October 19, 2009

Remembering ... Riva Ridge

Riva Ridge had come into the world at the perfect time. It had been almost ten years since Meadow Stable had a champion, Cicada in the early sixties. The patriarch of the farm, Christopher Chenery was in failing health and the future of one of the most successful farms in American history was in serious jeopardy. They were looking for a star horse that would buoy the racing, the breeding and the finances. Along came Riva Ridge. In the Fall of 1971, he was the savior and unquestioned favorite of Meadow Stable, the venerable Virginian farm that was struggling to survive. Riva Ridge was a well bred son of First Landing, but his looks did not promise greatness. He had long legs and skinny body, conformation wise, he was no champion. Riva Ridge would certainly outrun his looks, but by the Fall of 1972, he was a lemon temporarily squeezed dry and he was the forgotten horse. Completely overshadowed on the American racing scene by his own stablemate Secretariat, Riva Ridge was all but ignored by fans, visitors to the barn and throngs of media. Maybe he was born at the worst possible time.

It all began well for him. In 1971 Riva Ridge was the toast of the nation as he thoroughly dominated his 2-year-old peers. After a solid start to his life of racing in which he won two of his first four starts, Riva Ridge took it to a phenomenal level. He overpowered his foes in five consecutive major stakes for juveniles. The skinny little horse seemed to just skip over the dirt as he racked up easy wins in the Flash Stakes, Futurity, Champagne, Laurel Futurity, and the rich Garden State Stakes. Meadow Stable, in Riva Ridge, had the great horse that they so dearly needed. He was an overwhelming champion and looked like a horse who could possibly win the Triple Crown. At the time, his younger stablemate was a promising, but untested yearling

As a 3-year-old, Riva got off to a flying start easily winning the Hibiscus in Florida and then the prestigious Blue Grass. In between, his six race winning streak had been broken in the muddy Everglades Stakes. Riva Ridge ended a 16 year drought by 2-year-old champions on the first Saturday of May when he won the 1972 Kentucky Derby. It was a dominating performance in the biggest race. Riva Ridge was a star. Perhaps in a foreshadowing of his luck to come, the Preakness came up sloppy, not a track condition that Riva Ridge liked. He struggled home 4th and large hopes for the first Triple Crown in 24 years were dashed. If there was any question as to whether he was the best colt in the country, Riva ended that talk quickly with a smashing score in the Belmont Stakes. He was well on his way to another Eclipse Award, but then his handlers made some mistakes. After the Triple Crown, they shipped across country to run in the Hollywood Derby. Riva won the race but was pressured every step of the way by multiple horses. Lucien Lauren, his trainer, knew he was exhausted and should have taken a long rest. Despite this, they continued to run Riva Ridge and run Riva Ridge. It was not pretty. His people kept hoping for a return to form, but Riva had nothing more to give. Five poor performances and five losses. Riva Ridge had deserved a rest and instead lost his reputation and he lost the end of the year awards. Secretariat, meanwhile had become a huge star as a juvenile and was named Horse of the Year.

Given a lengthy rest, Riva Ridge was back to his old self as a four-year-old. He consistently ran well and was throwing down some very impressive times. In the Massachusetts Handicap, Riva equaled Suffolk Down's 1 1/8 mile track record. He set a new world record, under 127 pounds, in the 1 3/16 mile Brooklyn with a 1:52 2/5 final time. Riva Ridge also set a track record in the nine furlong Stuyvesant at Aqueduct, but perhaps his best race at 4, was his 2nd place finish in the new race, the Marlboro Cup. In that race Riva Ridge broke the previous 9 furlong world record, carrying 127 pounds and giving weight to the race winner, Secretariat, who of course became the new world record holder. So even at his best, he would play second fiddle to one Secretariat. Riva won the Eclipse Award as Champion older male for 1973. He was still in the enormous shadow of his incomparable barnmate, who had become the most impressive Triple Crown winner in history, but he had earned sweet redemption after his souring at the end of the previous year.

Riva Ridge retired to stud to Claiborne Farm at the end of 1973. His final race record reads 17 wins from 30 starts, he earned over $1.1 million and two Eclipse Awards. He certainly would have been one of those rare horses to win three consecutive Eclipse Awards, had he not been terribly mismanaged in the Fall of his 3-year-old season. He was an ugly duckling who could run. Everybody who spent any time with Riva, could not help but love the horse with the kind disposition, in fact, Penny Chenery, who owned probably the most popular horse in America since Man O’ War, always considered Riva Ridge her favorite above Secretariat. He may have been overshadowed by his younger stablemate, but Riva Ridge is one horse who should never be forgotten.


NetworkEmpowerment said...

Another great horse who was overshadowed by the immortal Secretariat was Sham. I wish ppl would learn to have a happy medium with there horses not racing to often or waiting to long. It's a tough thing to do to guess a horse, I know, but could it be that hard to see that a worn out Riva Ridge needed a break? What a great little horse dispite all his luck.

Unknown said...

Excellent story! You always seem so passoniate about these horses! I love your stories and look forward to them.

Luvbarbaro said...

Great writing Brian, excellent subject also. I was too young at the time, but have since learned about Riva Ridge. I agree, it was unfortunate that he was not trained so well during his 3 yr old season, but he still did almost win the triple crown that year. I'm happy he did go on to race as a 4 yr old and he did well, in addition to earning an Eclipse Award that year.

Mark Moran said...

Very well done ! That was a damn shame he lost the Eclipse at 3 - to Key to the Mint was it ? But his Brooklyn triumph at 4 was utterly awesome.

Anonymous said...

Just ran across this. Riva is one of my very favorites. I was in college at UK, in the early 70s, and had the privilege to see Secretariat in person at Keeneland one afternoon while walking through the backside. My boyfriend at the time was rom Saratoga, and while I was admiring Riva, I'll never him saying, "If you think he's special, (meaning R), wait until you see this guy!" pointing to Secretariat.