Riva Ridge Maiden Win was ‘Key” to Lasting Rivalry

Wednesday, June 23 marks the 50th anniversary of Riva Ridge’s maiden victory, which turned out to be the beginning of a Hall of Fame career as well of one of racing’s great rivalries. ~ Steve Haskin

Riva Ridge Maiden Win was ‘Key’ to Lasting Rivalry

By Steve Haskin


June 23, 1971 was just another Wednesday at Belmont Park. There certainly was nothing to indicate that 50 years later I would be writing a column on the anniversary of this day. There were no stakes being run and no horses of any major significance were on the card. And writing a column, or anything for that matter, would have never entered my mind considering I was not a writer. I had recently been promoted from assistant librarian to head librarian at the Morning Telegraph after the previous head librarian left to join the advertising department.

My two days off were Wednesday and Sunday. There was no Sunday racing back then, so Wednesday was the only day for me to go to the track. Because of my work schedule I wasn’t able to be among the record crowd at Belmont Park three weeks earlier to witness Canonero II’s attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.

Before I offer an explanation why this particular Wednesday was so important and why it warranted a 50-year anniversary column I have to go back to my introduction to racing in 1967 when a friend of a friend told me about an up-and-coming young horse that he was following named Damascus and also turned me on to his favorite all-time horse Graustark, who with his sire Ribot were standing at stud at Darby Dan Farm. It was that person who exposed me to this new exciting world and I Immediately became obsessed with racing. Knowing nothing about it, I naturally latched on to both his horses. They became my new sports heroes and literally changed my life, which is a story I have told before.

I dug up everything I could find on Graustark’s racing career and fervently followed his and Ribot’s offspring and even traveled to Darby Dan twice in 1969, the first time taking a bus from New York, to visit both stallions, as well as Damascus at Claiborne Farm. But most of all I wanted to see Graustark’s yearling full-brother, later to be named His Majesty. Yes, I was 22 years old, but when it came to horses I was a starstruck 12-year-old who had been exposed to a wondrous new world.

In the winter of 1968 I had started a scrapbook on Ribot’s promising son Arts and Letters, my new favorite horse who was owned by Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable, and as a result I also became a big fan of Rokeby’s great grass champion Fort Marcy.

With that background firmly established we can return to June 23, 1971. What made that day special at the time was the career debut of a son of Graustark, who was owned by Rokeby Stable and was also a half-brother to Fort Marcy. His name was Key to the Mint and he had all the elements to become my next favorite horse and racing’s new young star.

It was obvious the word was out on Key to the Mint, who was made the 4-5 favorite, but I couldn’t understand why another colt in the field named Riva Ridge was only 2-1, having finished seventh, beaten 15 lengths, in his career debut two weeks earlier. He had been bumped in his first race and was getting blinkers on, so I could only surmise by his low odds that his stable and the savvy New York bettors were still high on him and that his first race was a throwout.

But I have to admit I paid little attention to Riva Ridge because of his dismal debut. Key to the Mint, however, was all class with near flawless conformation to go along with his royal pedigree, and this surely looked like it would be his coming out party. I made my way along the fence behind the saddling stalls to get a good photo of Graustark’s son, knowing there was a good chance he would be a major player in the 2-year-old division and a long-range prospect for the classics. He certainly looked the part with his rich bay coat, and much to my delight he provided a slight arch of the neck to add a regal touch to my one and only photo.

Little was I aware, however, of the importance of this race to Riva Ridge’s owner Meadow Stable. While Rokeby Stable was thriving with back-to-back Horses of the Year in Arts and Letters and Fort Marcy and a budding superstar in Europe named Mill Reef, Meadow Stable was on the decline and no longer the dominant force they were in the 1950s and early ‘60s with champions Hill Prince, First Landing, and Cicada. Owner and founder Christopher Chenery was ill and had been in the hospital since 1968 and becoming senile. Several family members wanted to sell the farm and horses, which were no longer profitable, but Chenery’s daughter, Penny Tweedy, a housewife with four children in Colorado, fought to keep the operation going for her father’s sake in the hope of seeing him live out his dream of winning the Kentucky Derby. She slowly attempted to build up the stable, first firing trainer Casey Hayes and then hiring Roger Laurin, who had the job a short while before taking over as trainer for the powerful Phipps family. Roger recommended his father, Lucien, who was in the process of retiring after a successful career training for Claiborne Farm and winning the Belmont Stakes with Reginald Webster’s Amberoid in 1966.

The Meadow’s best horse in 1969 and ’70, Hydrologist, had won the Excelsior, Discovery, and Stymie Handicaps, and placed in a number of major stakes in his 50 career starts, but Penny needed a much bigger splash than that to keep her family at bay and the Meadow operation going. She needed an exciting and brilliant young colt who could command the headlines and hopefully take her ailing 84-year-old father to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, at least in spirit, before he died. Only then could she make a case to keep the farm and racing stable going.

Riva Ridge, a half-brother to Hydrologist, by First Landing, looked to be their best chance despite his disappointing debut. Although this was only a maiden race, it would help determine whether Meadow Stable had a potential star, as they hoped, or another bust. A big improvement off his first start was expected, but was the colt talented enough to defeat this highly regarded Rokeby Stable colt that was being bet down to odds-on favorite? This would be Penny’s glimpse into the future. Would her efforts be in vain? Was she about to see the empire her father built and devoted his life to crumble or would some miracle horse come along and help save the farm just like in the movies?

A 2-year-old maiden sprint was not going to answer those questions, but it sure would be a good start and at least provide some much needed optimism. But first Riva Ridge had to improve many lengths off his debut and defeat one of the most highly touted 2-year-olds of the year.

Riva Ridge, breaking from post 2, got the jump on Key to the Mint, who came out of post 5 in the eight-horse field. The Meadow colt held on to a narrow half-length lead through an opening quarter in :22 3/5. But nearing the head of the stretch Key to the Mint stuck his head in front. Penny soon would find out what her colt was made of and whether or not he was the horse they were hoping for. Down the stretch, Riva Ridge, under jockey Chuck Baltazar, began to draw clear, opening a two-length lead at the eighth pole. He continued to pour it on, winning by 5 ½ lengths, with the Key to the Mint finishing 3 ½ lengths ahead of the third horse.

It took just a minute and five seconds for Penny Tweedy and Meadow Stud to see a ray of hope for the future. Penny now knew she had a colt who was fast, classy, and talented enough to crush one of the leading prospects in the country. All he had to do now was show he could carry his speed longer distances and prove he was classic material. But that was still a long way off. Right now he was just a very fast 2-year-old with good early speed.

No one could have predicted at the time that this little 5 ½-furlong maiden race would prove to be the launching pad to two championships and two classic victories for Riva Ridge, including the Kentucky Derby, a championship for Key to the Mint, and a stirring three-year rivalry between the two colts who would face each other 10 times. Ironically, this would be the only time they would finish first and second.

Christopher Chenery would pass away on January 3, 1973. He lived long enough to realize his dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, but would never know that his newly turned 3-year-old Secretariat would go on to set new standards of greatness and become one of the most iconic athletes in the history of American sports, and that his daughter would become the First Lady of the Turf and one of its most beloved figures.

As for Key to the Mint, he would bounce back from his defeat two weeks later at Aqueduct, breaking his maiden by two lengths in the exact same time of 1:05. The future surely looked bright for both colts. Two days after Key to the Mint’s victory, Riva Ridge showed up in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race. Looking back now, people might not understand running a promising young colt in three straight 5 ½-furlong races. Did Laurin feel he was more of a sprinter than a classic horse? But in those days good 2-year-olds ran early and often worked their way up through the sprints and then point for the 6 ½-furlong Hopeful and Futurity Stakes in August and September.

All I knew was this time I was going to get a better look at the colt who vanquished Key to the Mint with such authority. So off I went to Aqueduct. I took my usual spot on the clubhouse side of the paddock, right near the entrance where I could get a good close-up look at the horses as they entered from the track. When Riva Ridge walked into the paddock it was as if my camera lifted itself up, placed him in the viewfinder, and snapped the shutter on its own. I was too busy being captivated by this colt, who had such an appealing look about him. He was unlike any horse I had ever seen. As he entered the paddock he looked directly at me, his lop ears jutting out like airplane wings. He had these soft kind eyes that made an instant connection and I knew right then that he and Key to the Mint would share equal space in my heart.

But there was no way I could have known that this lanky, amiable-looking 2-year-old with the funny ears would one day become the savior of the once powerful Meadow Stud, at least until Secretariat stormed on the scene and into racing lore.

Riva would make it two in a row in the allowance race, carving out rapid fractions of :21 4/5 and :45 1/5 before drawing off to a four-length victory over the quick-footed Wheatley Stable colt Big Bluffer in 1:04 1/5.

Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint would hook up again, but not before both had lost some of their luster. Any thoughts of Riva being Meadow Stable’s next big classic horse all but evaporated when he was forced to steady in the Great American Stakes and faded to eighth as the 6-5 favorite, while Key to the Mint could only finish third, also as the 6-5 favorite, in a 5 ½-furlong allowance race. But both colts bounced back impressively with Riva Ridge winning the six-furlong Flash Stakes at Saratoga under new rider Ron Turcotte in a swift 1:09 4/5 and Key to the Mint scoring a hard-earned victory in a six-furlong allowance, ironically also ridden by Ron Turcotte.

The two colts met for the third time in Belmont’s historic Futurity Stakes. When Riva Ridge won the Futurity by 1 ½ lengths with Key to the Mint tiring to finish fifth under regular rider John Rotz it looked like both careers were heading in different directions. But the Rokeby Stable colt did have one last chance to turn the tables on Riva Ridge in the rich Garden State Stakes. By then, Riva was a bona fide star having romped by seven lengths in the Champagne Stakes and 11 lengths in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity. Key to the Mint was beaten a nose in the Cowdin Stakes before finishing first in a prep for the Garden State, but was disqualified. He came right back to win a seven-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct by two lengths over up-and-comer No Le Hace.

1971 Garden State Stakes Program Interior

The Garden State Stakes was one of the most anticipated races of the year, not because of any possible rivalry between Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint, but an intriguing confrontation between Riva and Ogden Phipps’ wonder filly Numbered Account, pitting male vs. female for 2-year-old supremacy. It also matched father and son against each other, with Roger Laurin having left Meadow Stable earlier that year. The younger Laurin was well aware of Riva Ridge. But as good as Riva looked, he knew Numbered Account was one of the best 2-year-old fillies seen in many years, winning eight of her nine starts, including romps in the Spinaway, Matron, Frizette, Selima, and Gardenia Stakes by an average margin of over five lengths. Now, after a long campaign, she was coming back only one week after the Gardenia.

Garden State Park played the race up big, taking out ads and giving patrons a choice of buttons as they entered the track, one saying “I Like the King in the Garden State” and the other “I Like the Queen in the Garden State. But there was always the presence of Key to the Mint lurking in the background. Riva Ridge was made the even-money favorite, with Numbered Account 2-1 and Key to the Mint 5-1. As it turned out, the race was not as competitive as people had hoped, as Riva Ridge drew off to a 2 ½-length victory over longshot Freetex, with Key to the Mint third and a weary Numbered Account finishing fourth.

So Penny Tweedy had the Derby horse she was looking for and The Meadow’s future finally was starting to look brighter. Although Riva Ridge had beaten Key to the Mint in all three of their meetings, their rivalry was only beginning.

Key to the Mint ended his 2-year-old campaign with a game victory in the Remsen Stakes and many felt with his classic pedigree he would only keep getting better as the distances stretched out. Unfortunately, a back injury prevented him from being ready for the Kentucky Derby, but he returned to win the Derby Trial by 2 ½ lengths and the Preakness Prep by the same margin, setting up another confrontation with Riva Ridge in the Preakness Stakes. Riva had romped in the Blue Grass Stakes and then gave Christopher Chenery his Kentucky Derby victory, winning the Run for the Roses wire-to-wire by 3 ¼ lengths over No Le Hace. But more important, he had brought The Meadow back from the brink, finally silencing those who felt it was not worth tying to save.

But the Preakness turned out to be a disaster for both colts, as they floundered in the mud, with Key to the Mint finishing third and Riva Ridge fourth behind longshot Bee Bee Bee. It did, however, mark the first time Key to the Mint finished ahead of Riva Ridge.

Things returned to normal when Riva Ridge decimated his opponents by seven lengths in the Belmont Stakes, with Key to the Mint fading to fourth. The Meadow colt was clearly the leading 3-year-old in the country and arguably the best horse in the country at any age. Many believed if not for the sloppy track at Pimlico, which proved to be Riva’s Achilles heel, he would have been the first Triple Crown winner in 24 years.

Penny Tweedy had stood firm despite all the forces against her and she could now look ahead to re-establishing The Meadow as a leading force in the racing and breeding industry. “Riva’s success was crucial,” she said in 1998. “If he hadn’t turned into such a good horse, the family members and Dad’s financial team probably would have decided to sell all the horses and invest in the stock market. He made me look good enough to keep the stable alive.”

Following the Triple Crown both colts went their separate ways. Lucien Laurin and Penny decided to ship Riva Ridge to Hollywood Park just three weeks after the Belmont for the mile and a quarter Hollywood Derby, where he would have to carry 129 pounds and give away substantial weight to several hard-knocking California horses. Riva, under constant pressure the whole way, had to fight off several challenges in the stretch to eke out a neck victory in 1:59 3/5, giving 15 pounds to runner-up Bicker. The race took its toll and Riva never seemed quite the same the rest of the year. Even Penny admitted years later, “That race cooked him.”

Key to the Mint, however, finally became the horse everyone at Rokeby thought he’d be, defeating older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes and then defeating the tough little Tentam in the Travers Stakes, missing the track record by a fifth of a second.

Riva Ridge could only finish fourth in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap, but Penny and Laurin did not like the way the colt looked or acted and requested post-race blood and urine tests, which revealed the presence of a tranquilizer. The FBI and the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau were notified, but all that came of this controversy was the knowledge that someone had gotten to the colt and the race was a total throwout.

Riva was then entered against the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Canonero in the 1 1/8-mile Stymie Handicap, giving the older horse 13 actual pounds and 18 pounds on the scale. The two Derby winners battled head and head for over a half-mile before Canonero, equipped with blinkers, drew off to win by five lengths, setting a new American record.

Even with Riva Ridge having dominated the Triple Crown and winning a major stakes in California, Key to the Mint’s string of impressive victories in prestigious stakes, two against top-class older horses, put him in the running for the 3-year-old championship, which would be decided in the mile and a half Woodward Stakes, run on a sloppy track, for which Riva Ridge had shown a disdain on several occasions. But by then Riva was a battle-weary horse, having competed at seven tracks from coast to coast, and was no match for Key to the Mint, who won by 1 ¼ lengths, with Riva Ridge fourth.

Riva did have one last chance to face Key to the Mint and regain his place as the leading 3-year-old in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he had no business being in that race. Although he had won the Belmont on an easy lead most of the way, he clearly was not a two-mile horse. After hard campaigns both he and Key to the Mint fell victim to the top older horse Autobiography, who Key to the Mint had defeated in the Woodward. The Rokeby colt did manage to finish a well-beaten second with Riva Ridge third, enabling him to snatch the 3-year-old title away from the colt who had once dominated him. 

The following year belonged to Secretariat, and Riva Ridge had to race in his stablemate’s shadow all year. As far as his rivalry with Key to the Mint, they would face each other three more times. Key to the Mint was coming off an impressive victory in the Excelsior Handicap in near track-record time and Riva Ridge had easily won a six-furlong allowance sharpener when the two met for the eight time in The Met Mile. When the track came up sloppy, Riva Ridge, as expected, showed little finishing seventh, while Key to the Mint ran a strong second to Tentam.

Riva Ridge bounced back to win the Massachusetts Handicap equaling the track record, while Key to the Mint scored an impressive allowance victory going 1 1/8 miles. That set up their penultimate meeting in the 1 3/16-mile Brooklyn Handicap. Key to the Mint for some reason was very rank early and wound up dueling for the lead through testing fractions of :46 2/5 and 1:09 2/5, with Riva Ridge rating beautifully in third. He collared Key to the Mint after a scorching mile in 1:33 3/5 and put Tentam away after a brief battle. But then Darby Dan’s mighty mite, True Knight, who always came from the clouds with a big stretch run, again rallied from far back and closed in on Riva Ridge, who was giving him 10 pounds. Riva dug in and just held off the furious charge of True Knight to win by head, and his time of 1:52 2/5 shattered the track record and established a new American record.

The following morning I visited Riva at the barn to see how he had come out of the race, and so typical of Riva, I found him outside fraternizing with a kitten who had perched himself atop the fence post (shameless promotion: click to view and obtain photo), as the two seemed quite taken with each other. He was still the same kind-hearted soul I had seen that day at Aqueduct.

Coming off such a hard race, Riva Ridge skipped the Suburban Handicap, run only 17 days later. Key to the Mint did show up after his disappointing fourth-place Brooklyn finish and took complete charge from the start, then held off True Knight to win by almost two lengths.

The final meeting between Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint came in the inaugural Marlboro Cup, but the rivalry ended ignominiously when Riva Ridge finished a strong second to Secretariat in world-record time and Key to the Mint never ran a lick. He inexplicably had gone off form, and after another poor performance in the United Nations Handicap on grass he was retired to Gainesway Farm. Riva, however, maintained his good form winning the Stuyvesant Handicap in record time under 130 pounds. He, for some odd reason, was entered in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and was annihilated by Prove Out who simply ran him off his feet. It was not the way his career was supposed to end. Penny admitted years later that being new to the sport, she, as well as Laurin, made a lot of mistakes with Riva.

So the rivalry was over. Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint had faced each other 10 times, with Riva finishing ahead of his rival in six of them:

1971 – Riva Ridge 3 (3 victories), Key to the Mint 0  – Riva Ridge named Champion 2-year-old

1972 – Key to the Mint 3 (1 victory), Riva Ridge 1 (1 victory) – Key to the Mint named Champion 3-year-old

1973 – Riva Ridge 2 (1 victory), Key to Mint 1  – Riva Ridge named Champion Older Horse

There has been no greater rivalry than the one between Affirmed and Alydar later in the decade. But few people think of Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint, who danced every dance for three years. They raced a combined 59 times, winning 31 races and competing in 44 stakes, while earning three championships. Yes it was a glorious time in racing that saw many of the greatest horses of all time compete. The Cinderella story of Canonero II and his Triple Crown quest was the opening act of the ‘70s, but in many ways racing’s Golden Decade began in a maiden race on a Wednesday afternoon at Belmont Park.


Photos courtesy of Daily Racing Form, Steve Haskin,, Hollywood Park, and New York Racing Association


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