RETURN OF THE NATIVE

A champion at two who had taken his lumps at three, Rockhill Native won the Blue Grass to revive his Kentucky Derby prospects—and set off a down-home hoedown
May 04, 1980

All that seemed to be missing was a barbershop quartet singing Camptown Races, with the crowd joining in on the "do dahs." Last Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland produced an atmosphere of down-home, homespun cheeriness, a mood that called for a song. There was Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. waving folks into the winner's circle, and right next to the governor was his wife, former Miss America Phyllis George, standing shoeless and pregnant on the grass. And over to one side were the winning jockey, John Oldham, and Oldham's wife Suzy, who is 9½ months pregnant, and their 22-month-old daughter, Jessica, talking about a "horsey." And there was the horsey himself. Rockhill Native, who had the sense to leave early and find himself a drink, and his tall and dignified owner, Harry Oak, and Oak's wife, Margaret. Plus trainer Herb Stevens and his wife, who is called Lady Louise. Stevens, wearing a snappy cream-colored Stetson, was rolling a toothpick in a corner of his mouth.

"We've got to get with the governor if we want the trophy," Stevens said to Lady Louise. She hurried alongside.

"John," Stevens called over to the governor, "all right if we come over there?"

Brown waved him on. "Come on," said the guv.

"Herb, congratulations," said James Bassett, the president of the Keeneland Association.

"We finally made it," Stevens said.

Hubert Ellis, the Keeneland stable superintendent, patted Stevens on the shoulder. "The hometown team won it!" Ellis said.

"This was for the home folks." Stevens agreed.

Indeed, the trainer had finally made it and the hometown folks saluted him. After training racehorses at Keeneland for most of his career, the 63-year-old horseman had done what he had always wanted most to do: win a stakes race on the bridle path that he calls home. What made it all the sweeter was that he had done it in the Blue Grass, Keeneland's biggest event. What's more, the timing couldn't have been better, or more propitious. Rockhill Native, last year's male champion 2-year-old, who had fallen from favor after an erratic campaign in Florida over the winter, had suddenly emerged as either the solid second choice or co-favorite—along with the Florida Derhy and Wood Memorial winner, Plugged Nickle—for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. The Blue Grass gave credence to what Stevens had been saying right along: "I still think he's the best 3-year-old."

Maybe yes, maybe no. It's possible that a dozen or more horses will show up for the Derby because no 3-year-old has been dominant. Plugged Nickle had appeared to be the best off his Florida form, but in his stretch run in the Wood on April 19, while racing clear on the lead, he suddenly drifted to the right. He had done this before, though never so glaringly. A horse usually "gets out" for one of two reasons: either he's tiring or he's hurting. Just why Plugged Nickle drifts remains a mystery.

Gold Stage, who ran evenly and commendably to finish third in the Blue Grass, could be returning to the form he had when he beat Plugged Nickle by four lengths in a six-furlong allowance race at Hialeah last February; he's a contender. The most romantic of all the Derby possibilities is the filly Genuine Risk. Only one female has ever won the race. Regret in 1915, and none has been entered since 1959, when Silver Spoon came in fifth. Genuine Risk ran well in the Wood, though she couldn't close much ground on Plugged Nickle, and immediately after the race her trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said he would save her for the rich filly races this spring. Bertram Firestone, whose wife owns Genuine Risk, apparently had other ideas, and she may go on Derby Day. A year ago, the Firestones were disappointed when their colt General Assembly finished second in the Derby. For those looking for a price, perhaps the best Derby bet is Super Moment. In the Blue Grass, coming from way off the pace. Super Moment closed four lengths on Rockhill Native, went the final eighth of a mile in :12[3/5] and was going fastest of all in the end. And then there is Jaklin Klugman, the winner of last Saturday's Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs as well as the California Derby.

Jaklin Klugman, of course, is owned in part by Jack Klugman, the actor of The Odd Couple and Quincy fame. In the Stepping Stone he was best by far, winning by four lengths over Execution's Reason after coming from seventh place. All of which elated Klugman and co-owner John Dominguez, a landscaper from Sepulveda, Calif.

"A year ago I went to the Derby as a fan and met Harry and Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff [owners of Spectacular Bid]," said Klugman. "I wished them the best of luck and told them about a 2-year-old [Jaklin Klugman] I had that had yet to run, and what a thrill it must be to have a horse in the Derby. I told them I was crazy enough to think it also could happen to me. Now it has. For a horseplayer like myself this is the dream of a lifetime come true."

One thing is certain about this Derby. Rockhill Native, the little chestnut gelding who brought only $26,000 in a yearling sale at Keeneland two years ago, comes to Churchill Downs with a rare and formidable entourage—a trainer who is as patient and capable as he is certain of his horse, a jockey who can think on his horse's feet and an owner who hasn't intimated once that he's a genius at buying horses, who defers gladly to Stevens' every judgment.

Stevens is a hardboot born and raised in the Blue Grass country, and he has worked practically every corner of the business. He has been a breeder, trainer, breaker of yearlings, groom. He is in fact a fourth-generation horseman, and he relates, with evident pride, tales of his great-grandfather, John Stevens, and his grandfather, Tom.

"They used to ride all over the country trading horses and mules," Stevens says. "My great-grandfather had a buggy and they had two horses, a bay and a gray. Both of 'em could fly. They would ride from town to town driving one horse and leading the other one behind the buggy. They'd stop at every little country town. Two miles outside town they'd hitch up the fresh horse, the one they'd been leading around, and then drive on in. Every town back in those days had some guy that had the fastest horse around. Could beat everybody. They'd find this guy and he'd get to braggin' about it, and finally my great-grandfather would say, 'Hell, I got a buggy horse that can beat that horse.' "

The sting was in. The town folks would figure there was no way Stevens' horse could win after pulling a buggy all day. The bets would go down, then great-grandad John would unhitch the buggy horse and fit him with a saddle, and young Tom would climb aboard. "My grandfather once told me that they never lost a race," Stevens says.

Herb's father, James, a trainer in the tradition of grandfather Tom, saddled the winner of the Kentucky Oaks in 1887. Herb broke yearlings for his father in the '30s and rubbed horses, too, until the Army called him up in 1941. Three years later he landed at Omaha Beach and fought across Europe in a tank destroyer. After the war, on Feb. 1, 1946, he set up shop as a trainer at Keeneland, choosing Barn 39 on a hilltop in a far corner of the backstretch. Barn 39 has been his ever since.

"I like it that my horses, especially my young horses, have to make that long walk to the track and back again," Stevens says. "It gives them a chance to settle down and relax before they get back to the barn and cool out."

Stevens has made occasional forays to tracks in New York and New Jersey, but he has always kept his stable close to home—at Churchill Downs, Keeneland or River Downs, a minor league oval across the Ohio. Seventeen years ago he bought a 250-acre farm, which he calls Haven Hill, in Versailles, near Lexington. He boards broodmares there, a few being his own, and raises Angus cattle.

At Haven Hill he cares for the mares and weans the babies and breaks the yearlings and marches them to the racetrack. "He could have gone away many times to train a public stable, but he liked home," says Lady Louise. "He knew when he married me that I didn't like racetrack life. I'm just not suited for it. So many people on the racetrack are like nomads. Most people know us here. I have my church. We're part of a community."

Stevens remained so resolutely tied to his geography that if a good horse came into his hands, one too good for a River Downs, he might send him to a trainer at a better track. But not always. "I had some horses that were good that I kept around just because the people who owned them lived here and liked to see them run," Stevens says. "They didn't care about earnings. That's one reason why I won so many races at Churchill Downs, even more at River Downs. I had the best horses—shoot, I had horses that could win anywhere."

Rockhill Native was a good young horse he didn't give away, thanks to the amiability of Harry Oak. Oak, 69, was operations manager of United Parcel Service's Blue Label air service until he retired five years ago. His wife, Margaret, whose father was a blacksmith and farrier, urged him to get into racing. He bought Margaret a horse and liked it so much he got one himself in 1975, a yearling he called Tony's Game. He turned out to be a useful sort, winning a small stakes for Oak at River Downs. When he lost Tony's Game for $30,000 in a claiming race in 1978, Oak put the money in a bank. A few months later he and Stevens attended the September yearling sales at Keeneland. They had the $30,000 and decided not to spend a dime more. "We didn't get the first eight or 10 horses we bid on," Stevens says.

The next one they liked was a nice-looking little colt by Our Native out of Beanery, a daughter of the 1958 Belmont Stakes winner, Cavan. When the bidding stopped at $26,000, Harry Oak found himself with one slightly pudgy chestnut horse and $4,000 left over. "We said, 'Let's go,' " Stevens says. They gelded him right away—as Stevens does a lot of his colts, because, he says, it settles them down—and called him Rockhill Native. When time came to race him, Stevens didn't let him get away. "I just decided one day, made up my mind," he says. "If this is a good horse, then I'm going to have him. I'm going to have one good one in my lifetime, and I ain't going to send him to nobody else."

By the end of 1979, Rockhill Native had won six of nine starts, including the Sapling Stakes, the Belmont Futurity and the Cowdin, had earned $267,112 and, as noted, had been voted the best 2-year-old male in America.

Rocky, as Stevens calls the gelding now, came to 1980 as the winter-book favorite for the Derby. The horse had been a dream to train, and Oak had needed no training whatever. "One whale of a fine fellow," says Stevens. "You get an owner who's had as much success as he's had, and as quickly as he's had it, they get smarter than everybody and want to tell the trainer everything, but I say to him, 'Well, what do you think we should do now?' And he says, 'Don't ask me. By God, you're running this show.' All he wants me to do is tell him what I'm going to do so he can make reservations. He won't even offer an opinion."

The two men went their placid way. unruffled by what happened in Florida, where Rockhill Native won an allowance race and the Everglades but got whipped by 12 lengths in the Bahamas by Irish Tower, and got thumped again in the Flamingo, finishing third, six lengths behind Superbity.

Many wrote him off after that, but Stevens never gave up on him, insisting that nothing had been wrong with the horse, that the Hialeah racing surface had done him in. So he brought him back home to Keeneland, aiming for the Blue Grass. He won a prep race by almost seven, and he thrived in the bracing Kentucky air. "He's done good since he got home," Stevens said before the Blue Grass. "I don't think the horse could do any better, look any better. He got a little bloom on him. I expect him to win."

Which he did, earning $84,207.50, and in a manner suggesting that he is as good as he ever was, if not better, and that he'll take a lot of beating at the Downs. Oldham rode him superbly. "I told him to ride the horse the way the race comes up," Stevens says. "No use me confusing him by telling him how to ride a horse I've never been on." Oldham followed instructions perfectly. Rockhill Native was on the rail going to the first turn, with Doonesbury threatening to pinch him on the fence, but Oldham went on with his horse, letting him roll to the lead and relax.

"He can run on the lead," Oldham says, "so I wasn't concerned to find us there. What I like about him is he picks it up on his own. When he does that, I've got to let him do his thing."

He let him do it all down the backside. The colt bounced along on top, and Oldham let him be. Gold Stage tried him but Rocky didn't let him get close, and around the turn and through the lane the race was his. Oldham worked on him in the stretch, tapping him three times to keep him busy. "I tried to get him to go all out," he says. "For the Derby, I didn't want it to be too easy for him today and have him come up short there. I did want him to get tired today." He won by two lengths in 1:50 for the nine furlongs, looking decidedly the best.

Oldham returned the horse to the winner's circle and the sweet confusion, to the cheering of the hometown crowd for the hometown man. "This is the biggest day I've had in racing," Stevens said at least a dozen times, adding reflectively, "I grew up with horses. I love horses. I love to develop young horses. You take the raw material and see how far you can go with them. It's like with Rockhill Native. You start out with something, but you don't have any idea if he has any value at all, except what you paid for him when you bought him. And then to develop him into a champion—well, you just know that you've accomplished something in life."

PHOTOTrainer Stevens is in hardboot heaven, jockey Oldham is feeling like new, and Rocky is lapping it up. PHOTOMargaret Oak, who finds herself irresistibly drawn to Rocky, introduced her husband Harry to racing. PHOTOFavored Plugged Nickle, Buck Thornburg up, is banking on cashing in handsomely at Churchill Downs. PHOTOThe speedy filly Genuine Risk could be just that. PHOTOSuper Moment closed quickly in the Blue Grass; will he now have his finest hour at Louisville?

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)