Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Remarkable Riva Ridge

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the great Secretariat's Triple Crown run of 1973.

I expect that all of horse racing will pay homage to that extraordinary champion — and rightfully so.

But today is the 40th anniversary of the emergence of the last super horse before Secretariat came along — his stablemate, Riva Ridge.

There were other links between Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Both were owned and trained by the same stable. Both were ridden by the same jockey. They even faced off in a match race sponsored by the Philip Morris company.

In the 25 years between Citation's Triple Crown in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973, 15 horses won two of the three races.

By far the most common of the victorious two–race combinations was the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes (the first two races), and the reason for that is simple. The Derby and the Preakness, although separated by only two weeks, are shorter races that tend to favor speed horses; the much longer Belmont Stakes, which is held three weeks after the Preakness, favors endurance over speed.

Over the years, many a speedster has jumped to a fast lead at the Belmont only to fade and burn out long before reaching the finish line. It is indeed a rare horse that possesses both speed and endurance.

But Riva Ridge, like Secretariat, seems to have been that rare horse. And he might have won the Triple Crown except for what turned out to be his Achilles' heel. He couldn't run well on a sloppy track, and rain at Pimlico prior to the Preakness made the track too sloppy for him.

That cleared the way for Bee Bee Bee, a 19–to–1 shot, to win.

Bee Bee Bee wasn't in the fields for the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, and I still hear people arguing that, if he had, he might have been the Triple Crown winner.

That is one of those what–if questions, though. The fact remains that Riva Ridge won two of the Triple Crown races in 1972, and he won the first of those races 40 years ago today.

A moment in thoroughbred racing that is worth remembering today.

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