It's a sultry summer afternoon at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton, Calif., and Shelley Riley has just finished watering down her seven-horse stable. The three un-raced 2-year-olds are crunching noisily on ice shavings while Riley's 4-year-old colt, Casual Lies, has his head aimed directly at the circulating fan Riley has placed solicitously in front of his stall. Riley reaches up to pluck an errant bloom from the climbing rose she planted by the barn before last year's Kentucky Derby and then turns toward the fan. She takes a quick look around the shed-row, chuckles softly and gently lifts the hem of her skirt for a refreshing blast of air. "You'll never see Charlie Whittingham do this!" she says, laughing at the thought of the venerable trainer cooling off in a similar fashion.
Casual Lies is healthy after a series of nettlesome injuries, and these days the giddiness is palpable in the Riley stable. Nevertheless, even now Riley thinks about the letters, mostly when she's alone in the barn. She keeps them in the musty tack room that doubles as her office. Riley had kept the letters at home for a while, reading them over and over until her husband, Jim, threatened to throw them out.
You have a nice little horse. With a decent trainer he might have won the Kentucky Derby....
For god's sake, Shelley! Throw away that god-awful tent you wore at Hollywood Park. Your groom looked better than you did....
Perhaps you remember Riley, the zaftig horse trainer from northern California, with her Dresden doll's face, her colorful tent dresses, her comedian's delivery. Riley's nice little horse, Casual Lies, nearly ran away with the 1992 Kentucky Derby, just missing winning the race by a length. He picked up another sizable paycheck for finishing third at the Preakness, two weeks later. Not bad for a $7,500 horse whose lack of physical majesty once caused Riley to remark, "Well, he's brown."
Almost a year and a half has passed since Shelley's Excellent Triple Crown Adventure, those magical five weeks during which Riley, 44, became thoroughbred racing's Roseanne Arnold, albeit a kinder, gentler version. Horse racing, a sport in desperate need of a star, suddenly had a new goodwill ambassador. Here she was, charming the socks off Lynn Swann on The Home Show; there she was, yuk-king it up with Oprah in the infield at the Preakness.
Riley nicknamed her horse Stanley, because, she says, he looked more like a Stanley than a Casual Lies. Jim, a former jockey, is the colt's exercise rider as well as his blacksmith. Shelley's is an uplifting story, a woman trainer who bought and nurtured her own Kentucky Derby contender because she knew that that was the only way she would have one.
But though she guided her bargain-basement colt to two laudable Triple Crown efforts (Stanley finished fifth in the Belmont), Riley still has only a handful of horses in her barn. In the past year she has had only three calls from owners interested in giving her their horses: one from a woman who wanted to convert her jumper into a racehorse, a second from a dubious character with a reputation for not paying his trainers and, happily, a third from a doctor in Saratoga, Calif., who sent Riley his 2-year-old colt.
She spurned an offer of $2.7 million in January 1992 for a 90% interest in Stanley ("What is she, nuts?" said a California trainer) when she learned she would get only $1.2 million up front. "I had hoped I would be wrong," says Riley, "but I never really expected to get any horses because of Casual Lies. Men just don't give horses to women trainers. Most racing people think of me as an oddity, and they think the horse would have run that way for anyone."