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.