There were people who called it the Consolation Classic, because—for one reason or another—several of the nation's best colts were not taking part. Nor, it seemed, were the best riders. Shoemaker, Pincay, Hartack, Baeza, Belmonte and Cordero were elsewhere. Taking their place in the 98th Kentucky Derby were men with unfamiliar names: Kotenko, Leeling, Rubbicco, Breen. But last Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs the 3-to-2 favorite, Riva Ridge, won with such style and flair that he transformed a lackluster event into a true classic. He led from wire to wire, which few Derby winners have dared do (the last to manage it was Kauai King in 1966), and finished an impressive 3� lengths ahead of No Le Hace. The one colt that tried to run all the way with the winner, Hold Your Peace, ended up a discouraged third.
Riva Ridge was the choice of the record crowd of 130,564, and with good reason. Last season he was the nation's top 2-year-old, winning seven of his nine starts, and at three he still appeared the best of his generation. His trainer, Lucien Laurin, had been criticized for limiting the colt's pre-Derby efforts to three races, but Laurin said no one knew Riva Ridge better than he did.
For all Laurin's obvious confidence, there were those who expected an upset. Perhaps even a replay of Canonero's astounding triumph last year. The focus of considerable attention was Canonero's trainer, Juan Arias, who had returned to Louisville with an undistinguished colt named Hassi's Image. Even Canonero's jockey, Gustavo Avila, was back, and this time he had a mount on a Puerto Rican import, Pacallo. Despite these colts' depressing past performances, some dreamers in the hot and sweaty throng believed another Latin victory possible.
More logical was the support for the Flamingo Stakes winner, Hold Your Peace, especially after he breezed home in front by five lengths in a Derby prep. Trainer Arnold Winick declared he would not be running the colt unless he felt the horse had a chance. And when Key to the Mint (SI, April 19) captured the one-mile Derby Trial just four days before the Derby, Trainer Elliott Burch appeared to have a worthy challenger. But Burch, who is America's foremost trainer of classic colts, was reluctant to put this 3-year-old, only recently recovered from a leg injury, to the Derby test. "He is too good a horse to take chances with," Burch explained. "There is a long season ahead. Besides, Key to the Mint hasn't the proper foundation for the race that the other Derby starters have. I used to think the Trial was too close to the Derby itself, but looking back I found that Calumet Farm used it with great success. Six of its eight Derby winners started in the Trial. Lately I have watched trainers pass up the Trial only to put an even more rugged work into their horse the following day. So who is to say which approach is best? And when is a horse seasoned enough—or too seasoned? I do know in Key to the Mint's case that he is not sufficiently prepared, so I have decided to wait and run him in the Preakness instead."
With Burch's promising colt out of the running, there was discussion of other ways of defeating Riva Ridge. It was said his jockey might do him in. Canadian-born Lucien Laurin has always been partial to Canadian-born rider Ron Turcotte. Sentiment is a fine thing and at Derby time it has its place, along with aged bourbon and My Old Kentucky Home. And loyalty is always applaudable. But many in Louisville last week recalled Turcotte's ill-judged Derby ride on Tom Rolfe in 1965, when he drove the colt into a dead end on the rail. In addition, Turcotte had been much criticized for his handling of Damascus in the 1968 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. Some sportswriters and horsemen went so far as to suggest that Turcotte do his sleeping in bed instead of during $100,000 stakes races. The Canadian became so furious at his critics that he threatened at least one turf writer. But this year's Derby demonstrated that Turcotte has developed into a confident and skilled rider. His performance on Riva Ridge was admirable and the strategy was of his own devising. Laurin had told the jockey, "Use your own judgment." Prior to the race the two men had discussed the apparent lack of early speed in the field. "That won't bother me," Turcotte declared, "because Riva Ridge will do what I want any time during the race."
"I don't like my riders fighting to hold back their horses," Laurin said. "Riva may go to the front if he's running easy, but there's usually some bum in this race who will go barreling to the front because his owner has been bragging to friends, 'There, I told you my horse could get to the front in the Kentucky Derby.' "
Two hours before post time Laurin joined friends for a final pre-Derby morale booster, and as he drained his glass he admitted nervously, "I'm scared because everything is coming up too perfect. There is almost no speed, I know, so the way I see it Hold Your Peace will take the lead. But I can't let him steal it, can I? It's a long way home from the half-mile pole. One of us will be fit enough to make it and one of us won't. Unless, of course, another horse comes along and knocks us both off when we are not looking."
When the gate finally clanged open, it was apparent that Lucien Laurin's trust in Ron Turcotte was well placed, and a little over two minutes later the 31-year-old onetime peewee lumberjack was being acclaimed for a faultless ride. Both he and Riva Ridge did absolutely everything right. The only incident, if it can even be termed an incident, in the mile-and-a-quarter race—which chart caller Bud Lyon declared was the cleanest-run Derby in 15 years—occurred at the break. Hassi's Image, coming out of No. 11 stall, swerved to the left and bumped into long-shot Pacallo, who in turn rammed Riva Ridge. But the bump was inconsequential. The son of First Landing recovered in a hurry and took off down the middle of the long homestretch. To Turcotte's left was Carlos Marquez on Hold Your Peace, and when he did not hustle his horse into the lead as expected, Turcotte decided to take command of the situation. "I wanted to lay about third going into that first turn," the jockey said later, "but my colt was running so easy that I took advantage of my position and went out on the lead. I never once had to get into Riva after that." Turcotte stayed wide most of the trip, to avoid the more cuppy and tiring rail surface. Riva Ridge and Hold Your Peace turned up the backstretch, separated by only a length and a half. The closest threat was a field horse named Majestic Needle, and Hassi's Image was not too far away. No Le Hace at this point was a non-menacing fifth, with Freetex sixth. Around the half-mile pole Marquez made his first futile run at Riva Ridge, but the colt just moved into higher gear. The pair of contenders pulled off eight lengths ahead of the field, their opposition all but forgotten. As they neared the quarter pole and the turn for the run home, Hold Your Peace once more tried to pass his rival, but Riva Ridge surged again. As he did he drifted wide and Hold Your Peace, who had been making his challenge from Riva's right flank, changed course, darted to the inside and dug in for the ultimate test. The pursuit was fruitless. No Le Hace, doing the only serious running of the others, had moved up to third at the quarter pole, and began narrowing the distance between himself and the leaders. Riva Ridge held a safe three-length margin at the eighth pole and increased that slightly in the final furlong, while coasting home effortlessly to collect his $140,000 and the gold cup. No Le Hace overtook a tiring Hold Your Peace to win second money ($25,000) by 3� lengths. Following Hold Your Peace, and with not an excuse among the lot, were Introductivo, Sensitive Music, Freetex, Big Spruce, Head of the River, Big Brown Bear, Kentuckian, Hassi's Image, Majestic Needle, Our Trade Winds, Napoise, Dr. Neale and, finally, in the reverse position from where he found himself just a year ago, Gustavo Avila on Pacallo.
For the family of Christopher T. Chenery, the victory seemed long overdue. "It took us 22 years to get here," said Owner Penny Tweedy, speaking for her ailing 81-year-old father, older brother Hollis B. Chenery and sister Mrs. Margaret Carmichael. "We're glad to have finally made it." They had brought three Derby favorites to Churchill Downs (First Landing in 1959, Sir Gaylord in 1962 and Riva Ridge) and one second-favorite (Hill Prince in 1950) and at long last they had a winner.
What is remarkable is that all the Derby horses (and the great race mare Cicada) that have appeared in the past two decades in the blue-and-white-block Chenery silks were raised at the family stud in Doswell, Va. From only 16 or 17 foals a year the Chenerys are continuing to produce astonishingly high-quality stock. For instance, in addition to Riva Ridge they have the homebred 3-year-old Upper Case, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial. This son of Round Table will run as an entry with Riva in the remaining classics. Because he seemed relatively backward, he was not entered in the Kentucky Derby when nominations closed for the race in February, a decision that some racing people felt Penny Tweedy might regret. But after her colt's victory in Louisville, she said with a chuckle, "Now you know why we didn't nominate Upper Case for the Derby. We didn't need him, did we?"