Rockhill Native came back from the dead today.
Written off and ridiculed after a crushing defeat in his last race, the little gelding reestablished himself as a Kentucky Derby contender by winning the $49,200 Everglades Stakes at Hialeah.
He scored by 1 1/4 lengths over Irish Tower, the rival who had trounced him by a dozen lengths in the Bahamas Stakes two weeks ago. But the relative merits of the two animals remain uncertain. Irish Tower ran so gamely in defeat that he may have been the best horse on the track today.
The Everglades seriously tarnished the reputation of another of the losers.
Previously unbeaten Superbity, the 6-to-5 favorite, staggered across the finish line a badly beaten fourth.
Before the race Rockhill Native's trainer, Herb Stevens, told jockey John Oldham, "Lay three or four lengths off the leaders, then go for them." But even Stevens could not have dreamed how perfectly the Everglades would develop for his horse.
Rockhill Native's two chief rivals were both speedballs who had won their previous races by leading from wire to wire. Besides, both their jockeys knew that Hialeah is a track that gives a big advantage to horses who get the lead on the rail.
So when the gate opened, jockey Jeffrrey Fell gunned Irish Tower from his outside post, hoping to angle over to the rail. Jockey Jacinto Vasquez was not about to let him do it, and so he hustled Superbity to get an inside position on the first turn. The two horses blazed through the first quarter-mile in an incredible 22 2/5 seconds over a track that was not extraordinarily fast.
Oldham saw what was happening and let Rockhill Native settle into third place on the rail, stalking the leaders.
"With those two out in front, I was happy to be third," he said.
Vasquez and Fell tried to slow the pace, but it is nearly impossible to restrain a half-ton animal once he is in high gear. The leaders whizzed through a half-mile in 45 1/5 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 2/5. As they hit the turn, Oldham swung Rockhill Native to the outside and the outcome of the Everglades was all but a foregone conclusion.
Superbity already was finished, a victim of the fast pace. But Irish Tower was not giving up, even after battling through a mile in 1:35 1/5. He resisted Rockhill Native's challenge until the last 16th of a mile, when the gelding pulled away. Inland Voyager rallied to finish third.
The winner paid $8.60, 5.20 and 3.80.
Rockhill Native covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:49, a creditable but hardly sensational time. Earlier in the afternoon, an allowance-class 4-year-old named Funny Cap had run the same distance in 1:49 2/5.
But neither the time nor the fact that the race had set up so perfectly for Rockhill Native could diminish Stevens' enthusiasm for his horse.
"I'm damn happy," the trainer said. "The last race was not his race and not his fault either. All those knockers said he couldn't do this or couldn't do that. He did them all and with the top weight. He vindicated himself."