In the shadow of Secretariat, America's Super Horse, lived the lovable but forgotten Riva Ridge, virtually ignored by the hero-worshiping masses of 1973. Only his owner, Penny Chenery, and the employees of the Meadow Stable seemed to remember his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in the spring of 1972, let alone his championship season as a two-year-old.
Riva Ridge was foaled at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in the spring of 1969, and was raised at the historic Virginia thoroughbred farm known as the Meadow. He was bred by Chris T. Chenery, who had bred his sire, the 1958 Two Year Old Champion First Landing, as well as his dam, Iberia, a great-granddaughter of the legendary Man o' War. The narrow framed bay colt's potential wasn't obvious at first glance. Like his dam, he was somewhat odd looking, and he wasn't healthy as a young horse. But Riva Ridge made his talents known when he began training in the spring of 1971.
When the bay colt began racing, the Meadow was in serious trouble. Chris Chenery was dangerously ill, and as the bills piled up his children began to consider selling the farm and its horses. But Penny Chenery, the only other family member that shared her father's love for the horses, disliked the idea, and hoped to find a star among the two year olds who could help to gain her sibling's support and save her family farm. She took over The Meadow, with the help of her father's secretary Elizabeth Ham and farm manager Howard Gentry, and hired Roger Laurin as trainer, replacing Casey Hayes, who Chris Chenery had liked because he allowed the owner to share in his horses' training, something he was now far too sick to do. When Roger Laurin was offered a job with the Phipps, he recommended his father, and Lucien Laurin became the third trainer for the Meadow Stable.
The rise of Riva Ridge began at Saratoga, where he won his first stakes race, taking the Flash Stakes by two and a half lengths and recording the sharp time of 1:09 4/5 for six furlongs. Although he missed the Hopeful with a fever, he came back to win the Belmont Futurity in September, and followed it up with a seven length victory in the Champagne Stakes and an eleven length win in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity. Penny Chenery fell in love with Riva, nicknaming him the Golden Boy. In his final start as a two-year-old, Riva Ridge met and defeated the season's top filly, Numbered Account, who was trained by Roger Laurin, in the Garden State Stakes. The season was over, and Riva had won seven of his nine races, earning $503,263 and the respect of Penny Chenery Tweedy's brother, Dr. Hollis Chenery, and sister, Mrs. Margaret Carmichael, who agreed not to push for the sale of the horses. As a result of the string of victories, Riva Ridge was named Champion Two Year Old Colt.
In his three-year-old debut, Riva Ridge won the Hibiscus Stakes, but then tested the confidence of racing fans, and reminded them that the last two-year-old champion to win the Kentucky Derby was Needles in 1956, when he ran fourth in the Everglades Stakes before bouncing back to score an authoritative win in the Blue Grass Stakes. After only racing three times in his sophomore campaign, Riva Ridge headed for Louisville.
On the first Saturday in May, Riva Ridge and Ron Turcotte took command immediately and earned the roses with an impressive wire to wire victory. The Kentucky Derby triumph was exciting and emotional for Mrs. Chenery Tweedy, whose father had spent his entire life trying to breed a Derby winner. Hill Prince, Chris Chenery's first champion, had been second to Middleground in 1950 before winning the Preakness and being named Horse of the Year. First Landing, who sired Riva Ridge, had run third behind Tomy Lee in 1959, and Sir Gaylord had broken down on the eve of the Derby three year later. When Riva Ridge finally carried the Meadow's colors to victory at Churchill Downs, his breeder was almost too ill to understand. He was hospitalized and no longer able to speak, but his nurse turned on the television for the race, and later said that she wiped tears from the old man's cheek as his daughter accepted the trophy.
Referring to his colt's light spring schedule, Lucien Laurin expressed his relief over the victory:
"I am so happy about being right about training this horse...If he had lost, I would have been crucified."
In the Preakness, a pouring rainstorm and the mudder Bee Bee Bee conspired to produce disappointment for Riva Ridge and the Meadow Stable, but the Golden Boy redeemed himself with a stirring seven length victory in the Belmont Stakes, leading from start to finish. Although his connections later admitted that they should have known better, Riva Ridge was shipped to California, and only three weeks after the classics, ran in the Hollywood Derby. He won by a neck, gamely holding on to the short lead as he tired in the stretch.
Riva's career headed downhill after the Hollywood Derby, and he began a losing streak that had extended to five straight disappointments by the end of the season. Penny Chenery blamed herself for the losses:
"If only we had said to ourselves, `Okay, we have squeezed this lemon,' and stopped on him, I don't think he would have fallen apart. But when you have a horse that does so much, you keep thinking, `How come this wonderful horse who looks so good did not run well today?'"
As a result of Riva Ridge's losing streak, it was Key to the Mint who earned the Three Year Old Championship, while Secretariat took Horse of the Year honors. Yet even in defeat, Riva had proven himself to be a true champion. He never stopped trying, and bravely put his heart into every losing effort.
After a winter of rest, Riva Ridge was a new horse. He won the Massachusetts Handicap in track record time, and his spectacular performance in the Brooklyn Handicap on the Fourth of July set a new world record of 1:52 2/5 for a mile and three sixteenths. Yet despite Riva's heroic deeds and friendly disposition, he still couldn't regain the admiration which now belonged to Secretariat. Visitors flocked to Belmont Park's barn 5 to see the Triple Crown winner, but despite his own triumphs in two of the classics, Riva Ridge was neglected by the public, hanging his head in disappointment each time one of Secretariat's admirers passed by his stall without so much as a second glance. Eddie Sweat, who cared for the two horses, hadn't forgotten him, however, and often excused himself from the circle of reporters around Big Red's stall to go over and talk to the older champion.
Not long after the Brooklyn Handicap, a match race was set up between Riva Ridge and Secretariat, with a $250,000 purse being supplied by Philip Morris, Inc., the makers of Marlboro cigarettes. When both Secretariat and Riva Ridge had been beaten by longshots in their most recent races, the millionaire Cougar II, as well as top horses such as Key to the Mint, Onion, Kennedy Road, Tentam, and Annihilate 'em were invited to start as well, and the newly formed race was named the Marlboro Cup. Riva Ridge was forced to carry the high weight of 127 pounds in the race, and finished a game second to Secretariat. Both of the Meadow Stable entries broke the world record for a mile and an eighth in the event. After leading the winner to the sight of the victory celebration, Mrs. Tweedy left the Super Horse to meet her second place finisher, later explaining, "I have the greatest admiration for Secretariat, but I love Riva Ridge."
Riva was the twelfth horse to become an equine millionaire, beating Secretariat to the honor, and was without a doubt the best older horse in America in 1973, earning the Eclipse Award in his division. Riva Ridge was syndicated for the impressive sum of $5,120,000, although it was soon topped by Secretariat's six million dollar price tag. The Golden Boy was retired to Claiborne Farm with his stablemate on November 11 of 1973, quickly earning the praise of stallion manager Lawrence Robinson, who said, "He's such a cheerful horse. He rolls in the mud and comes immediately over to greet any visitor. He's everyone's favorite and a joy to look after."
As a stallion, Riva Ridge sired twenty-nine stakes winners. His daughter Alada was the second dam of champion Saratoga Dew. He passed away after suffering a heart attack on April 21, 1985. Riva Ridge was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1998, and finished fifty-seventh on a poll of the century's best published by Blood-Horse.
|First Landing||Turn-to||Royal Charger||Nearco|
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|Hildene||Bubbling Over||North Star III|
|War East||Easton||Dark Legend|
|Warrior Lass||Man o' War|
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