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All that seemed to be missing was a barbershop quartet singing Camptown Races, with the crowd joining in on the "do dahs." Last Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland produced an atmosphere of down-home, homespun cheeriness, a mood that called for a song. There was Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. waving folks into the winner's circle, and right next to the governor was his wife, former Miss America Phyllis George, standing shoeless and pregnant on the grass. And over to one side were the winning jockey, John Oldham, and Oldham's wife Suzy, who is 9½ months pregnant, and their 22-month-old daughter, Jessica, talking about a "horsey." And there was the horsey himself. Rockhill Native, who had the sense to leave early and find himself a drink, and his tall and dignified owner, Harry Oak, and Oak's wife, Margaret. Plus trainer Herb Stevens and his wife, who is called Lady Louise. Stevens, wearing a snappy cream-colored Stetson, was rolling a toothpick in a corner of his mouth.
"We've got to get with the governor if we want the trophy," Stevens said to Lady Louise. She hurried alongside.
"John," Stevens called over to the governor, "all right if we come over there?"
Brown waved him on. "Come on," said the guv.
"Herb, congratulations," said James Bassett, the president of the Keeneland Association.
"We finally made it," Stevens said.
Hubert Ellis, the Keeneland stable superintendent, patted Stevens on the shoulder. "The hometown team won it!" Ellis said.
"This was for the home folks." Stevens agreed.
Indeed, the trainer had finally made it and the hometown folks saluted him. After training racehorses at Keeneland for most of his career, the 63-year-old horseman had done what he had always wanted most to do: win a stakes race on the bridle path that he calls home. What made it all the sweeter was that he had done it in the Blue Grass, Keeneland's biggest event. What's more, the timing couldn't have been better, or more propitious. Rockhill Native, last year's male champion 2-year-old, who had fallen from favor after an erratic campaign in Florida over the winter, had suddenly emerged as either the solid second choice or co-favorite—along with the Florida Derhy and Wood Memorial winner, Plugged Nickle—for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. The Blue Grass gave credence to what Stevens had been saying right along: "I still think he's the best 3-year-old."
Maybe yes, maybe no. It's possible that a dozen or more horses will show up for the Derby because no 3-year-old has been dominant. Plugged Nickle had appeared to be the best off his Florida form, but in his stretch run in the Wood on April 19, while racing clear on the lead, he suddenly drifted to the right. He had done this before, though never so glaringly. A horse usually "gets out" for one of two reasons: either he's tiring or he's hurting. Just why Plugged Nickle drifts remains a mystery.