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? 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?"