The Forgotten Horse Who Nearly Saved The Meadow

The Derby Rankings take a break this week as we look back fifty years ago, when history was almost changed by a horse whose name has faded over time. But for a brief period in the winter and spring of 1972, it was Upper Case who looked to be the one who was going to help save one of America’s most iconic racing and breeding operations. ~ Steve Haskin

The Forgotten Horse Who Nearly Saved The Meadow

By Steve Haskin

If there’s one thing we can take from this year’s overall Kentucky Derby picture it is the number of top trainers who have had multiple serious contenders on the Derby trail. We’re talking about Steve Asmussen with Epicenter and Morello, Kenny McPeek with Smile Happy, Rattle N Roll, and Tiz the Bomb, Bob Baffert/Tim Yakteen with Taiba and Messier, Chad Brown with Zandon and Early Voting, Brad Cox with Cyberknife and Zozos, and of course Todd Pletcher with Mo Donegal, Charge It. Pioneer of Medina, and Emmanuel. Some of these have recently fallen off the Derby trail while others are about to.

There is no doubt that a majority of the contenders come from a select few barns run by America’s leading trainers.

It is interesting to envision the different scenarios than can unfold on Derby Day just from these half-dozen trainers. Many of the scenarios we have seen before throughout the history of the Kentucky Derby.

We have had trainers with multiple Derby horses left with nothing on the first Saturday in May and we have had trainers who saddled as many as five horses in the Derby. Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher saddled five horses (in 2005 and 2007, respectively) and none of them finished in the money.

There were Triple Crown winners who had stakes-winning stablemates in the Derby – Citation and Coaltown, Secretariat and Angle Light, and American Pharoah and Dortmund.

On several occasions we have had the Derby won by the weaker half of the entry – Real Quiet over Indian Charlie, Charismatic over Cat Thief, and Cannonade over Judger. And there was 24-1 Thunder Gulch beating Timber Country and Serena’s Song.

And finally we come to the scenario that pertains to this story, and that is a stable with two strong contenders on the Derby trail who had one not make it to the race but winning it with the other horse.

We have seen that with Devil’s Bag and Swale, Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, Eskendereya and Super Saver, McKinzie and Justify, and Life is Good and Medina Spirit (yes I am including Medina Spirit). In each case it was the stable’s big horse that failed to make the Derby only to have either the lesser regarded of the two or the horse who came on the scene late emerge victorious.

Racing researchers can look all these up or go strictly by memory. But there was one prominent horse on the Derby trail who over the years has been totally forgotten and even researchers would have to stumble upon him by accident to remember him, and even then have only a vague collection of him.

But this was a horse who at one point on the Derby trail looked as if he might be the savior of one of America’s leading breeding and racing operations. However, it was his stablemate who proved to be the savior of the farm and is a member of racing’s Hall of Fame.

Going into 1971, the once powerful Meadow Stable was in decline as its owner and founder Christopher Chenery lay in a hospital bed, his faculties diminishing each year. That is when his daughter Penny Tweedy was summoned from her home in Denver, Colorado to help save the farm on which she grew up.

That year, Meadow Stable unleashed a brilliant 2-year-old son of First Landing named Riva Ridge. It was their first big horse since the heroics of champion filly Cicada in the early ‘60s. By the end of the year, Riva was the overwhelming 2-year-old champion, winning the Flash, Futurity, Champagne, Pimlico-Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes, becoming the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, a race that had eluded Meadow Stable, who had come close in 1950, finishing second with eventual Preakness and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and Horse of the Year Hill Prince.

All eyes were on Riva Ridge as the 1972 season began. It didn’t look as if there was a 3-year-old around who was as fast and classy as Meadow’s gazelle-like colt with the loppy ears. Riva was given a four-month layoff over the winter and wouldn’t be seen again until the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah on March 22. During his absence, trainer Lucien Laurin sent out a regally bred colt by Round Table, out of Bold Experience, a granddaughter of Meadow’s foundation mare Hildene, by Bold Ruler named Upper Case, who ran well, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire, running in four allowance races at Gulfstream Park in January and February, three of them on grass, with two victories and two seconds. As a 2-year-old, he had a win and a second in four starts, so he was never mentioned in the same breath as Riva Ridge. As March rolled around, he had yet to compete in a stakes race despite having made eight starts.

The colt’s main problem was that he had a breathing issue, having lunged at the starting gate as a youngster hitting himself just about the nose, damaging his sinuses. From that day on he would be fine some days and others he would “choke up,” as jockey Ron Turcotte described it, losing his air.

On March 2, with Riva Ridge still in the barn, Upper Case finally made his stakes debut, rallying from sixth to win the Florida Derby by a length. Just like that, Meadow Stable had a powerful one-two punch with this latecomer having a pedigree and running style almost guaranteeing he would have no problem getting the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby.

“I had to beg Lucien to run him in the Florida Derby, Turcotte recalled, “He kept saying no, that he felt he was a grass horse and wanted to keep him on the grass. But my agent and I kept after him telling him the horse was doing so good he deserved to be in the race. Lucien also felt he had a Derby horse in Spanish Riddle, who he also ran in the Florida Derby, but we beat him.”

Laurin decided to run Upper Case back only nine days later in the nine-furlong Flamingo Stakes and he finished a well-beaten second to Hold Your Peace in a sharp 1:48 2/5. Although he was beaten he still was considered a leading Derby contender who would get better with the added distance,

Eleven days later, on March 22, Riva Ridge finally made his 3-year-old debut, easily winning the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes in a quick 1:22 4/5. Now that Riva had shown he had made an excellent transition from 2 to 3 and was the same brilliant colt he was the year before the future was starting to look bright for The Meadow. Penny had come, had seen, and had conquered in a short period of time and was now the face of the operation.

However, on April 1, Riva Ridge went off at 3-5 in the Everglades Stakes and couldn’t handle the sloppy track, finishing a disappointing fourth, beaten nearly six lengths. Questions began to arise whether it was the slop that got him beat or whether it was the mile and an eighth. Did the colt have too much speed to handle the mile and a quarter?

Laurin then sent Upper Case to New York to point for the Wood Memorial. But instead of waiting six weeks between the Flamingo and Wood he dropped the colt back to a one-turn mile in the Gotham Stakes. At the eighth pole he was way back in eighth, 6 ½ lengths off the lead, but closed like a rocket to finish third, beaten 1 ½ lengths.

That set him up perfectly for the Wood Memorial. Laying close to the pace this time over a sloppy track, he took the lead on the far turn, opened up a four-length lead at the eighth pole, and was not urged the rest of the way by Turcotte, winning under a hand ride by 1 ½ lengths over Darby Dan’s classy, late-running True Knight, who would go to a productive career, eventually defeating Forego in the Suburban Handicap.

“We went to the front early and he just galloped home,” Turcotte said. “He looked as if he was going to be our big Derby horse.”

Racing fans and the media also started wondering if it was Upper Case and not Riva Ridge who was Meadow’s main Derby hope. He had already won two of the biggest mile and an eighth races on the Derby trail, had the right running style and the breeding to run all day, and all Riva had to show for himself at that point was a victory going seven furlongs and a fourth-place finish in his only start at 1 1/8 miles.

But when Riva Ridge bounced back and easily won the Blue Grass Stakes by four lengths, he eased a lot of fears and once again became the Derby favorite. Laurin decided to go with only Riva in the Derby and point Upper Case for the Preakness.

Riva went on to score a decisive victory at Churchill Downs, giving the Meadow its most important victory since it was founded by Chenery in 1936. He took the lead early and never looked back, winning in hand by 3 ¼ lengths over the late-running No Le Hace, winner of the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys.

A week Later, Upper Case ran in the Preakness Prep, but he went right to lead and tired at the head of the stretch, as his breathing problem acted up. At the finish, he was fifth, beaten 5 ½ lengths, by the improving Key to the Mint.

Then came the Preakness a week later, and when heavy rains turned the track into a quagmire it was Upper Case who Laurin scratched and not Riva Ridge, despite the latter having run poorly in the slop in the Everglades and Upper Case having won the Wood in the slop.

“I asked Lucien and Penny why would they scratch Upper Case and not Riva Ridge, and Lucien said he wasn’t convinced Riva didn’t like the slop,” Turcotte said. And having already won the Derby so easily there was the Triple Crown beckoning.

This is where the careers of both colts took dramatic turns. Riva as everyone knows, went on to a Hall of Fame career, but Upper Case continued to be plagued by his breathing problems. After a terrible performance in the Jersey Derby, in which he “choked up” again according to Turcotte, he was sold to a group from Ireland for breeding purposes for $750,000 because of his strong pedigree. They continued to race him, but in his next seven starts he finished out of the money in six of them. He managed to win an allowance race on the grass at Belmont in late September when they shortened him up to seven furlongs and the breathing was not a problem.

At the end of 1972 Upper Case was retired to stud in Ireland where he sired a few good horses. But for Americans, he quickly became a forgotten horse with his name fading into obscurity over the years.

“He was a tough horse, especially to gallop” Turcotte said. “But when he was able to get his air he could really run. He was a very good colt and at one point we thought he was the big horse.”

Now, 50 years later, the story of Upper Case can be told, about how for a few months in 1972 he was the horse who was going to help save The Meadow. Of course, it was all a prelude to the following year when a big red horse came along to elevate himself and The Meadow into immortality.


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91 Responses to “The Forgotten Horse Who Nearly Saved The Meadow”

  1. Russell Cardenas says:

    Upper Case spent about 6 or 7 years in Ireland, then returned to the states, Florida, where he continued breeding, finally passing in 1986 at age 17. Note that he died at about the same age as Riva (either 16 or 17). His best horse was probably Flying Pidgeon who won over 1.1 million on the track. I always wondered what became of this horse and was happy to find this article. Never knew he had sinus issues which shortened his racing career. Thank you Mr. Haskin for giving this wonderful Meadow team member some belated recognition. As you said there are many others like him, horses that ran their hearts out only to vanish into the dark wilderness of memory when their professions concluded.


  2. TommyMc says:

    Here’s an item with a tie-in to Steve Haskin’s terrific article about Meadow Stable. Riva Ridge in 1972 is the last horse to win The Derby from post position #9. I thought that the #1 post was bad, but there are several post positions that have longer droughts than Ferdinand’s win from post#1 in 1986. The #2 post is winless since Affirmed in 1978. #12 goes back to Cannonero II in ’71, #14 Carry Back in ’61, and we’re still waiting for the first Derby Winner from post #17. If this info is correct, I’d say that post position #1 is only the sixth worst post position. Weird. I would consider posts 9, 12, and 14 pretty good spots in a 20-horse field.

  3. Matthew W says:

    Cyberknife is named for the surgical procedure that saved his owner’s life, which is cool! I “see” Cyberknife 2nd at the eighth pole, dead aim on Messier with The Remsen Boys flying as a team! Cyberknife by a length!

  4. Matthew W says:

    Per Jay Priveman this AM: Cyberknife continues to impress! Also mentioned Classic Causeway looking good. ..but was surprised, that Kathleen O did not impress, and is taking a stand against …

  5. Clarence says:

    Dear Steve
    This, only my 2nd contact with you, though just as appreciative through the years…
    Having lived in Paris, Ky and making the acquaintance of Mr Harold Johnson (who as
    you know came from Ellerslie to Claiborne with Princequillo & who Bull tasked to
    mentor Arthur with “ teach him everything about broodmares”
    I would love to read your effort on the “maternal grandsire” relation of Secretariat
    and Sham
    Admirably yours

    • Steve haskin says:

      Thank you very much Clarence. I actually gave a talk about Princequillo and his amazing journey the Secretariat Festival a few years ago but I will tell the story again in a column in the near future.

  6. Mary Lou says:

    Thank you for this story. Reading the back stories reminds me of why I fell in love with this sport and (even with all the negativity being associated with these equine athletes) why I continue to follow horse racing. I do read all your columns and enjoy the responses. I’m looking forward to your last ranking for this year.

  7. Matthew W says:

    Messier 1:11 3/5 easily …but— why so fast? Eight days out ….DID look good….

  8. CLOWNSKILL says:

    None of this ever happened according to the Secretariat movie. Big Red alone saved the farm.

    • Matthew W says:

      ….and Turcotte, Lauren and Penny Chenery all danced to the Staple Singers. .

      • CLOWNSKILL says:

        I read that the director wanted to make the Belmont a photo finish for dramatic effect and it had to be explained to him that it wouldn’t sell as everyone knew it was one of the most iconic moments in all of sport’s history. Everyone except him, apparently.

  9. dance with fate says:

    Your tales are the finest tributes to the thoroughbred. Upper Case, like each of your beautiful subjects, find
    that forever ‘place in the sun’ that is truly theirs. Thank you for his courageous story & for including Medina Spirit (so loved, as is Midnight Bourbon). Heroism in all its manifestations inform your writings, as with those on California Chrome (Prince), Lava Man (so cool) & Hot Rod Charlie (yep) of recent note. Peace & love for Dortmund, another 2011 foal, & all.

  10. Davids says:

    Steve, thank you for another trip down memory lane. I had totally forgotten Upper Case, Riva Ridge was a favorite so as the years go by you tend to only remember those who stole your heart. Not just in horse racing either for that matter. Lol.

    How many colts that do reasonably well on the Derby Trail will vanish into obscurity after a few years. Unless their genes are passed on at stud, ignominity is all that is left. It’s always enjoyable when a colt with a ‘lost’ pedigree pops up, your mind travels back to yesteryear trying to relocate the name and place of these previous battles.

    Oh well, back to reality. Zandon does look spectacular and Charge it has caught my eye for the upcoming Kentucky Derby. How many of those on the present Derby Trail will soon be mere faint memories as poor Upper Case.

  11. Since Lil E. Tee says:

    Let’s all read what Steve wrote again….

    I have been saying for weeks the only thing I need to see from Epicenter is the ability to sit behind horses if he had to and use his tactical speed rather than his front-running speed. That would make him the complete Derby package. Not only did he demonstrate that adaptability, he was able to sit behind two very good horses while hemmed in along the rail, but acting like he had been doing that his entire career. When he finally came off the rail nearing the top of the stretch and fanned out, he went right by the pace-setting second choice Zozos and drew off to win by 2 ½ lengths, closing his final three-sixteenths in a sensational :18 1/5. Good luck finding any Preakness winners who came home faster than that. And he did it following a :24 1/5 quarter. He did everything Rosario asked him to and never was touched with the whip. Epicenter came to the wire flicking his ears back and forth, and when Zozos came alongside him on the gallop-out he re-broke, took off, and just kept going as if he were ready to go around again. If you are looking for the perfect Derby prep this was it. Now I cannot think of a thing this horse can’t do or a reason to keep him off the top spot.

    I’ll just add he came home in 18.1 DESPITE running sideways drifting way left and easing up. If he can avoid trouble, I think he runs a powder keg race.

  12. Mike Relva says:

    Sad news regarding Big Brown’s son.

  13. John Goggin says:

    Well, back to some Derby news….Taiba just breezed 6 in 1:12.4 at SA this am – his first wo since the SA Derby and according to some looked much bigger….Yakteen said it might be the horse’s only wo prior to the Derby with just gallops at Churchill planned at this point….

  14. Nelson Maan says:

    Thanks Steve for this tribute to the regal Upper Case. With your article he will be forgotten no more.

    I learned about Upper Case in the mid and late 80’s when some Venezuelan breeders brought at least a dozen of his progeny in utero. I believe Upper Case had returned to the US in 1978 and for some reason the son of Round Table was pretty appealing and popular to several important breeders in Venezuela.

    Also, while analyzing the pedigree of the 1992 Venezuelan Triple Crown champion Catire Bello I found that he and Upper Case shared First Flush as third and second dam respectively. Both are inheritor of the foundation mare Hildene.

    I gather that Upper Case was a great deputy for champion Riva Ridge during the first quarter of 1972 and that he could have been even better if his sinuses had not been damaged in his early training.

    Seems like Laurin was right about Upper Case being a grass specialist as his best sons were turf horses. Upper Case stats as a sire read 249 winners and 18 Black Type winners out of 364 starters.

    Another salient point from the article is the difference between the breeders/owners of the Golden Age to the new owners whose main aim is to just be in the Derby despite not having precisely top contenders. Those modern owners would brag that his horse is ranked “among the 20 best 3-year-olds in America” and that the Derby walk is a dreamlike experience… and I would not dispute those feelings of belonging and bliss.

    Steve, You are a gifted Historian who can rescue any worthy Thoroughbred from the abyss of oblivion… we cannot thank you enough for promoting the sport of kings and nowadays of the common people as well…!