At fellow blogger Dave Dink’s site, Boojum’s Bonanza, there’s an interesting post about Riva Ridge, champion juvenile colt in 1971 and champion older horse in 1973.
In the context of examining the female lines and families of famous Thoroughbreds and determining which are more successful statistically, the Boojum also uses commentary from turf scribe Charlie Hatton to put flesh and spirit into the animals being portrayed.
This is all the more important for a horse such as Riva Ridge, who was a wet track away from becoming a Triple Crown winner as a 3-year-old but whose form collapsed so badly after mid-season in 1972 that the impressive Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner actually lost the 3-year-old championship to Key to the Mint in the year-end Eclipse Award voting.
Riva Ridge came back the following year with a campaign that established his superiority over other older horses (except possibly Prove Out), while all stood reverently in the shadow of His Chestnut Perfection.
As a sire, however, Riva Ridge was only moderately and intermittently successful. Among his best offspring were G1 winner Tap Shoes (Hopeful, Futurity, and Flamingo), G2 winner Blitey, and G3 winner Favoridge (also second in the G1 Cheveley Park and 1,000 Guineas).
In a comment following the piece on Riva Ridge, the Boojum mentions the pedigree of Blitey and her success as a broodmare for the Phipps family.
A member of Riva Ridge’s second crop at stud, Blitey has a pedigree that is also a fascinating exercise because where else can we find Riva Ridge, Sword Dancer, and Whirlaway as successive sires of quality in the female line, and talk about high-class racehorses with minimal success at stud! These three are poster boys for selective success at stud.
I would hypothesize that one reason for this is the odd mechanical nature of Riva Ridge (and probably the other two, as well). Riva Ridge was a very, very light horse in an era when the weights of better horses have trended upward and continue to do so. If we look at photographs of Riva Ridge, and lamentably they don’t grow on trees, we can see how deer-like and refined he was. He carried no excess anywhere, as Hatton said:
Physically also, it was almost as if he were two horses. When he was out of condition, Riva Ridge, a 16 hands bay with black points, looked rather like a light necked, rawboned gelding. He was never massive and masculine.
But when freshened, he was racing-like and elegant, appearing to have stepped out of an ancient print of an Epsom Derby hero. He cut a captivating figure on parade for the Stuyvesant, his coat glistening and moving gracefully as a ballet dancer.
And I believe it was that lightness of body which made him such an efficient racehorse, as well as so unsuited to dig in and plow through the mud. It wasn’t a weakness of character, I believe, but the fact that he wasn’t equipped to do the job. He didn’t have the bulk and necessary power to churn through the heavier track, and any holding tendency of the track kept him from using his natural action to glide over the track with minimum effort.
Hatton described the horse’s action as “wonderfully light and collected. A splendid gate horse at four, he had catlike agility and could be in the first flight leaving the post in any race. ” Riva Ridge’s quickness was a result of lightness in proportion to muscle, but in his case, it was lightness of body rather than an exaggerated proportion of muscle that gave him speed, which he frequently used to flit along in front of his competition to wide-margin victories in races like the Derby and Belmont.
When deprived of this natural advantage, as the wet tracks fouled his action somewhat and required extra muscle power to push along at a similar speed, Riva Ridge was physically unable to outrun his contemporaries.
I prefer this explanation of Riva Ridge’s lack of success on wet tracks because it is consistent with his general character as a game and high-class racehorse, rather than saying that he got a burr under his saddle whenever the track was wet.