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."
Tom Knust, racing secretary at Santa Anita, remembers one well-known Southern California trainer who approached him before last year's Santa Anita Derby and said, "That uppity broad doesn't know what the hell she's doing with that horse. Look at his legs."
"The horse's legs were fine, of course," Knust says. "But it's such a competitive industry, with a high good-ol'-boy quotient. If a man had done that with a $7,500 horse, he'd be a genius."
Knust acknowledges that the resentment of Riley is exacerbated by her determination to answer every criticism with a snappy retort. Riley took particular offense at a comment attributed to a well-known trainer during last year's Preakness when he referred to her training methods as "somewhat unorthodox" and suggested that perhaps she hadn't paid enough dues.
"I don't know what we do that's so unorthodox," she says. "We take him out to the track and run him in a circle, same as they do. We don't strap the saddle on underneath him. And I don't know anyone who has paid more dues than Jim."
Riley wishes her critics had been around for Stanley's early workouts. She recalls the first time she and Jim worked with the horse after he had been shipped to Pleasanton from Kentucky. Those first days at the track with Stanley were "uh, memorable, I guess you could call them," Riley says. Once, he ran straight into the outer rail with Jim on his back. On another occasion, Stanley saw a filly jogging nearby and quickened his pace considerably. Jim stood up in the saddle and tried to hold him back, but Stanley grabbed the bit and dug in. That was when Shelley knew she had something.
Had Casual Lies come in ahead of third-place finisher Pine Bluff at the Belmont, he would have won a $1 million bonus as the horse with the best finishes in the Triple Crown races. Stanley had an excuse for his disappointing Belmont performance. He had "popped a quarter crack" during the race, which is not unlike a split at the base of a fingernail. Afterward the racing press, which had embraced Riley for the shot of adrenaline she had administered to the moribund sport, saw her as a small-timer who treated her horse more like a house pet than a meal ticket. Some writers thought she had taken herself too seriously, while others scolded her for "selling herself." Typically, Riley had a scorching reply and even canceled her subscription to The Blood-Horse after one of its writers compared Casual Lies to Dumbo.
Riley has been training horses since she got her first one, a bay mare named Bit O' Honey, as a gift from her parents on her 16th birthday. After earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from California State University at Sacramento, she spent two years in the city as a sheriff's department dispatcher. During this time she worked with horses at the nearby California State fairgrounds until she received her trainer's license and was able to pursue her dream full-time.
She and Jim derive their principal income from "pinhooking," a term for buying yearlings, teaching them racetrack decorum and reselling them as 2-year-olds. Stanley was purchased as a pinhooking prospect and was then entered in the Barrett's Two-Year-Olds-in-Training Sale in Pomona, Calif., in 1991. Riley says Stanley failed to attract a single bid because he had a small scar on the outside of his ankle that scared away some people and because he had been trained by an "unknown" (who was also a woman), which others found equally worrisome.
After last year's Triple Crown tour, the Rileys returned to Pleasanton to give Stanley a rest and to allow his still-tender hoof time to heal. They took him to Southern California last fall, where he had three consecutive fourth-place finishes, beaten by a combined margin of 6¾ lengths. An X-ray in December revealed a splint in Stanley's right leg, and he was taken out of training until March.
After a 7½-month layoff, Casual Lies returned to the races on June 26, welcomed by a throng of hometown supporters attending the $100,000 Golden Gate Fields Budweiser Breeders' Cup in San Francisco. With a perfectly timed ride by his new jockey, Gary Boulanger, the colt zipped around the 1[1/6]-mile course in 1:40.96 to finish full of run and two lengths ahead of the next horse.
Stanley is not the pet he was last year. He stands a hulking 16.2 hands and looks as if he's flexing his muscles even when standing still. "He thinks he's Cool Hand Luke, no doubt about it," says Riley, who plans to enter Casual Lies in the Smile Stakes at Santa Anita, an undercard sprint on Breeders' Cup day, Nov. 6. "He still likes to be petted, but not very often."
Even though Stanley has earned $780,991, Riley still has moments when she wonders if the experience was worth it or whether she should have sold him when he was a hot item. Then she remembers the letter from 16-year-old Stacy.
You made a terrific decision in keeping your horse. Selling Casual Lies would be like selling your dream....
"The public liked us, they liked the story, the American dream come true," Riley says. "The truth is, Stanley never need do one other thing for me. He's given me a lifetime of memories."
After some initial misgivings, Riley was stuck on Stanley.
At Churchill Downs in 1992, Casual Lies came in only a length behind Lil E. Tee.
Stephanie Diaz has written several stories on equine subjects for Sports Illustrated.