Two months ago, he was a virtual laughingstock. Today, Rockhill Native not only restored his reputation but established himself as the cofavorite for the Kentucky Derby.
The little gelding led all the way to win the Blue Grass Skates at Keeneland, the last major prep race for the Derby. He scored by two lengths over the fast-finishing longshot, Super Moment, with Gold Stage another neck behind.
Rockhill Native covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50, unexceptional time over a fast racing strip. But in this unexceptional year for 3-year-olds, his performance seemed to put him on a par with Plugged Nickle, who won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Saturday.
This winter, there had been moments when Rockhill Native seemed incapable of even moderate performances. He had gone to Florida as the champion of his generation, but came home to Kentucky prematurely after two humiliations in his four starts at Hialeah. The cognoscenti wrote him off as a serious Derby contender.
Trainer Herb Stevens said yesterday, as he has maintained all along, "There was never anything wrong with Rockhill Native." He thought the gelding had merely disliked the deep, sandy track at Hialeah. Whether that was the explanation, or whether the return to the bluegrass country had some salutary effect on him, Rockhill Native has been his old self at Keeneland.
He won an allowance race impressively two weeks ago, and today won the 56th running of the Blue Grass with complete authority.
Before the race, jockey John Oldham said, "I looked at The Racing Form and saw there wasn't tremendous speed in the race and I figured we could be there in front. He runs in front okay."
Rockhill Native broke sharply and followed this part of the script; Oldham steered him to the rail, where he would stay for the entire race. By the time he turned into the backstretch, he had a two-length lead over Lord Gallant and Gold Stage.
After half a mile, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. decided to make his move with Gold Stage. But when he did, it was hardly perceptible, because Rockhill Native responded to the challenge immediately and never let Gold Stage close any ground.
"He picked it up on his own," Oldham said, "and he went on. I let him go because that's what he's trained to do, go on and run."
When he turned into the stretch, having covered the mile in 1:36 3/5, Rockhill Native had subjugated his competition; Gold Stage and Lord Gallant weren't going anywhere.
But Super Moment, a 43-to-1 invader from California, was going places. Next to last in the early stages of the race, he had moved up to sixth while running wide on the turn. Then he accelerated through the stretch, covering the last eighth of a mile in 12/35 seconds against the wind, and caught Gold Stage in the final yards.
It wasn't a stretch run reminiscent of Silky Sullivan, but in a year when most of the leading 3-year-olds are front-runners, Super Moment's rally will earn him his share of backers at Churchill Downs.
Rockhill Native returned $3, $3, and $2.40. Super Moment paid $16.60 and $9, and Gold Stage $4.20. Lord Grant held on for fourth, half a length in front of Bold 'N Ruling.
If the Blue Grass elevated Super Moment into serious Derby contention, it also eliminated a couple of previously well-regarded colts. Doonesbury, another Californian who had been plagued by physical problems since coming to Kentucky, finished 10th, beaten by 18 lengths. Prince Valiant, the 3-to-1 second choice, finished 11th and last, some 30 lengths behind the winner.