The unusual, fair-weather rivalry played out in the shadow of Secretariat | Topics: Claiborne Farm, Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby, Secretariat, Paul Mellon | Thoroughbred Racing Commentary (2023)

The unusual, fair-weather rivalry played out in the shadow of Secretariat | Topics: Claiborne Farm, Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby, Secretariat, Paul Mellon | Thoroughbred Racing Commentary (1)

Sports fans love a rivalry. They love to choose sides. Yankees or Red Sox. DeChambeau or Koepka. Liverpool or Man United. The blood runs hot. Insults are hurled. Beverages are consumed and tables overturned. Okay, maybe not with golf.

Still, rivalries are grand fun, and Thoroughbred racing has produced some barn-burners. There are old-timers in rocking chairs who can regale the kids with tales of Armed, Assault, and Stymie ranging far and wide with their 3-way grudge of the 1940s. Fans lingered at newsstands in the 60s hoping for word of the next clash between Kelso and Gun Bow. Affirmed and Alydar left emotions wrung dry with their two solid seasons of combat. And, for those who suffered from withdrawal pangs, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer came along to supply another fix.

A half century ago, playing out in the great halls of the game, there was an odd sort of rivalry between two colts from the same vintage and of similar glowing heritage. Over the course of three testing campaigns they raced against each other ten times in the toughest possible events. The head-to-head tally ended up 6-to-4, but it was a strangely unsatisfactory score. At the end of the day, it was a rivalry on paper, since none of those ten encounters brought out the best of both at the same time.

Of the 23,848 registered North American Thoroughbred foals of 1969, Riva Ridge and Key To The Mint were born to be the best. If nothing else, their pedigrees set them apart, each with an enriching four generations of outcross and doses of both Man o’ War and Hyperion to spice the stew.

Key To The Mint entered this world on Sunday, March 9, 1969, at Rokeby Farm in Upperville, Virginia. It was a nice neighborhood, rife with the history of 24-karat Thoroughbreds from nearby Llangollen Farm, Newstead Farm, and Brookmeade Farm.

Five Sundays later, on April 13,1969, Riva Ridge was foaled at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, where such giants as Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Damascus stood sentry among a Murderer’s Row of stallions. Before too long, however, the young colt was sent to The Meadow in Doswell, Virginia, located about 100 miles south of Upperville.

Key To The Mint would be competing for his breeder, Paul Mellon, whose gray silks with the yellow braid were designed in tribute to the royal colors of The Queen. At the time, Mellon’s Rokeby Stable runners were trained by Elliott Burch and included Arts And Letters, soon to be 1969 Horse of the Year, and Fort Marcy, who would claim the title in 1970.

There was also a yearling on the farm, yet to be named Mill Reef, who would take Europe by storm in 1971, winning the Epsom Derby, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Distinguished ancestors

Riva Ridge hailed from the breeding program of Meadow Stable’s Christopher Chenery and his daughter, Penny, that had brought forth champions Hill Prince, Cicada, and First Landing under their blue and white blocks. First Landing, the sire of Riva Ridge, was the 2-year-old champion of 1958, and rightfully so. He won nine of 11 starts, finished second in the other two, and took down trophies for the Hopeful, Futurity, Champagne, and Garden State Stakes along the way.

First Landing also was a half-brother to the full brothers Hill Prince, the 1950 Horse of the Year, and Third Brother, a reliable handicapper who was there or thereabouts in 23 stakes. Riva Ridge was from First Landing’s ninth crop of runners, which to that point had been led by 1968 Monmouth Invitational winner Balustrade. Later on, Balustrade was tried over jumps and managed to win the Midsummer Steeplechase at Monmouth Park.

Iberia, the dam of Riva Ridge, was a daughter of Heliopolis who won three races of little note before commencing a broodmare career in 1960. In 1965 she produced Hydrologist, a long-winded lad who celebrated the birth of Riva Ridge by winning the 1969 Discovery Handicap. Iberia’s direct female line is of no special regard until you get to Roxelane, a foal of 1894 and the dam of Roi Herode. He, in turn, sired The Tetrarch, that splattered gray who went undefeated at 2 and became a shy breeder at stud, but managed to sire Mumtaz Mahal, one of the grandest dams of all time.

Key To The Mint’s sire was Graustark, a son of two-time Arc winner Ribot. Graustark was one of those “what might have been” racehorses who burned brightly and then flamed out before he could realize his full potential. Even though his training was compromised by foot bruises and shins, Graustark won his first seven races with ease and came to the 1966 Blue Grass Stakes as the heavy favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, ten days hence.

Early blow

This young racing fan was in the kitchen of his aunt’s home in San Diego the morning of Friday, April 29, 1966, and caught sight of a headline in the sports pages to the effect that Graustark was upset and injured the day before at Keeneland. It was one of those early blows that fans get used to over time, but clearly the memory persists. And it was a big deal, since Graustark was touted by some as being nothing less than the next Native Dancer or Citation.

They sent Graustark and his broken coffin bone back home to Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky that spring and bred him to a few mares, just to make sure everything was in working order. Key To The Mint was from Graustark’s second full crop that also included Prove Out, a consummate pro, and Lady Graustark, dam of the international stakes winner Bel Bolide.

Key Bridge, a daughter of Princequillo, already had produced Fort Marcy, the grass-loving gelding who had run 44 times before his princely younger sibling was born. Major stakes winners Key To The Kingdom and Key To Content came later, cementing the status of Key Bridge as the bluest of blue hen matrons.

To her keepers at Rokeby, it was no surprise. Key Bridge was out of Blue Banner, a War Admiral mare who won the 1955 Test Stakes as a 3-year-old and held her own against such tumblers as Searching (dam of Affectionately), High Voltage (dam of Impressive), Parlo (granddam of Arts And Letters), and Flower Bowl, who in 1963 produced that guy Graustark. Blue Banner’s granddam was Risque, winner of the 1931 Alabama, among other honors.

Riva Ridge was a blood bay with striking black legs, tail, and mane and ears that could hear a mouse burp at 100 yards. Key To The Mint was a darker bay, and like his rival untroubled by any white markings. Both eventually raced with blinkers, and both were ready to roll as 2-year-olds in June of 1971.

Scratching of heads

Riva Ridge ran first and lost, then both turned up in the entries for a 5½-furlong maiden race at Belmont Park on June 23. What ensued over the next 27 months was a cavalcade of deference, as the two colts took turns firing and falling back in an Alphonse and Gaston routine that had observers scratching their heads.

(To save a trip to Google, the reference is to the behavior of characters in an early 20th century comic strip that was, according to dictionary.com, “marked by a ritualistic courtliness in which two often competing participants graciously but stubbornly defer to each other”.)

The two colts fit the description to a T. The more precocious Riva Ridge won all three of their encounters in 1971 and was declared champion, while Key To The Mint found his inner Ribot late in the year to take the one-mile Remsen Stakes. In 1972, with the Future Books tilted strongly in their favor, Riva Ridge won the Blue Grass and Key To The Mint cruised home in the Derby Trial. A glorious Kentucky Derby showdown loomed.

Then, poof! It was gone with the slight filling in a leg Key To The Mint had injured earlier in the year. While the Rokeby colt pouted in the barn, Riva Ridge, loose on the lead, made short work of the Derby to win by 3¼ lengths. This was the Riva Ridge that Ron Turcotte had seen in the rough the previous summer when, with a green light from trainer Lucien Laurin, the jockey worked mornings to instill a dose of bravery in an otherwise timid youngster. Riva Ridge was now the undisputed king of the hill.

Two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, the crown was shaken by a sloppy track and a one-hit wonder named Bee Bee Bee, who apparently ate and slept in mud. By then, Key To The Mint had joined the party with the intention of spoiling any shot Riva Ridge might have at the Triple Crown, but all he did was edge his rival for third-place, some six lengths behind the surprising winner. It was of some consolation to pedigree buffs that Bee Bee Bee was at least a full brother to Abe’s Hope, the colt who defeated Graustark in the 1966 Blue Grass.

If nothing else, the neck that separated Key To The Mint and Riva Ridge at the end of the Preakness seemed to lay the groundwork for a red-hot rivalry to flower. The subsequent Belmont Stakes put the brakes to the idea, however, when Key To The Mint deferred to Riva Ridge and finished a distant fourth, while his pal took the carnations by a laughable seven lengths (see video above). The crown still fit.

Clearly, Key To The Mintneeded a career change. Burch found it against older horses in the July 8 Brooklyn Handicap at 1 3/16 miles, in which his 3-year-old would pull considerable weight. Skeptical horseplayers held Key To The Mint at a fat 5/1, but they cashed when Braulio Baeza seized the lead from the start and took full advantage of the 12 pounds he got from Westchester and Excelsior Handicap winner Autobiography and the 14-pound difference from Santa Anita Handicap winner Triple Bend.

As Key To The Mint preened in the Aqueduct winner’s circle that day, Riva Ridge was back at his Belmont barn, still trying to recover from a taxing road trip to California for the Hollywood Derby on July 1. He got the money, defeating the Round Table colt Bicker by a neck, but hauling 129 pounds a mile and a quarter over strange ground took a toll that became apparent in his next race, the Monmouth Invitational, in which he was beaten into fourth by 3-year-olds who should not have had a chance.

July was the tipping point in the season. The rivalry – though cool to the touch – was about to go the other way. Key To The Mint swept the Whitney and the Traversat Saratoga, the first colt to turn the trick since Eight Thirty, in 1939. Riva Ridge skipped Saratoga and surfaced in September for the Stymie Handicap, which should have been a tap-in against a modest collection of older horses. One of them, however, was Canonero II, who had been purchased by King Ranch following his skyrocket rise from South American obscurity to victory in the 1971 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

After six poor races for his new owners, the investment was looking sour. Much to the chagrin of the Riva Ridge camp, Canonero chose that day to resurrect his reputation. Getting a generous 13 pounds, the older horse left runner-up Riva Ridge five lengths back at the end of ninefurlongs in track-record time.

When Riva Ridge showed up for the subsequent Woodward Stakes, he was a shell of his spring and early summer form, while Key To The Mint exuded confidence and won comfortably, again on the lead. Riva Ridge could do no better than fourth. That result set up the Jockey Club Gold Cup on October28 as the deciding race for the 3-year-old championship of 1972, no excuses accepted.

The Gold Cup was quite a show, although not the one expected from the all-star 3-year-olds. Making his 18th start of the year, Sigmund Sommer’s Autobiography went to the front early and, as they say, improved his position. At the end of the two miles, the son of Sky High II was 15 lengths clear of runner-up Key To The Mint, who beat Riva Ridge by three lengths in a desultory climax to what should have been a more cinematic moment. But that’s horseracing.

Riva Ridge raced once more that season when his country called him to service in the WashingtonDCInternational at Laurel Race Course against horses from England, France, Canada, and Singapore. The mile and a half, staged over soft, rain-soaked ground, was a mess. Boreen, trained by Dermot Weld, was tracking Droll Role and Riva Ridge near the pace when he hit an uneven piece of turf, bobbled, and fell. Jumbo Jet, ridden by Lester Piggott, was right behind Boreen and went down in the pile. Riva Ridge, clearly in trouble with the footing, lasted a little while longer before he lost his rhythm and was mercifully eased by Jorge Velasquez.

It was an ignominious way to end a season that began with such hope for Riva Ridge, and by then the 3-year-old title already was lost. He raced 11 times and won five. Key To The Mint won seven of 12.

Historic gamble

The other champions of 1972 were even more thoroughly tested: Autobiography, hailed as the best older male, ended up with 19 starts. Older female champ Typecast won six of 14, on turf and dirt. Susan’s Girl, the champion 3-year-old filly, won nine times in 13 starts in less than eight months. Chou Croute, voted top sprinter, went 7-for-14, while the 2-year-old filly champ, La Prevoyante, won all 12 of her starts.

It was odd, therefore, that the ultimate champion of the 1972 season started only nine times. That would be Secretariat, junior partner to Riva Ridge in the Meadow Stable shed row, who won seven times and was disqualified from victory in an eighth. It was even more unusual that a 2-year-old should be named Horse of the Year, but Secretariat proved it was worth the historic gamble by winning the Triple Crown of 1973 and becoming a transcendent sports celebrity.

Riva Ridge and Key To The Mint continued their fair weather rivalry as 4-year-olds, performing in the long shadow of Secretariat. Key To The Mint finished second in the Metropolitan Handicap on a day Riva Ridge floundered in the slop. Riva Ridge bounced back to take the Brooklyn Handicap in a thriller over True Knight, as Key To The Mint languished in fourth.

In their last meeting, both were put in their place by Secretariat in the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup, although runner-up Riva Ridge ran fast enough to set a time record of his own. Key To The Mintwas nowhere.

Secretariat ended 1973 with every honor short of the Nobel Prize. Riva Ridge salvaged his reputation with an Eclipse Award as outstanding older male, which he certainly was, having won the Massachusetts Handicap and the Stuyvesant Handicap, under 130 pounds, to round out his record.

Appreciation for that record never waned. His most passionate supporters, led by Penny Chenery, cherished him as much more than simply the best friend of the leading man. As a 2-time champion and double classic winner, Riva Ridge was an easy choice for the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, which he entered in 1998.

Typical of their arm’s length relationship, Key To The Mint did not attend the ceremony. Instead, he sent his half-brother, Fort Marcy, who was also among the 1998 inductees

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