Alongside Barn 42, just off the backstretch at Churchill Downs, a man was walking a horse. It had been a long day and the horse, a remarkable animal, only slightly smaller than the barn, was hungry. Since no food was in sight, not even an old wreath of roses, he kept trying to eat the man's arm.
"Easy, big boy," the man said. "You'll get fed."
Less tolerant souls than Henry Gervais might have decided to eat the horse rather than feed him. His name was Ridan and, as even money favorite for the Derby, he had run third, costing his groom a nice piece of change. But Henry Gervais would as soon devour his own young as Ridan, and no lousy 2½ lengths on an afternoon in May is going to break up a thing like that. In July maybe, but not in May.
Gervais has 47 years on Ridan and can match the big colt in neither coat nor conformation, but he is a masterful groom. Until Gervais came along, Ridan was a 1,050-pound package of nerves, ornery and restless and quick with the teeth. Now he only bites people for fun. "He's big and he's rough," says Moody Jolley, whose wife owns Ridan, "and the grooms I had before couldn't handle him. But Henry has him relaxed and settled down."
On Derby Day the night watchman Stuck his head in the stable room to call Henry at 4:30 a.m. Gervais was already awake, listening to the big colt shift sleepily in his stall 30 feet away. He checked Ridan and cleaned him, dodging teeth with the skill of Sugar Ray Robinson slipping punches, and prepared him for his 6:30 gallop. When LeRoy Jolley, who trains for his mother and father, arrived with Ridan's veterinarian, Dr. Robert Copelan, they all looked the horse over again. "I hope you brought plenty of bandages, Doc," said LeRoy. "If this horse doesn't win today, we're going to need them for our heads."
Gervais saddled the stable pony for LeRoy and helped Chuck Corolla, the exercise boy, up on Ridan. He watched them walk away toward the track. Ridan's hindquarters swinging with each exaggerated stride. "He thinks he's a chorus girl," said Henry. When the horse came back from his easy gallop, Gervais took off the bandages, washed the colt, wiped him, threw a blanket across his back, walked him. Then Henry wiped him again. He cleaned the mud from each hoof and re-bandaged his legs to protect them from accidents in the stall. He gave him three quarts of oats and fresh water. Then he closed the screen.
At 4 o'clock, 30 minutes before post time, they started out, Corolla on the stable pony ahead, Gervais walking and leading Ridan by a shank, LeRoy Jolley and Doc Copelan in the rear. As they neared the paddock, Moody Jolley came out. "O.K.?" he asked. LeRoy nodded.
While Ridan was being saddled, Moody gave instructions to Manuel Ycaza. The jockey nodded, and they put him up. Alone, now, Gervais led Ridan out. The band played My Old Kentucky Home, and Ridan disappeared up the track.
For days Henry Gervais had been too busy to worry, but now his horse was gone. He stood along the rail, leaning out to see past the other grooms to the starting gate, fidgeting. Then the great crowd roared, and Gervais yelled: "Come on!" As the field thundered past, he called again: "Hold him, Manuel." The horses swept into the first turn, Ridan running hard at the leaders, and disappeared from sight, the view blocked by the tote board and the mass of humanity packing the infield. Gervais listened to the race caller over the P.A. Ridan, it seemed, was in, or at, or near the lead down the backstretch. "Just sit there, Manuel, just sit there," Henry begged. "Save something for the stretch."
When the horses came around the turn, Ridan was among the leaders. "Come on now, Daddy," Gervais yelled. "Come on, come on." Then his voice stopped. Ridan was coming, hard, but Decidedly was coming harder. The gray caught Ridan just past the eighth pole, and suddenly Henry Gervais, who had been carrying that big, rough, biting, beloved horse all the way on his own shoulders, sagged. "He's lost it," he said softly. "The gray horse has got him."
On the way back to the barn, a much longer trip now than it had been before, Henry said nothing. "Well," he said finally, "I don't guess they can say now that he can't go a distance. He broke that Derby record, too." He thought about that for a while. "He didn't quit. That danged jockey just went out too quick, and the horse didn't have anything left."
Henry washed the colt and sponged him and dried and rubbed and walked and watered him. He prepared his carrots and oats. He put fresh water and straw in the stall. He put Ridan inside. By then it was 9 o'clock. Henry put on his hat.
"Keep an eye on him," he told the night watchman. "I'm going to get a steak. But I'll be right back."