In 1969, a muddy-bay colt with floppy ears would be saved from the floodwaters of Hurricane Camille at his Virginia farm. Later, he would rescue the same farm as it was sinking into debt and preserve it as the launching pad of its greatest champion. Though he would be swept aside in the wake of the national adulation for his charismatic stablemate, he never gave up. Riva Ridge, the forgotten champion of Meadow Stable, most assuredly earned his place in racing history and in the hearts of his fans.
This is an excerpt from our upcoming book “Riva Ridge – Penny’s First Champion” (by Kate Chenery Tweedy and Leeanne Meadows Ladin) due out in September. This coming Saturday, May 5, 2012 marks not only the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, but the 40th anniversary of Riva’s Derby victory of 1972.
And Riva is getting some long-overdue recognition! We are delighted that the Kentucky Derby Museum is hosting a party in Riva’s honor on Sunday, May 6. (see http://www.derbymuseum.org/event_calendar.html)
To fully appreciate the signifciance of Riva’s victory in the 98th “Run for the Roses,” here is another excerpt from our book.
(from Chapter 4 – The Thirty Year Road to the Derby)
“I knew he was the best horse in the race, he was feeling good and had worked good over the track which was very fast. Everything was to his liking and I could smell the roses,” said Ron Turcotte.
The “Golden Boy” of Meadow Stable did not disappoint. Riva broke well out of the gate, grabbing the lead right away. Bumped in the initial rush, he quickly recovered with no trace of his old timidity. Galloping easily, he held off a challenge by Hold Your Peace as the two drew away from the field.
Bill Nack, author of “Secretariat – The Making of a Champion,” described Riva’s Derby run. “Riva toyed with Hold Your Peace like a cat with a mouse. His attitude was ‘come and get me.’ I thought that day that Riva looked like a Triple Crown winner.”
No Le Hace also tried to make a run at Riva, but the bay colt sailed across the finish line under a hand ride by Ron. Winning by three lengths, Riva became only the thirteenth horse to win the Kentucky Derby wire to wire. He posted a time of 2:01 4/5, the seventh fastest on record.
Mom (Penny Chenery is Kate Tweedy’s mother) could not contain her elation. She was sitting with Bull Hancock’s family and literally beating on Clay Hancock as she shouted “We’re winning! We’re winning!”
The Kentucky sun shone brightly on Virginia’s Meadow Stable that day as Granddaddy’s Derby jinx finally lifted. The stars had indeed lined up in our favor. Lucien had trained Riva to peak at the perfect time. Ron had kept Riva off the rail where the deep soil of the “cuppy” track could have tired him. This allowed the colt to sprint to the front where the field of fifteen couldn’t block him. The chancy, last-minute tactic of widening the blinker slits had helped Riva keep his challengers in sight.
The saying goes that the Kentucky Derby is the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” Riva’s two-minute run symbolized the culmination of a dream that kindled in an old horseman’s heart more than thirty years prior to May 6, 1972. My grandfather Chris Chenery had defied all the skeptics when he founded Meadow Stable on the dilapidated land of his ancestral homeplace in Caroline County, Virginia in 1936. Breeding for both speed and stamina, he had sent three strong Derby contenders to the post (including Riva’s sire First Landing) as well as many notable stakes winners. Now my mother too had defied all the skeptics and fulfilled her father’s lifelong ambition. Her unshakable determination and perseverance, along with a solid belief in the homely bay horse who could run like a deer, had brought her far from those first tentative days of running a racing stable.
(end of excerpt)
Kate and I will be at Churchill Downs with Penny this Saturday watching the latest crop of Derby hopefuls vie for their place in racing history. And we will be remembering Penny’s first champion, Riva Ridge, his speed, his spirit and his all too brief moment in the spotlight.
Here’s a link to Riva’s Derby on YouTube.
by Leeanne Meadows Ladin