Riva Ridge, “Ole Pea Head”, was the horse responsible for saving Meadow Stable, which made him very special to owner Penny Chenery. He was mostly overshadowed for the greater part of his career due to his stablemate Secretariat, even though he was a champion at 2 and 4.
Riva Ridge was bred by Chris Chenery, who had also bred his sire and dam. His sire was First Landing, the 1958 2YO Champion, with his dam being a great-granddaughter of Man O’War named Iberia. The bay was bred in Kentucky and raised in Virginia at the Chenery’s Meadow Stable. Named after the Italian WWII ridgeline that saw heavy combat, the beloved colt would be sent to trainer Lucien Lauren for his schooling, immediately showing promise.
When the colt began his racing career, Chenery was ill and unable to run the farm. Penny took over the Meadow’s operations in hopes of finding a star among the 2YOs that would help her get her family’s backing to keep from selling the farm. Riva Ridge would be that star, having an incredible season in winning 7 of nine races, 5 of them stakes races. Though his first race was eventful, suffering bumping and a spread shoe, he would come out of the poor showing to win his maiden in his next outing, winning the 5 ½-furlong maiden by 5 ½ lengths over another good race horse named Key To The Mint. After an allowance win and another off-the-board finish in the Great American, Riva Ridge was sent to Saratoga. There the bay youngster would win the Flash Stakes by 2 ½ lengths; however he was unable to compete in the Hopeful due to a fever. Shipped to Belmont for the Futurity, he would have an impressive performance in taking the race in 1:16 for the 6 ½-furlongs, only 3/5 off of the track record. After winning the Champagne by 7 and the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity by 11, Riva Ridge would wrap up his freshman campaign by winning the Garden State, joining Buckpasser as the only other 2YO to win over $500,000 by bank-rolling $503,263. The Chenery’s hope would earn the 2YO Championship, as well as gaining the family’s backing, resulting in Penny not having to sell her father’s farm. Her “Golden Boy’ had saved the Meadow Stud and Stable.
As a 3YO, he would run in 3 races before the Derby, winning the Hibiscus, coming in 4th in the Everglades Stakes over a muddy surface, and then a commanding win the Blue Grass. The early-winter book favorite had his doubters after the Hibiscus, which was the first indication that the colt wouldn’t like the off-going; however it was forgotten after his performance in the Blue Grass.
That first Saturday in May would see Riva Ridge and jockey Ron Turcotte take the lead early over the 15 challengers. The duo never looked back, winning the race that had eluded Chris Chenery in a time of 2:01 4/5 over the fast track. When his homebred won the race, he was in the hospital, very ill and some thought unable to understand what was going on. Yet his nurse who had turned on the television for him to watch the race said that she wiped tears from his face as Penny lifted the gold trophy.
The Preakness would be his downfall in the Triple Crown races as the track came up muddy with Riva’s known dislike of the slop. He would come in a troubled 4th, never able to get a hold over the surface. The Belmont however would be a different story as the track was fast, leading to his domination over the field winning by 7 lengths, again wire-to-wire. He would win the Hollywood Derby carrying 129 pounds, covering the mile and a quarter in 1:59 3/5, though the toll of the season would then catch up to Riva Ridge, resulting in his losing his next five races. Key To The Mint would win the 3YO Championship, while 2YO stablemate Secretariat would win Horse of the Year.
At 4, after some rest, he would win 5 of the 9 races entered, setting track records in 4 of them. In the Brooklyn Handicap, he set a world record for the 1 mile and 3/16 on the dirt, winning in a time of 1:52 2/5 that still stands, only being equaled by Farma Way in 1991. Riva Ridge would only once face Secretariat, in the Marlboro Cup, which was originally meant to be a match race between the two. When the two would lose their prep races, the race would become an invitational, allowing others to enter. The race still came down to the two champions, with Riva Ridge carrying top weight, he would finish behind Secretariat who would set a World Record in defeating his stablemate. Penny Chenery would walk Secretariat into the winner’s circle, then went to see Riva, apparently saying, “I have the greatest admiration for Secretariat, but I love Riva Ridge.” The horse that she loved would end the season earning the Champion Older Male title.
I think one of the saddest things I have ever read about Riva Ridge was how much he loved visitors and had a friendly disposition, wanting to greet everyone. The poor colt would then hang his head in disappointment as people would pass him by, without even a glance, to go visit Secretariat. He was a Derby victor and champion; however he couldn’t compete with the public’s affections for the Triple Crown winner. Their groom, Eddie Sweat, would often leave the throngs of people to go over and hang out with Riva, giving him the attention he desperately craved. His wonderful disposition would follow him to Claiborne Farm where he was retired to stud, as he happily greeted all visitors. Though he only lived to the age of 16, passing due to a heart attack, he sired 29 stakes winners, including Blitey, a mare that foaled 12 winners, several Grade I, out of 14 foals.
(Bumper Sticker Courtesy of KDM archives)