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.