To be eclipsed is to have one’s own light be obscured by the light of another.
We see this in many aspects of life. Every once in a while, we find greatness in two subjects, athletes specifically, and by the time one really begins to shine his or her light, another light, often even more illuminating, comes along. We know the story of Secretariat. We’ve seen the documentaries, the movie, and the 1973 Belmont Stakes more times than we can remember. This, is not an extension of his story. This, is the story of Riva Ridge, and the woman who loved them both.
Originally published in print at Thoroughbred Today Magazine
When Christopher Chenery’s Meadow Stable found itself in financial trouble in the early 1970’s, it was proposed by his children that the stable be sold. Christopher was no longer in a state to care for the horses or finances himself, which left his daughter Penny, both strong-willed and determined, to advocate for what was left of the stable her father so loved, refusing to sell as long as he was alive. Among the horses which remained in its ownership, was a relatively plain bay colt by the name of Riva Ridge.
Not necessarily a physically-gifted, four-legged powerhouse like his big red stablemate that would come just a year after him, Riva Ridge was an unassuming colt, whose long, deer-like legs, as well as a fear of other horses, would carry him to stardom.
“Riva was a very timid horse. Secretariat ran to dominate and intimidate other horses. Riva ran to get away from them.” Penny tells me.
His timidness would carry him through a remarkable career which began at Belmont Park in 1971, where he finished seventh after a troubled trip. Trainer Lucien Laurin, who would also train Secretariat, added blinkers to the nervous colt’s equipment, and he responded by winning his next two outings. In his stakes debut, Riva Ridge would finish off the board, once again. At this time, Penny and Lucien looked to Ron Turcotte, a young, hot shot rider, to fill Riva Ridge’s irons. He was the same rider who would guide Secretariat to a Triple Crown win less than two years later.
With Turcotte aboard and eager to work through the colt’s nervousness, the team bumped up into stakes competition once again, this time, victorious. They would go on to win the Belmont Futurity, Champagne Stakes, Laurel Futurity, and the Garden State Stakes, with Riva Ridge being crowned Champion two-year-old male. He would continue to dominate with victories in the Hibiscus Stakes and the Blue Grass Stakes, before winning two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Contrary to popular belief which has been largely built upon by a movie which left out the colt’s existence altogether, the success of Riva Ridge saved Meadow Stable when he became racing’s twelfth equine millionaire, winning seventeen of thirty starts. His legendary stablemate, Secretariat, who would become the first Triple Crown Winner in a quarter of a century in 1973, would only continue the wave of success which the plain-bay colt catalyzed only one spring prior.
Both horses would retire to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, where Penny would continue to visit throughout their lives.
She recalls her days spent at Claiborne with her beloved horses, “I did visit them. There was never a time when Riva wouldn’t come up to me to say hello. He always knew me. Secretariat had so many people surrounding him all of the time, I was just another one of the masses, but Riva always remembered me.”
It comes as no surprise that his sudden-death to Anaphylaxis at the age of sixteen was, as Penny describes, “Devastating.” Though she cherishes the memories of several Meadow Stable horses she describes to me — Hill Prince, Cicada, and of course Secretariat, to name a few, there is without a doubt, a sense of childlike wonder which overcomes her voice, when she speaks of Riva Ridge.
Those of us who have been so privileged to be in the presence of horses, know we all have a “Heart Horse” — a horse who stays with us, long after they leave. A horse who changes the way we see the world. A horse who teaches us something about ourselves that even we did not see coming. After my brief conversation with Penny, it was clear to me that Riva Ridge was her “Heart Horse”— the one she will carry with her, always.
So see, this is not just the story of a horse. This is the story of a woman who refused to give up. This is the real story of the, not one, but two, beings who saved Meadow Stable. Though Secretariat’s accomplishments will forever be what is most remembered when thinking of the Meadow Stable legacy, It must also be realized that without the woman who fought with all her might to save it, and a timid bay colt whom she believed in, there may have never been the Secretariat whom we have come to cherish.
No article, and no length of time will remove the shadow which was cast on the life and career of Riva Ridge in the Spring of 1973, but I like to think that, though he is not often spoken of, he is forever entwined with the success of Secretariat — always the underlying hero which only few remember.
To those few, Penny included, he is impossible to forget.
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