Meadow Stable's True Hero: Riva Ridge

Riva Ridge wins the Stuyvesant Handicap in 1973. (Coglianese Photo)

You should not believe everything you see in a sports movie. In Hollywood, the truth often gets twisted to enhance a story line.

Contrary to what was depicted in the movie “Rudy,” Notre Dame coach Dan Devine was not against practice squad player Daniel Ruettiger appearing in a game. He was the one who came up with the idea.

And the movie “Secretariat” got it all wrong about who actually saved Meadow Stable and its racing operation from financial ruin. It wasn’t Big Red.

It was Riva Ridge.

“Riva Ridge came around at a time when the stable’s fortunes were low,” said Meadow Stable owner Penny Chenery in a 2012 Thoroughbred Times story (Chenery died in 2017). “My father [Christopher T. Chenery] was ill and my brother and sister wanted to sell the farm. They told me I was the only one getting enjoyment out of the horses, so they wanted to sell the farm and put the money into things they enjoyed. But I resisted, and told them I would not sell the horses while dad was alive. Then Riva Ridge came along and became a champion [in 1971] and everything changed. They stopped pushing me to sell.

“Later, there was so much made of the coin flip that gave us Secretariat, but without Riva Ridge, Secretariat would have gone to someone else and who knows how history would have turned out? The world might have been denied one of its greatest racehorses.”

Not to mention a movie that conveniently ignored a horse that deserved at least a supporting role in it.

“I was disappointed in the movie because there were things in it that simply weren’t true to life,” Chenery said. “But I just said to myself, ‘That’s Hollywood.’ They couldn’t have two heroes.’”

Riva Ridge (right) and Secretariat. (Coglianese Photo)

Riva Ridge’s nonexistent role in the “Secretariat” movie in some ways reflected his career. He raced in the 1970s, which was as rich in equine talent as any 10-year period in the sport’s history, and he was one of the decade’s greatest stars. He was brilliant enough to win 17 of 30 starts, including two legs of the Triple Crown, while becoming racing’s 12th millionaire and earning a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame.

He, like every other horse of that era, may have been upstaged by Secretariat, but to the people around him, especially Penny Chenery, there was nothing but admiration for Meadow Stable’s “other” champion of the 1970s.

“I rode some great ones like Tom Rolfe, Damascus, and Northern Dancer, and he was as good as any of them,” Ron Turcotte, the regular rider of Secretariat and Riva Ridge, said in the Thoroughbred Times story.

Yet in spite of those impeccable credentials, he is remembered by many for being Secretariat’s stablemate.

The best example of that was the inaugural Marlboro Cup in 1973, a race created as a showcase for Secretariat. On that day, Riva Ridge ran strongly enough to beat any horse in the world, except one. At the finish line, it was Secretariat prevailing by 3 ½ lengths in world-record time over Riva Ridge and five of the sport’s best horses in training.

“Riva Ridge trained spectacularly for [the Marlboro Cup] and he ran fast enough to set a world record. Yet he still lost,” Eddie Maple, who rode Riva Ridge in place of Turcotte in that $250,000 race, told Thoroughbred Times. “That tells quite a story. Unfortunately no one remembers who finished second in a big race.”

Riva Ridge wins the Belmont Stakes. (Coglianese Photo)

Riva Ridge, a homebred son of First Landing, finished first far more often than second in his three years on the racetrack.

His debut on June 9, 1971 at Belmont Park was one of the few clunkers in his illustrious career. Sent off at 2-1 odds for trainer Lucien Laurin, he was bumped at the start of the race and never fired, finishing seventh, beaten by 16 lengths under jockey Chuck Baltazar.

With blinkers added, Riva Ridge rebounded with easy maiden and allowance wins but then disappointed as a 1.30-to-1 favorite in his stakes debut, the Great American, when he encountered traffic early in the race and faded to eighth behind Chevron Flight.

Turcotte was then brought in to ride Riva Ridge in the Flash Stakes at Saratoga. Riva Ridge tried to bolt to the outside at the start but Turcotte guided him to the rail and posted a 2 ½-length victory.

After the victory, Turcotte told Laurin that Riva Ridge had a fear of running in tight company that had to be resolved in order to bring out the very best in the young, talented colt.

“The next day [after the Flash], I went to Lucien’s barn and told him Riva Ridge had the potential to be the best 2-year-old I’ve ever ridden. He just laughed,” Turcotte said. “But for that to happen, I said I wanted a month to work with him and teach him how to handle running alongside other horses. Lucien wanted no part of that. He said he already had other races at Saratoga planned for him and he wasn’t about to skip them. That’s when I told him, ‘Lucien, you can have a champion or a claimer. It’s your call.’ It was blunt, but he thought about it a bit and gave me the month to work with him.”

Turcotte then took Riva Ridge to school, working him in company with two of Laurin’s other horses ridden by Charlie Davis and Tommy Feliciano.

“You can look at a book by its cover, but you can’t really see inside it,” Davis said to Thoroughbred Times. “We opened the book that was Riva Ridge that August. The progress that horse made was so impressive and it gave all of us such satisfaction. He would still run his heart out but he learned to relax some.”

The hours put into teaching Riva Ridge to relax were rewarded with consecutive wins in the Belmont Futurity, Champagne, Pimlico-Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes that crowned Riva Ridge as the champion 2-year-old male of 1971.

The winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Riva Ridge won the Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah Park in his 3-year-old debut, but then failed to fire on a sloppy track in the Everglades Stakes and finished fourth.

Riva Ridge atoned for that setback with a decisive four-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and was sent off as a 3-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

He won the Derby by 3 ¼ lengths, giving Meadow Stable what would be the first of back-to-back wins in the run for the roses.

“When Riva Ridge won the Derby, I was so thrilled,” Chenery said. “My dad was alive [he died in January 1973] and I had fulfilled his dreams and biggest desire in racing by winning the Derby. I’ll always thank Riva Ridge for doing that.”

As the Triple Crown moved to Pimlico for the Preakness, storm clouds followed and created a sloppy track for the middle jewel of the series. In his career, six of Riva Ridge’s 13 losses took place on a wet track or turf.

“That rain made me sick,” Turcotte said. “I was hoping they would scratch him and run Upper Case (who had won the Wood Memorial in mud), but they said they would regret it for the rest of their lives if Riva ran second to Upper Case. They scratched Upper Case, but I knew Riva Ridge wouldn’t be able to handle that mud.”

Turcotte’s instincts were correct as Riva Ridge, a huge 3-10 favorite, finished fourth to longshot Bee Bee Bee.

“It simply wasn’t meant for him to win the Triple Crown,” Chenery said.

Back on a dry track, Riva Ridge cruised to a seven-length victory in the Belmont Stakes and then prevailed by a neck in the Hollywood Derby.

His win at Hollywood Park proved to be Riva Ridge’s last victory in 1972 and five straight losses, including two in which he finished behind Key to the Mint, opened the door for Key to the Mint to be named the year’s champion 3-year-old male.

As upset as the Meadow Stable team might have been with Riva Ridge’s snub by Eclipse Award voters, they found significant consolation in Secretariat being named 1972 Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old.

Riva Ridge wins the Stuyvesant. (Coglianese Photo)

In 1973, Riva Ridge won the Massachusetts Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap and Stuyvesant Handicap and was voted the year’s champion handicap runner, but his accomplishments were obscured in a year that belonged to Secretariat and Secretariat alone.

Riva Ridge’s career ended on a disappointing note when he finished last in the 1973 Jockey Club Gold Cup and afterwards both he and Secretariat headed to a life at stud at Claiborne Farm.

“When I saw the Claiborne groom lead them down the ramp of the van and put their shank on them, it hit me so hard,” Chenery said. “I knew that was the end. A reporter tried to ask me a question, but I couldn’t talk. I was so choked up, I just walked away.”

Chenery said for the next 45 minutes she walked around the farm by herself, with thoughts of the last two years whirling in her mind and draining all of her emotions.

“Eventually I composed myself and went back,” Chenery said. “I wanted to be by myself but I felt a sense of loyalty to the game. I knew I couldn’t just go off in the corner and cry like a little schoolgirl.”

Chenery would often visit both of her horses at Claiborne, and as the years went by her bond with Riva Ridge grew even more special.

“As time passed I’d call to Secretariat and he wouldn’t acknowledge me,” Chenery said. “I was just one of a hundred people calling his name every day. But right up until he died [in 1985], Riva Ridge would perk up when he heard me call him. That’s why when I talk about the two horses, I say Secretariat belonged to the people and Riva Ridge belonged to me. Secretariat had millions of people who cared about him. He didn’t need me. But Riva Ridge only had me. He was my hero and I knew I meant something to him.”

A hero, indeed. After all, it was Riva Ridge who saved the legendary Meadow Stable.

Note: This story was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Riva Ridge was syndicated for $5.1 million. A year earlier, Secretariat had been syndicated for a world-record $6.08 million.
  • Riva Ridge was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
  • In the 1971 Garden State Stakes, Riva Ridge beat Numbered Account, the champion 2-year-old filly of 1971, and Key to the Mint, who would become his archrival at 3.
  • On Sept. 20, 1972, the $28,000 Stymie Handicap at Belmont Park featured the last two winners of the Kentucky Derby. Riva Ridge gave 13 pounds to Canonero II and finished second to the 1971 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner by five lengths. The victorious Canonero set a track record of 1:46 1/5 for the mile and an eighth in the Stymie. Secretariat later shattered that mark with his time of 1:45 2/5 in the Marlboro Cup.

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