As the Triple Crown pretenders were sorting themselves out on both coasts—and while some waited to start in any kind of a race at New York's strikebound Aqueduct—the king of the crop, Riva Ridge, won his first 3-year-old start impressively. Until he is dethroned, and few of his rivals now appear to threaten him, he rules as a strong favorite to take the Kentucky Derby.
A strapping son of First Landing and the Heliopolis mare Iberia, Riva Ridge had won seven of nine races, the last five in a row, before his victory last week in the Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah, and most of his wins had been in events of national prestige: the Flash, the Futurity, the Champagne, the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity and, finally, the Garden State. He then took a well-earned ($503,263 in the bank) rest.
When Riva Ridge returned to competition last Wednesday, he gave the talented sprinter New Prospect seven pounds, looked him squarely in the blinkers at the eighth pole and then charged by to win easily by more than two lengths. Considering the weights (122 pounds to 115), the distance (seven furlongs, which is New Prospect's specialty) and a competitive layoff dating back to Nov. 13, it was a royal performance.
There were Hialeah horsemen who believed New Prospect might well win the Hibiscus; certainly he had a fighting chance, for on opening day the swift Never Bend colt had broken the track record for seven furlongs in 1:21[2/5]. But Lucien Laurin, Riva Ridge's dapper trainer, never contemplated defeat. An hour before the Hibiscus, Laurin said of his classic colt, "He can be no better. I have no excuses." And moments after Riva had crossed the finish line, having been timed in 1:22[4/5] on a dull racing strip, Laurin added, "It was just about the way I thought it would be!"
For the 60-year-old Laurin, who began training in 1943 after many seasons as a jockey in the U.S. and Canada, the Kentucky Derby has been a career goal. He failed to get even part of the Churchill Downs purse with Reginald Webster's Amberoid, who afterward won the 1966 Belmont Stakes. Then in 1969, though his best Derby prospect (Drone) had broken down in Florida, Laurin brought on a colt named Dike to finish a close third, just behind that famous dueling pair Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters.
In the weeks prior to Riva's season debut, Laurin was winning Florida stakes with a couple of other 3-year-olds in his barn, Spanish Riddle and Upper Case, and that no doubt added to his optimism about the racing year ahead. "If anyone has a shot at the classics, Riva Ridge and I certainly should," Laurin declared. "The most important thing is to be careful and start off with a sound horse. My colt is that."
Laurin has plotted Riva's schedule to the classics with great care, but he may not follow the plan rigidly. He talks of starting Mrs. Penny Tweedy's colt two or three times, certainly no more than four, before the Kentucky Derby on May 6. Though the Everglades at Hialeah was just days away, Laurin continued last weekend to vacillate about entering the horse in that stake. "It would be good for him," Laurin said, "but we might have to give away too much weight to suit me. [The Everglades is an allowance event in which Riva Ridge would carry 122 pounds and some of his opponents as little as 112.] I'm inclined now to think of just two more races before the Derby. If we skip the Everglades, we'd run at Keeneland in the Forerunner on April 21 and in the Blue Grass on April 27. But if we do start in the Everglades, we'd go right into the Blue Grass and then on to Churchill Downs."
If their colt makes it successfully along the trail that Laurin and Penny Tweedy are hacking out for him—a trail that ends in the winner's circle at Belmont Park on June 10—he would become the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century and one of a select group of horses to have retained championship form through two seasons. "What many people don't realize," says Trainer John Jacobs, who may have a Derby starter in Nelson Bunker Hunt's Great Bear Lake, "is that just because a colt is good at two, he may not still be good at three. Horses don't always come back the way you want them to."
Laurin is well aware of this. Before the Hibiscus he had made a careful study of one of last season's better 2-year-olds, Paul Mellon's Key to the Mint, who had been third to Riva Ridge in the Garden State and had finished the 1971 season with a victory in the Remsen. At Hialeah in January and February, Key to the Mint seemed to bloom. Laurin was acutely conscious of the colt's progress, for he was trained by Elliott Burch, who has developed numerous classic horses. Laurin watched Key to the Mint taking his daily workouts and soon was telling reporters, "I got news for you: the only horse I think I have to beat this spring is Key to the Mint."
What followed was an example of the frustration that is part of horse racing. Key to the Mint ran a dull fourth in the Bahamas, in which New Prospect was setting his track record, and in his next race, just a week before the Hibiscus, he suffered an injury so serious as to force Burch to admit, "Now it isn't a question of his making the Kentucky Derby, it's a question of his making it back at all. It was a freak accident that happened when the colt broke badly from the gate. He bruised the hip area above the stifle. It doesn't involve torn tendons, but the injury will be slow to heal; the bruise must be dissipated as a clot would be in a human being."