stop to say goodby. For the next four years he took any job he could get, eating when he could. At the age of 16 he talked a finance company into putting him into a car, a 2-year-old canary yellow Ford, and, ignoring one of the company's strict rules, immediately started for California. He ran out of both money and gas in Lords-burg, N. Mex. where a marshal found him sleeping in the car and arrested him for vagrancy.

"He told me I had a choice—get a job or go to jail," says Rivers. "I told him I'd love a job, but where? It just so happens, he told me, that his widowed mother was all alone on a small ranch just outside of town, and she needed help. I took the job. Then he asked me about the car. That was the last thing I wanted him to ask. I still owed the finance company $150. He said he would have to call the company and tell them. They told him to sell the car for whatever he could get and send them the money. He sold the car—he sold it to me for $50. His mother put up the money and said she'd take it out of my wages."

The ranch had two cow ponies, and here Rivers' love for animals bloomed. When he wasn't running 200 miles of trap lines or digging postholes with a pickax and coffee can, he spent his time riding one of the ponies. He attended local rodeos, attention glued to the contestants, and then he would rush home and practice what he had seen. Usually he would start with the hardest trick and work backward to the fundamentals. It was a painful way to learn. When he was 17 he said goodby to the widow and took off with a traveling rodeo. "I figured I knew as many or more tricks than the riders they had," he says.

Between rodeos, Rivers took any job he could find. By the time he was 20 he was working nights at a factory and sleeping days as a lifeguard at Carter Lake near Omaha. "I'd just climb up in the tower, put on a pair of sunglasses and snooze," he says. "If anybody had drowned, I'd have been in a lot of trouble." Once he awoke in time to spot Delma, then a 16-year-old state AAU swimming champion. They were married and a child, Butch, was soon on the way. Four more children, two boys and two girls, followed. Rivers decided that to support them he needed to put on his own shows, and he became an expert on breaking unruly thoroughbreds.

"I got all the snakes," he says. "The buckers, the biters, the rollers, the kickers. Every time I got a new one, a crowd of 100 to 150 people would come out to watch. I used to throw on an old cow pony saddle and then sneak up on them. You never knew what they were going to do. Once I got on one and he rolled over backwards. I fixed that son-of-a-gun. Before he could get up I tied his head to the saddle horn. Then I got me a big bullwhip and whaled the tar out of him. All the time the owner was standing there crying and saying I was killing his expensive horse. I said, yeah, but that snake isn't killing me! When I let that horse up he went straight to the track and won. He never rolled on anybody again. And he became a big winner. Wish I had bought him. But there's too many phonies in that sport."

The Rivers family settled for a while just outside Omaha, but in 1957 Jonny decided it was time he had a ranch of his own. At the time everything the Riverses owned was on wheels—a mobile home and two large semitractors. They headed south and wound up in Camdenton, Mo. where a friend talked Rivers into staying the winter and putting on two rodeos. He expected to move on as soon as spring arrived.

"But I got to looking around the place and it was beautiful," he says. "Right on the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks and right in the heart of the mountains. And that winter was real mild. I went around in my shirtsleeves. I told Delma, this is it, and we bought some land. That winter sure fooled me. I've been up to my hips in snow ever since."

Rivers laughs, at the snow and at most things. "I learned a long time ago it doesn't pay to be serious," he says. "Ah, people, they are a pain in the butt. Sometimes I get so sick of them I could throw up. You can tell 95% of them a whopping lie and they'll swallow it. But tell them the truth and they'll question you. Out on the road with a show, they'll ask a million asinine questions. Over and over. Finally I just stare at them, make a few funny signs and walk away. They think I'm either crazy or deaf and dumb, but they leave me alone. I guess people are just like animals; some are smart and some are idiots."

The animal idiots Rivers trades away. He spends half his waking hours trading animals. Sometimes even he gets stuck.

"I guess I know as much about a horse as any man," he says. "And all I know is that a horse has a head, a tail and four legs and any one of them has as much chance as the next. That's why I have to laugh when I see how much people pay for thoroughbreds. Some of the stuff they buy should bark. But I ain't so smart either."

Eleven years ago Rivers discovered that mules could be trained to dive from a platform into a pool of water. This has been his ace act ever since. "All you need is a lot of patience, and a big club to get their attention," he says.

The big club is another put-on, as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals discovered after exhaustive investigations. It has been a few years since Rivers was last accused of treating his stock less than tenderly. But there was a time when he would hardly hit a town before being swarmed under by indignant animal lovers.

"Once when we arrived in Wichita there were about 40 angry people backed up by 10 deputy sheriffs," he recalls. "What can I do for you? I asked. Go away, said a deputy. He said his office had been flooded with complaints. So I asked him if he had ever seen the act and he said no.

"O.K.," said Rivers, "I'll tell you what. I've got a baby mule. Let us set up, and then I'll turn her loose a block from the pool. Nobody will touch her or anything. We'll just see what happens." The deputy agreed. After the tower-ramp and pool were set up, they turned the mule loose. Off she went, straight up the ramp, and without a moment's hesitation dived 20 feet into the six-foot pool of water. Then she climbed out and did it again.

"Golly danged," said the head deputy. "Say, would you have any extra tickets? I'd like my kids to see this."

"I don't know what they thought we were doing," Rivers says now. "Using trapdoors or pushing them off the platform, I guess. Shoot, we treat our animals better than most people treat their pets. Sometimes I even think I'm working for the animals instead of them working for me."

By this time Rivers had added exotic animals to his horse and mule acts. He figures an animal is an animal, and if he gets one with sense it can be trained. Except lions. "They are the worst act in the world," he says. "After they are trained they become gentle, dead-headed, won't do anything. That's why if you get a charging lion you've got a good one. Tigers are different. You can train them all you want and they'll still try and get at you if they can. Llamas are the same way. You can't turn your back on them for a minute."

The lure of an animal act never seems to fade; after 11 years Rivers still draws as many fans as ever to his diving mules. "I don't know what the fascination is," he says, "but you never hear someone say, oh, I saw that last year. They always come back. I don't know if they are waiting to see the mules refuse to dive or to see them miss the pool. The act was a hit from the time we put it on. Promoters were just begging to have it."

It was in 1959 that Joe Tanenbaum of Gulfstream took Herb Kelly's advice and called Rivers, who was intrigued by the idea of racing assorted animals. Rivers was given a flat fee and put entirely on his own. All he had to do was show up three days before Derby Day with three reasonably unusual animals that would allow jockeys to sit on their backs for at least a moment or two. The first year Rivers arrived with Brahma bulls. One of the jockeys was Bill Hartack, who was unfazed when his bull jumped the infield fence. Hartack made the bull jump back and got off laughing. "But I almost died," says Tanenbaum. "A few years later Walter Blum got on a camel and the crazy thing bucked and jumped and almost put Blum into the lake. Right then, I said no more top jockeys. They weren't complaining, but the trainers sure were. The jockeys were all for it; they wanted to prove that they could ride anything."

Two years ago Tanenbaum decided he would like to have Canadian reindeer with Eskimo jockeys. He petitioned the Canadian government, which replied in a huff: "While our Eskimo people would enjoy participating in such a race and perhaps building an igloo, we believe that...they might not enhance their image...an image which has been abused over the years. It would be an anachronism to have an Eskimo ride a reindeer, for these animals were not native to our northern regions but were imported from Lapland. The Canadian Eskimo does not ride them, nor, we are told, does the Laplander."

Tanenbaum was hurt, but elected not to declare war on Canada. He really had wanted a hippopotamus race anyway, but Rivers had been able to turn up only one. So it was reindeer without Eskimos.

On the Friday before this year's Florida Derby the traditional post position drawing was held. Rivers was there with Louie, a cigar-smoking, beer-drinking chimp. In a flash of inspiration, Tanenbaum had announced that Louie would draw the positions. In the past, Gulfstream President Jimmy Donn Jr. had done the job. Just before the draw, Donn walked into the track's dining room, braced Tanenbaum and said, "I understand I have been replaced by an ape." At first Tanenbaum thought he was kidding. Then he didn't. So he stepped to the microphone and said, "And here's Gulfstream President Jimmy Donn Jr. to draw the post positions."

Louie was miffed. So was Rivers.

Rain fell that night, leaving Gulfstream scrubbed and shiny for Derby Day. At exactly 11:45 Rivers wheeled his three bears onto the track. The jockeys—Maletto, Carmine Donofrio and John Beech Jr.—were there in their elf costumes, trying to ignore the taunts of the crowd. "The patrons were making some very unkind remarks about our attire," says Beech. "You may say I retorted in kind, only under my breath." It was Beech who drew Beulah, the one with claws and ideas of her own. On her first pass, as they were entering the starting gate, she ripped open the front of Beech's jersey, Beech punched her in the mouth, puncturing his right thumb on a tooth. And then they were off. Beech grabbed two handfuls of fur and was rewarded with a bear-sized rrrrrhhhhhhh! "He or she got plenty mad," Beech said later. "There was a big rumble that sounded like it was gonna turn into a roar. I figured I would be just a good mouthful so I let go. I pressed my hands down on her shoulders and she settled down." Then Beech discovered the correct way to ride a small bear. You put your legs on the ground and run with it. By the time he crossed the wire a winner, Maletto had quit on Barney and was walking. Donofrio finished a distant but grateful second.

Then they offered Beulah the winner's purse: 100 pounds of honey in a giant orchid derby hat. She turned her nose up at it.

Upstairs in the press box, Tanenbaum watched with a satisfied look. "This year the Derby drew 28,520 fans. That's the largest horse-racing crowd of the Florida winter season. Not bad. But next year, Rivers promises that I'm finally going to get my hippo race."

Downstairs, Rivers was loading his bears into the trailer for a drive to Tampa, where they would be delivered to the Clyde Bros. Circus. "Next year," said Rivers, "Tanenbaum is going to get giant wild sheep called aoudads. What does he think hippos do, grow on trees? They cost $4,000 and eat like elephants. Hippos, my foot."

PHOTO PHOTOBEFORE THIS YEAR'S FLORIDA DERBY, THREE JOCKEYS—ALL VOLUNTEERS—STAGE A RACE WITH THREE OF JONNY'S THORO-BEARS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)