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Jon White: Riva Ridge, A Champion Overshadowed | Wednesday, November 17

by Jon White

November 17, 2021

On Nov. 5 at Del Mar, Corniche won the nation’s richest race for 2-year-olds, the Grade I, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Owned by Speedway Stables, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, Corniche registered a 1 3/4-length victory in front-running fashion as the 7-5 favorite to remain undefeated in three starts.

Corniche completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.50. A $1.5 million auction purchase, the Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt is a slam-dunk to be voted a 2021 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.

It was 50 years ago this month that Riva Ridge won what at the time was the nation’s richest race for 2-year-olds, the $293,890 Garden State Stakes, which was contested at New Jersey’s Garden State Park.

Owned and bred by Meadow Stable, trained by Lucien Laurin and ridden by Ron Turcotte, Riva Ridge lurked within close range of the early pace, came on to get the lead at the eighth pole and drew clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. The Kentucky-bred First Landing colt completed his 1 1/16-mile journey in 1:43 3/5.

Riva Ridge was this country’s top money-winning Thoroughbred of 1971, having accumulated earnings of $503,263. Adjusting for inflation, that sum would be the equivalent to earning $3,436,963 in 2021.

In balloting for Thoroughbred racing’s inaugural Eclipse Awards in 1971, Riva Ridge was voted champion 2-year-old male. Also at the first-ever Eclipse Awards dinner honoring the sport’s outstanding horses and humans of 1971, the announcement was made that Ack Ack had been elected 1971 Horse of the Year.

At 2, Riva Ridge made nine starts (three times more than Corniche’s number of starts at 2), winning seven. Prior to his season-ending victory in the Nov. 13 Garden State Stakes, Riva Ridge won the Flash Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 2, the Futurity at Belmont Park on Sept. 18, the Champagne Stakes at Belmont on Oct. 9 and the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity at Laurel on Oct. 30.

Riva Ridge’s 2-year-old title in 1972 kicked off a remarkable run for Meadow Stable, Laurin and Turcotte. The owner-trainer-jockey team might well have swept back-to-back Triple Crowns if not for the sort of weather that makes umbrellas important turning the track to a sea of slop for the 1972 Preakness Stakes.

To illustrate how times have changed, when Laurin early in 1972 announced that Riva Ridge would be making “only” three starts before the Kentucky Derby, “disbelief set in among seasoned turf writers and fellow trainers, who were used to seeing Derby hopefuls run several more times than that,” David Schmitz wrote in BloodHorse’s book “Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.”

Nowadays, making three starts earlier in the year prior to the Kentucky Derby would be viewed as a robust schedule.

For example, only one of the 19 starters in this year’s Run for the Roses made more than three starts earlier in 2021. Who was that one horse? It was none other than Medina Spirit, who finished first.

With “only” three prior 1972 races under his belt, Riva Ridge led from start to finish in the Kentucky Derby. He won the roses by 3 1/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite.

Riva Ridge then was sent to the post as an overwhelming 1-5 favorite in the Preakness. He finished fourth on the sloppy track. Bee Bee Bee splashed his way to a $39.40 upset victory.

After the Preakness, Riva Ridge rebounded when back on dry land to win the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths.

Following Riva Ridge’s dominant victory in the June 10 Belmont, he was sent to Hollywood Park to run in the July 1 Hollywood Derby at 1 1/4 miles on dirt. Backed down to 3-5 favoritism, Riva Ridge won the Hollywood Derby by only a neck while having to run extremely hard to edge Bicker. That battle seemingly took such a physical and/or mental toll on Riva Ridge that he went off form, losing his remaining five 1972 starts.

At age 4, Riva Ridge was voted a 1973 Eclipse Award as champion older male. He won the Grade I Brooklyn Handicap, Grade II Massachusetts Handicap and Grade II Stuyvesant Handicap.

“Who ever saw it will never forget his Brooklyn,” Charles Hatton wrote in the American Racing Manual. “He turned imminent defeat into victory when he condescended to get on the bit in the final frenetic strides, setting a world 1 3/16-mile mark of 1:52 2/5. He carried 127 pounds and repulsed True Knight a thrusting head in a desperate finish, conceding his rival 10 pounds.

“His campaign was punctuated also by a front-running success in the Massachusetts Handicap, in which he tied Whirlaway’s 31-year-old track mark. And he established an Aqueduct course record of 1:47 for nine furlongs in the Stuyvesant under 130, his maximum impost during the season.”

Despite his many accomplishments and accolades, Riva Ridge spent most of his life living in the shadow of his magnificent stablemate, Secretariat.

When Riva Ridge was the champion 3-year-old male of 1972, Secretariat, in a classic case of one-upmanship, not only received a 1972 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, Secretariat was voted Horse of the Year, a rarity for a 2-year-old.

The shadow Secretariat cast over Riva Ridge grew even larger in 1973. That was the year in which Secretariat’s spectacular 31-length Belmont Stakes triumph followed wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to bring an end to a 25-year Triple Crown drought.

As an indication of Secretariat’s greatness, all these years later, he is credited with having run the fastest Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont of all time.

Secretariat was voted a second Eclipse Award Horse of the Year title in 1973, plus he garnered yet another Eclipse Award that year as champion 3-year-old male.

Riva Ridge even found himself having to take a back seat to Secretariat the one time they clashed on the track. Riva Ridge finished second to the famous Triple Crown hero in the 1973 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park, a 1 1/8-mile race in which seven accepted invitations to participate.

“Performing generously, [Riva Ridge] wheeled past the quarter pole in front, in a hand-picked field including three other champions,” Hatton wrote. “But he finished a receding second to his stablemate Secretariat, the champion of champions.”

Riva Ridge finished 3 1/2 lengths behind Secretariat, whose final time of 1:45 2/5 sliced two-fifths off the world record set by Pink Pigeon on Santa Anita’s turf course in 1969.

In terms of BloodHorse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, Secretariat ranked No. 2, behind only Man o’ War. Riva Ridge ranked No. 57.

On my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, I likewise have Secretariat ranked No. 2. I have Riva Ridge at No. 56.

Below is my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century (in parentheses, when applicable, is where the horse ranked on BloodHorse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century):

1. Man o’ War (1)
2. Secretariat* (2)
3. Citation* (3)
4. Kelso (4)
5. Spectacular Bid (10)
6. Native Dancer (7)
7. Dr. Fager (6)
8. Seattle Slew* (9)
9. Count Fleet* (5)
10. Affirmed* (12)
11. Ruffian (35)
12. Swaps (20)
13. Forego (8)
14. Phar Lap (22)
15. Buckpasser (14)
16. Damascus (16)
17. Round Table (17)
18. Seabiscuit (25)
19. War Admiral* (13)
20. Tom Fool (11)
21. Colin (15)
22. John Henry (23)
23. Regret (71)
24. Exterminator (29)
25. Whirlaway* (26)
26. Sunday Silence (31)
27. Cigar (18)
28. Nashua (24)
29. Alydar (27)
30. Easy Goer (34)
31. Alysheba (42)
32. Bold Ruler (19)
33. Personal Ensign (48)
34. All Along (68)
35. Equipoise (21)
36. Gallant Fox* (28)
37. Sysonby (30)
38. Gallant Man (36)
39. Assault* (33)
40. Armed (39)
41. Sir Barton* (49)
42. Northern Dancer (43)
43. Omaha* (61)
44. Ack Ack (44)
45. Discovery (37)
46. Majestic Prince (46)
47. Arts and Letters (67)
48. Stymie (41)
49. Challedon (38)
50. Pan Zareta
51. Noor (69)
52. Busher (40)
53. Gallorette (45)
54. Coaltown (47)
55. Sword Dancer (53)
56. Riva Ridge (57)
57. Grey Lag (54)
58. Devil Diver (55)
59. Dahlia (50)
60. Zev (56)
61. Ta Wee (80)
62. Twilight Tear (59)
63. Native Diver (60)
64. Holy Bull (64)
65. Precisionist
66. Inside Information
67. Shuvee (70)
68. Twenty Grand (52)
69. Skip Away (32)
70. Sham
71. Alsab (65)
72. Lady’s Secret (76)
73. Genuine Risk (91)
74. A.P. Indy
75. Landaluce
76. Silver Charm (63)
77. Susan’s Girl (51)
78. Cicada (62)
79. Go for Wand (72)
80. Slew o’ Gold (58)
81. Bald Eagle (74)
82. Exceller (96)
83. Tim Tam
84. Top Flight (66)
85. Manila
86. Johnstown (73)
87. Lure (85)
88. Princess Rooney
89. Two Lea (77)
90. Gallant Bloom (79)
91. Miesque (82)
92. Eight Thirty (78)
93. Fort Marcy (86)
94. Hoist the Flag
95. Cougar II
96. Gamely (87)
97. Carry Back (83)
98. Ancient Title
99. Bayakoa (95)
100. Formal Gold

*Triple Crown winner

Below is my list of the Top 25 Racehorses of the 21st Century so far to have raced in North America:

1. American Pharoah*
2. Zenyatta
3. Justify*
4. Curlin
5. Arrogate
6. Shared Belief
7. California Chrome
8. Rachel Alexandra
9. Barbaro
10. Tiznow
11. Wise Dan
12. Ghostzapper
13. Point Given
14. Invasor
15. Gun Runner
16. Beholder
17. Smarty Jones
18. Azeri
19. Lava Man
20. Goldikova
21. Bernardini
22. Rags to Riches
23. Candy Ride
24. Kona Gold
25. Xtra Heat

*Triple Crown winner


I have stated many times that I believe Beyer Speed Figures are a valuable tool for horseplayers. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t list Beyers as often as I do. But I consider Thoro-Graph figures to be vastly superior to the Beyers. That’s why I do not hesitate to recommend that a serious horseplayer should put Thoro-Graph figures to use whenever possible.

The higher a Beyer figure is, the better it is. The opposite is true for Thoro-Graph figures.

Thoro-Graph takes many more factors into account than the Beyers. According to Thoro-Graph, “each number on a sheet represents a performance rating arrived at by using time of the race, beaten lengths, ground lost or saved on the turns, weight carried, and any effects wind conditions had on the time of the race.”

In terms of the Beyers, the winner of a race will never get a smaller figure than the horse who finished second, the horse who finished second will never get a smaller figure than the horse who finished third, and so on down through the order of finish.

With Thoro-Graph, a winner does not necessary get the best figure in a race. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons that a Thoro-Graph figure reflects reality more than a Beyer. Any horseplayer knows that a winner does not necessarily always run the best race. How many times have you bet a horse who lost, yet you feel that the horse you bet actually ran the best race?

Below is the Beyer Speed Figure for the winner in each of this year’s 14 Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar:

112 Knicks Go (Classic)
105 Yibir (Turf)
103 Marche Lorraine (Distaff)
106 Space Blues (Mile)
100 Aloha West (Sprint)
102 Loves Only You (Filly & Mare Turf)
109 Life Is Good (Dirt Mile)
107 Golden Pal (Turf Sprint)
100 Ce Ce (Filly & Mare Sprint)
87 Modern Games (Juvenile Turf)
91 Corniche (Juvenile)
79 Pizza Bianca (Juvenile Fillies Turf)
94 Echo Zulu (Juvenile Fillies)
84 Twilight Gleaming (Juvenile Turf Sprint)

Below is the Thoro-Graph figure for each of the 14 races:

NEG 3 Knicks Go (Classic)
1 1/2 Yibir (Turf)
2 Marche Lorraine (Distaff)
1 1/4 Space Blues (Mile)
0 Aloha West (Sprint)
1 1/2 Loves Only You (Filly & Mare Turf)
0 Life Is Good (Dirt Mile)
NEG 1/2 Golden Pal (Turf Sprint)
NEG 1 1/2 Ce Ce (Filly & Mare Sprint)
7 Modern Games (Juvenile Turf)
4 1/2 Corniche (Juvenile)
8 1/2 Pizza Bianca (Juvenile Fillies Turf)
4 1/4 Echo Zulu (Juvenile Fillies)
7 3/4 Twilight Gleaming (Juvenile Turf Sprint)

The winner did not receive the best Thoro-Graph figure in eight of the 14 races. Below are the horses who did not win a Breeders’ Cup race, yet received a Thoro-Graph figure better than or equal to the winner:

--Broome’s figure was a 1/2 in the Turf.

--Dunbar Road’s figure was a 1 3/4 in the Distaff, while Clairiere and Royal Flag each matched Marche Lorraine’s 2.

--Ivar’s figure was a 0 in the Mile.

--Dr. Schivel’s figure was a negative 1/2 in the Sprint.

--Lieutenant Dan’s figure was a negative 1/2 in the Turf Sprint.

--Grafton’s Street’s figure was a 6 1/2 in the Juvenile Turf.

--Pappacap’s figure was a 4 1/4 in the Juvenile.

--Vertiginous and One Timer each received a figure of a 7 in the Juvenile Turf Sprint. Kaufymaker and Averly Jane each received a 7 1/4.

Interestingly, even though Twilight Gleaming won the Juvenile Turf Sprint, Thoro-Graph has four of the vanquished getting a better figure!