Take a shot of water—say about two inches of warm subtropical rain—mix it well with the good rich dirt of the Hialeah racing strip, and what you get is mud in your mint julep. That was the concoction whipped up last weekend in Miami when Riva Ridge and Hold Your Peace, the two super 3-year-olds of the year, went out to duel over 1‚⅛ miles of slop in the Everglades Stakes. What everyone expected was a clear-cut favorite for the Kentucky Derby—probably Riva Ridge. What everyone got was Head of the River, a 19-to-l shot who is not even the best 3-year-old in his own stable, much less the best in the country. On dry land. In mud, though, he thinks he's Man o' War. And like his trainer, Elliott Burch, says, it's been known to rain in Kentucky in early May.
Burch, however, is an old hand at the Triple Crown game, and he isn't about to charge to Churchill Downs with nothing more than a prayer for a monsoon and a mudder who won only one of four starts as a 2-year-old and was 0 for 2 this season before Saturday's shocking upset. Against the bankrolls of such as Riva Ridge ($525,265) and Hold Your Peace ($182,572), Head of the River's pre-Everglades earnings of $30,510 aren't numbers to impress anyone.
"He's mud out of mud," Burch said with a grin. "Head of the River's sire, Crewman, won the 1962 Garden State Stakes on a sloppy track. And his dam, First Feather, is by a fine mudder. She also is the dam of Run the Gantlet, who won his Garden State Stakes on an off-track and is great on soggy turf courses. Mud out of mud. The Derby? Head of the River is nominated, but let's not rush things."
Early this year Burch had high hopes for the Triple Crown, but they were for Key to the Mint, the 3-year-old ace of Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stable. Then three weeks ago Key to the Mint suffered a slight injury and was taken out of training. Now he won't be ready before the Preakness, at the earliest.
"In workouts, I'd give Head of the River a six-length headstart, and Key to the Mint would pass him easily," Burch said. "Key to the Mint could carry me and still beat this colt." Burch weighs close to 200 pounds. "Really, I don't see how this race makes Riva Ridge any less of a favorite in the Derby. He's still my choice. Both of the top horses had an excuse. They were concentrating so much on each other they forgot everybody else."
Riva Ridge and Hold Your Peace were all anyone talked of the week before the Everglades. Hold Your Peace is a midget speedster who bounced around the country a loser as a 2-year-old, matured, won the recent $100,000 Flamingo by 10 lengths and phhtt! Suddenly the Kentucky Derby seemed to be developing into a two-horse race. Trainer Arnold Winick purchased the colt as a yearling for $26,000. He was a January foal, and Winick thought he might be an early 2-year-old. Winick never considered Hold Your Peace a standout and shipped him from track to track to track to track. As a juvenile, the travel-weary little fellow won just two of 11 races, $79,032 and only a teacup measure of respect.
But after his Flamingo victory, Winick began to scent roses. He declared he was shipping Hold Your Peace to Oaklawn Park for the $100,000 Arkansas Derby. "I don't want any part of Riva Ridge until Churchill Downs," he said at the time. Twice as 2-year-olds the colts had met, and twice Hold Your Peace had been trounced. Then Winick had second thoughts and elected to stay for the Everglades. For one thing, remembering last season, he wanted his colt's travel cut to a minimum. And, for another, horsemen consider the racing strip at Hialeah vastly safer than the one at Oaklawn Park. The greater purse was no factor. When you own the bakery, who worries about bread?
Then there was Riva Ridge's condition. With only one start since last November, and that over only seven furlongs, the colt figured to be at less than his best. "If I'm ever going to beat Riva, it just might be now," said Winick. Then he laughed and added, "Besides, Lucien Laurin isn't about to run Riva Ridge in the Everglades."
Winick's belief that Riva Ridge would not start was strengthened by track officials, who had asked Laurin his plans for the champion colt immediately after his win in the Hibiscus Stakes. Laurin said he didn't know, that he wanted to see how Riva Ridge came out of the race. Then the squat, white-haired trainer went fishing, and somehow everyone figured that his being out of telephone contact meant Riva Ridge would spend last Saturday in his stall.
But on Thursday Laurin entered the colt together with his stablemate, Upper Case. Ron Turcotte, as usual, was named Riva Ridge's jockey; Laurin said he hadn't decided on a rider for the other horse. "Ha!" exclaimed Winick, "what Lucien's going to do is scratch Riva Ridge and put Turcotte on Upper Case. Why else would he name only one rider?"
Right up until the deadline for scratches, 45 minutes before the Everglades, Winick was convinced Riva Ridge wouldn't run. "He is just trying to scare me out of town and into Arkansas," Winick had declared earlier.
"To tell you the truth," Laurin said, "I'm glad Winick did not ship his horse to Arkansas. I've sent Spanish Riddle there for the big race, and with Hold Your Peace staying here maybe he can win that 100-grand purse."
(Spanish Riddle was to run a dismal seventh at Oaklawn Park. The winner of the 17-horse charge in Hot Springs was No Le Hace, who has now won two Derbies—the Louisiana and Arkansas—and five races in a row. Oaklawn had a Latin flavor. There was Laurin's Spanish Riddle, there was the winner's Spanish name, which means "it makes no difference," and there was Spanish-speaking Juan Arias, the trainer of Canonero, who was back with two more Kentucky Derby candidates—Hassi's Image and Lester's Jester. They finished second and 15th in Arkansas and now head with the winner for Churchill Downs.)
On Friday night, with the counties just north of Miami braced for tornadoes and heavy thunderstorms predicted for south Florida, the Winick stable ensured a wet track by insisting that Moon Meredith, its full-blooded Indian groom, perform a rain dance in front of Hold Your Peace's barn. While Riva Ridge has won in mud, Winick felt Hold Your Peace was the stronger of the two in the slop. Meredith apparently did the dance expertly, for by race time the track was so gooey the jockeys could have water skied on it. "Isn't it great," said Jim Milner, a Winick employee. "Our colt really loves this stuff. He thinks it's chocolate pudding."
Riva Ridge was sent away the 4-to-5 favorite. Hold Your Peace was second choice at 3-to-2, and a lot of people wondered just who were those so ill-informed as to bet $6,678 on Head of the River to win. The smart money said it was 2 to 1 he would cover the last half mile dog-paddling. Whoever was betting the long shot, it could not have been Burch. Leaving the paddock before the Everglades, the trainer turned to Russ Harris, the Philadelphia Inquirer's crack handicapper, and asked for a likely long shot in the remaining races.
In the gate, New Prospect played his familiar role of bad actor, but he flew to the lead when the starter turned the field loose. As expected, the sprinter Nose for Money moved immediately into second place, with Riva Ridge third on the rail and Winick's colt at his shoulder. Head of the River plodded along fifth. "I knew my horse didn't have any speed," said Jockey Mike Hole, which everybody else knew, too. Well, almost everybody. Remember those people who had bet the six grand.
The horses ran that way around the first turn and down the boggy back-stretch, the two fliers up front and the big pair waging their nervous private duel, never more than a length off the pace. Halfway into the far turn, forgotten Head of the River exploded out of fifth. "He took off," said Hole. At the top of the stretch Head of the River was lapped on New Prospect, Riva Ridge and Nose for Money. He took the lead an eighth of a mile from home and had enough left to stave off Hold Your Peace's furious pursuit. "By the time I knew Head of the River was there, he was gone," said Mickey Solomone, who rode Hold Your Peace. Having been on the rail all the way—and there the going was the muckiest—Riva Ridge was too tired for his expected big finish. Instead, the colt lugged in badly, scraped skin from his side hitting the railing and finished a splattered fourth, 5¾ lengths behind the winner, who carried 10 pounds less than the 122 hefted by the big two.
"Riva Ridge never had a chance because I couldn't get through," Turcotte said. "I was inside and couldn't get out because Hold Your Peace was alongside me. When I went closer to the rail he came in with me." Laurin was more blunt in his assessment. "You rode a bad race," he told his jockey. After watching the race films the trainer said, "Riva was in all kinds of trouble. He never had a chance. If that other kid [Hold Your Peace's jockey] had ridden his own race instead of fooling with us, he could have won it and we'd have been second. We'd take back and he'd take back. You can't win that way. Thank goodness my colt has come out of the race on all four legs. We'll just have to see what happens when we get back to my old Kentucky home."
Out in Hold Your Peace's wooden wigwam, Moon Meredith was wondering if perhaps he shouldn't have shortened his rain dance by a few steps and a couple of whoops. But how could he have known that his colt wasn't the only kid on the block who loves chocolate pudding. And, who knows, perhaps even mint leaves if they arc muddy enough.