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."