John Oldham can feel the daggers pointed at his back.
In six years as a jockey, Oldham has lived a life of quiet anonymity at Midwestern race tracks. Suddenly he finds himself an object of national attention as the rider of Rockhill Native, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Not all the atention is friendly.
Oldham knows that there is a legion of better-known jockeys who would like to take his job. He is well acquainted with the harsh realities of his profession: the riders of the last three Kentucky Derby winners were all eventually fired.
"This seems to be a cutthroat business," Oldham said. "I'm not really aware of what all might be going on. They're going around me, not through me. a But I know they're trying to submarine me."
That Oldham would be in a position to be submarined as the rider of the top-ranking 3-year-old in America would have seemed incredible a few years ago.
Like almost every youngster who is small and athletic and has no particular prospects, Oldham was hearing that he ought to become a jockey. In 1971 he was working at a Cincinnati restaurant when he heard that familiar suggestion from a fellow employe, who turned out to be Eddie Arcaro's sister.
That was as close as Oldham had ever come to finding a connection in racing, and he exploited it. The sister called the ex-jockey, who called his brother, who called a trainer, who called another trainer, and very soon Oldham was being hired by a veteran horseman named Herb Stevens.
At the time he could not know how lucky he was. Oldham has subsequently seen scores of aspiring young jocks come and go because no trainer ever gave them a real chance. Stevens was the product of an era when trainers took apprentices under their wing, taught them and formed relationships that lasted for years. In young Oldham, Stevens liked what he saw: a bright, articulate, polite young man eager to learn.
Oldham learned the basics of his new profession by walking horses and then by breaking yearlings, and finally rode his first race in the fall of 1973. In the summer of '74 he rode his first winner, and he has been Stevens' regular jockey ever since.
Riding $3,000 claiming horses at Keeneland, Churchill Downs and the leaky-roofed River Downs was an insular and unglamorous existence, but for Oldham it seemed a very satisfactory one.
The insularity ended the day Rockhill Native stepped onto the Churchill Downs track for his first race.
"That first time," Oldham recalled, "he won so easily, and the second time he did it even easier. Then he ran in a stake. I was in the No. 2 position and the No. 1 horse bolted coming out of the gate. I had to take back the first jump, but Rockhill Native overcame all that trouble easily."
That was the beginning. Rockhill Native came East and captured the 2-year-old crown, though his campaign was tarnished a bit when Oldham was disqualified after a six-length victory in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
Now he is starting to prepare in earnest for the Kentucky Derby. Having already won a six-furlong prep race, he runs on Wednesday in the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes at Hialeah.
With all the publicity that Rockhill Native has been receiving this winter, Oldham is surprised that his association with the champion has not boosted his own career. "I'm kind of disappointed by it," he said. "I'm really surprised that I'm not getting more mounts. I look at the charts on this horse, and wonder why everybody else isn't reading them."
Instead, the attention he has received has been skeptical at best.Oldham knows that rival jockey agents will be quick to point out any of his shortcomings to Stevens, but he says he is not worried.
"I know they'll keep trying to submarine me," he said. "But I've been with Mr. Stevens nine years now.He knows the other jocks weren't there trying to sub me out of mounts at River Downs. They didn't come down the long, hard road."