It is nearly a quarter of a century since Citation won the last Triple Crown. With every year that passes, people wonder if winning the Triple Crown is still possible. Well, it is according to Citation's trainer, Jimmy Jones. What one needs he says is 1) the best colt, 2) a sound one and 3) one that will run on any kind of track, come hell or high water. The water was what did Riva Ridge in.
After his seven-length victory in last week's Belmont Stakes, no one any longer could doubt that Mrs. Penny Tweedy's bay is by far the best of the classic colts. He had looked it in the Kentucky Derby, running away with that by more than three lengths, but then came the rains and the Preakness, and Riva slogged home fourth. If the track at Pimlico had only been dry, there is every likelihood that the colt would have outdistanced his rivals as he now has done in the other two Triple Crown events.
On the day of the Preakness, Lucien Laurin, Riva's trainer, steadfastly maintained that the sloppy surface would not bother his colt, and even after the result proved conclusively that it did, Laurin, in his disappointment and frustration, blamed his jockey, Ron Turcotte, for the dismal performance. As congenial as he is, Laurin occasionally talks too much after thinking too little, especially at times when one of his horses has lost. He was soon apologizing to Turcotte for the blast, and as a demonstration of faith in his fellow Canadian, Laurin put the jockey back on Riva in the Belmont. "If I really had meant what I said about Ron in my flare-up following the Preakness," the trainer explained, "do you think I would be riding him back in the big one?"
The Belmont was held before 54,634 people. Over 82,000 had crowded into the racetrack for the 1971 running, which featured the unsuccessful Canonero II. Though he obviously does not have the charisma of the Venezuelan horse, Riva Ridge has a more impressive record. He now has 11 victories in 15 lifetime starts and earnings exceeding $800,000. Curiously, the son of First Landing has never finished second or third; he either wins or finishes fourth or worse. But more significant, at least from Laurin's point of view prior to the Belmont, was that "once Riva Ridge has taken a clear lead in any race he has ever been in, he has never been beaten."
If the Belmont were an average-length contest Laurin's statistic would have been convincing. But the Belmont is run instead over a mile and a half and pacesetters rarely win. Should Riva go to the lead immediately, he was certain to face severe challenges late in the race. One surely could be expected from Key to the Mint, who had finished just ahead of Laurin's colt in the Preakness and who was said to be ready to run the race of his life. Furthermore, his trainer Elliott Burch was 3 for 3 in the Belmont. "One of the reasons we do not have more Triple Crown winners [only eight in 53 years]," said Burch, "is that the Belmont distance has been the downfall of many seeming champions. Until a horse runs that far, no one knows for sure about his stamina."
One fast-closing colt whom many expected to test Riva Ridge was Joe Straus' No Le Hace. Because of his rushing second-place finishes in both the Derby and Preakness, the extra distance of the Belmont was thought to suit the colt perfectly. But No Le Hace, who carried the hopes and hundreds of thousands of dollars of Spanish Harlem, was not at his best on Belmont Day. His trainer, Homer Pardue, admitted that in the preceding week the horse had lost 50 pounds and with it, quite possibly, his competitiveness. A boil on the inside of his nose had been lanced, which may have eased the pain but, no doubt, took his mind off his running.
Look for a fresh horse for the Belmont, they say, and in recent seasons this has sometimes been good advice. Cavan, Stage Door Johnny and, last year, Pass Catcher did not appear in the early classics but won the Belmont. In the 1972 field there were at least two new faces, the long shots Ruritania and Cloudy Dawn, that deserved some attention. Ruritania belongs to Greentree Stable, an outfit that has won four Belmonts, and anyone who recalled Stage Door Johnny's upset in 1968 had to respect this latest Greentree entry despite his modest past performances. It was much the same sort of reasoning that drew backers to Cloudy Dawn. He would carry the famous white and red-dotted silks of the Woodward family, whose horses had been victorious in seven Belmonts (Gallant Fox, Faireno, Omaha, Granville, Johnstown, Nashua, Damascus). Had Cloudy Dawn any less celebrated connections, he would have been written off. In fact friends of the colt's owners, Billy and Tommy Bancroft, grandsons of William Woodward, had teased them about entering the horse just to be invited to a free lunch in the Trustees' Room at Belmont Park. "It wasn't our idea at all," said Billy Bancroft. "Our trainer and jockey—Frank Whiteley and Bill Hartack—made the decision." These two men do not send a horse to the post without purpose, especially in the Belmont. So Cloudy Dawn was backed down, perhaps farther than his record justified, to 19 to 1.
As the horses lined up for the start on a chilly afternoon Riva Ridge was the favorite at 3 to 2. The gate banged open and Smiling Jack on the outside sought the lead, but Turcotte and Riva Ridge, breaking from the inside stall, forged ahead. In the paddock, Laurin had told Turcotte, "If no horse beats you to the first turn, go to the front if you want. But whatever you do, don't fight this colt if he wants to run." Turcotte believed that if he could take the lead and slow the pace to 48 seconds for the first half mile, his horse would have enough left for the rest of the trip. As it turned out, the jockey was able to do precisely what he planned. He led the field to the first quarter in 23[4/5] and the half in exactly 48, with Smiling Jack half a length behind and Key to the Mint lapped on him. At the end of a mile in 1:36[3/5] Riva remained a length ahead of Key to the Mint, as Smiling Jack began to fade. But the expected challenge on the far turn never materialized. Key to the Mint halfheartedly attempted to close ground but at just that moment Riva spurted off into a three-length lead. He more than doubled that margin through the long stretch. The only real contest was for second money. Both Ruritania, who charged from sixth place, and Cloudy Dawn, whom Hartack had loafed with in last place, passed Key to the Mint. In the end Ruritania outgamed the Bancroft colt by three-quarters of a length. Five lengths farther back was a thoroughly beaten and tired Key to the Mint. Riva Ridge, clocked in 2:28, had run the third fastest Belmont in history, faster than Triple Crown winners Count Fleet and Citation, and slower only than Gallant Man's 2:26[3/5] track-record performance and Stage Door Johnny's 2:27[1/5]. He joined Zev, Twenty Grand, Johnstown, Shut Out, Middleground, Needles and Chateaugay as the eighth horse to win the Derby-Belmont double with a Preakness defeat in between.
"It just kills me that we got beat at Pimlico," Laurin said, sipping the victor's champagne. "We wanted the Triple Crown very much."
Riva Ridge cuts a swath down the stretch, outdistancing Key to the Mint and Ruritania.