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.