Published: May 8, 2016 8:43 am ET
Last Comment: May 9, 2016 12:00 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
Trot Insider has learned that Riyadh, multi-millionaire pacer and 1996 Horse of the Year in Canada, has passed away at the age of 26.
At the time of his retirement in 1997, the son of Jate Lobell - Malaysia had made more than $2.7 million -- good for sixth on harness racing's earnings list -- and he held the world record on a five-eighths mile track for three-year-old pacers (1:50.1f) and for older horses (1:49.1f). He made 118 starts and won exactly half of them -- 59 -- while racing against the best horses on the continent for six seasons.
While not setting the world on fire as a two-year-old, Riyadh did manage to hit the radar with a win in his Nassagaweya division at Mohawk Raceway before concluding his rookie campaign with two wins and eight on-the-board finishes from 12 starts and $84,231 in the bank.
At age three, Riyadh blossomed. Along for the ride was caretaker Bob Butter of Mount Hope, Ont., who started working with the horse between his two- and three-year-old seasons.
"I had a long career with International Harvester, selling trucks. And I wanted to do something different," Butter told Trot Insider. "Bill Robinson was a friend of mine, he said 'why don't you go down to Florida for the winter and work with the horses?' and I'd been around horses so I knew what they were all about."
Butter, whose involvement with horses was more on the ownership side than the hands-on detail work of a caretaker, arrived in Florida to work with the Robinson stable and was assigned Riyadh. Two other pacers from that division, Lotta Soul and Presidential Ball, were also in training with Team Robinson and Butter notes that those three pacers (and future millionaires) trained together for the majority of the winter at Pompano. Presidential Ball was the star of the division at two, garnering divisional honours both in Canada and the U.S.
When stakes season hit, Riyadh showed he was a contender. He won six of his first ten starts, including elims of the Berrys Creek, Wm. E. Miller Memorial and the North America Cup. After the N.A. Cup, Riyadh was shipped stateside and into the barn of Monte Gelrod. Robinson suggested to Butter he go with him.
"They shipped north to New Jersey in April and in June, Bill called me and said 'Riyadh is in New Jersey, you want to go down and look after him for the summer and travel with him?' I went down and got reunited with him in New Jersey and spent a great summer with him."
Riyadh kept up his winning ways over the summer. He scored in elims for the Meadowlands Pace, Art Rooney and the Adios but couldn't click in the finals. His Adios elim win in 1:50.1f established an all-age world record for pacers on a five-eighths mile track.
Butters noted that the horse had battled tie up issues during his career, but he and Gelrod eventually realized a turn out first thing in the morning before jogging seemed to do the trick. And that was the only problem Butter ever had with him.
"He was an easy horse to look after, it was a great experience for me not ever caretaking that kind of a horse," said Butter. "The biggest problem with him was jogging him, he always paced and wouldn't trot. Monte Gelrod used to say 'make that horse trot when you're jogging him'. You couldn't. He went from walk to a pace."
Riyadh nearly paced his way into Triple Crown history. The first jewel was at Yonkers with the Cane Pace in late August. A bulky 11-horse field went to the gate, and Riyadh emerged victorious. He followed that up with a win in his Simcoe division at Mohawk before returning the U.S. and capturing the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Messenger at Rosecroft.
The third leg was the Little Brown Jug. It took the effort of a lifetime and the race of a century but Riyadh was denied his chance at glory by Life Sign in one of harness racing's most memorable moments.
"We won the Cane Pace, the Messenger, and just got nosed out for the Triple Crown," noted Butter. "It was a great journey, his three-year-old season...we raced all over. Every week was a thrill. When we started out in the three-year-old campaign, Presidential Ball was the star and Riyadh started beating him halfway through the season. They were all taking a backseat."
Riyadh concluded his three-year-old year with retirement to stallion duty, but poor fertility plagued those plans and prompted a return to racing as a four-year-old. For then owner Peter Heffering, that could have been a blessing in disguise.
"If his semen had been fertile, we'd never have known such great things he's done on the track and four, five and six," said Heffering in a 1996 interview. And those great things were indeed plentiful, reading like a map of each Grand Circuit stop.
At 4, winner of Des Smith Classic at Rideau Carleton, FFA at Mohawk, at Woodbine, US Pacing Championship at Sportsmans Park, US Pacing Championship at Freehold; second in Breeders Crown final at Freehold; third in FFA at Woodbine. As aged, winner of Battle Of Lake Erie at Northfield Park, Bert Beckwith Memorial (twice) at Foxboro, Canadian Pacing Derby prep at Woodbine, Des Smith Classic at Rideau Carleton, FFA (twice) at Mohawk, (4 times) at Woodbine, Frank Ryan Memorial at Rideau Carleton, G. M. Levy Memorial leg (3 times) at Yonkers, Graduate Series leg at Freehold, at Foxboro, Pioneer Cup at Rideau Carleton, Toronto Pacing Series leg (twice) at Woodbine, final at Woodbine, US Pacing Championship at Freehold, Wm. R. Haughton Memorial at Yonkers; second in Classic Series leg at Dover Downs, Driscoll Series elim at The Meadowlands, final at The Meadowlands, G. M. Levy Memorial leg (twice) at Yonkers, final at Yonkers, Graduate Series at Freehold, Invitation at Mohawk, Magical Mike S. div at Delaware County Fair, McLoone Cup at Freehold; third in Canadian Pacing Derby elim at Woodbine, FFA at Mohawk, Magical Mike div at Delaware County Fair, Toronto Pacing Series at Woodbine.
Riyadh's six-year-old season was his best as an aged horse. In 30 starts, his summary was a sensational 17-8-0 against an iron-tough group of older horses that included the likes of Jennas Beach Boy, Village Connection, Hi Ho Silverheels, Stand Forever and Misfit. His efforts earned him his first divisional title as Older Pacing Horse of the Year in Canada in 1996, as well as a share of Canada's Horse of the Year title (tied with pacing filly Whenuwishuponastar) in the first-ever tie in Canadian year-end award history. His lifetime mark of 1:48.4 came at Woodbine in a prep for the Canadian Pacing Derby, and was the first sub-1:49 mile in Canadian harness racing history.
"I loved watching him," said trainer Bill Robinson in a 1997 interview. "He'd get away on them in the middle half. If he could roll down the middle half they wouldn't catch him. He was just a great horse to race . You just knew that he tried every step of the way."
Heffering retired Riyadh after his seven-year-old season. Still suffering from the potency issues that prompted his stellar aged career, Riyadh was unable to handle a stud career and, after stops in Kentucky and Port Perry, found himself back with his former caretaker. Heffering knew that Butter always was interested in being reacquainted with his old friend.
"'You told me one time if I didn't have a spot for Riyadh, I could call you. I'm calling you because I don't have any space in Port Perry for him at the farm'," Butter recalls from the conversation from Heffering. "So I said 'send me the papers and I'll make sure he has a home for the rest of his life'. So that's how I ended up with Riyadh, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
"I had him close to home here at a farm and then that guy got out of the business so I sent him up to Chantal Ruijs in Mt. Pleasant. He's been up there for the last five years and they just treated him royally. He wouldn't stay out at night, put in the barn everyday, out in a paddock...I couldn't have asked for a better home for him. Chantal was very attached to him, they did a great job with him."
As attached as Ruijs was to Riyadh, she notes that Butter was even moreso. What else would you expect from a guy who used to have afternoon naps with his cherished harness hero.
"When we were in New Jersey, of course you didn't have anything to do in the afternoon...every afternoon at 1:00 [Riyadh] stretched out for a sleep and sometimes I'd lay down and put my head on his neck so if he ever went to get up, he'd wake me up very quickly," recalled Butter. "He and I would have a sleep for an hour and he still did that up at Chantal's farm...he had to have an afternoon nap. It was kind of cute, as soon as he finished his dinner at 12:00 and you'd see him start to relax around 1, he'd stretch out and had to have an hour of sleep."
Ruijs had nothing but great things to say about horse and owner, noting that Butter would get Riyadh whatever he wanted and needed, and that 'Poppy' as he was affectionately known was a pleasure to have around the farm.
"He was a great horse; you could put him beside a mare and never have a problem. He was very lovable...he had his own little court and he was always happy, always happy to see you and greet you," Ruijs told Trot Insider "He had a pet pony, and that's who he lived with. He was just an all-around barn favourite."
Butter would make weekly trips to visit the pacing legend, bringing him Stud Muffins treats. Even in his advanced age, Butter noted that Riyadh was still very much aware and alert.
"I was there just a week ago and he was still alert. They never forget your voice. If I hollered 'Riyadh!' he'd perk his ears up."
The thrill of travelling with Riyadh for that magical three-year-old year is still as vivid and powerful as it was 23 years ago. Butter gave full marks to the Robinsons, Gelrod and driver Jim Morrill, Jr. who guided Riyadh for the majority of his sophomore starts.
"Jimmy did a fantastic job with him. He could rate him, he could put him in a a spot where he always had a shot to win.
"It didn't matter what racetrack you went to, you walked in the paddock with him and everybody would say 'uh oh, here's Riyadh...we're going to have a race tonight!'" Butter said with a laugh. "He was a great horse with a big heart."
Riyadh passed away on Monday, May 2. He has been buried under a tree at Ruijs' farm, and a plaque will be placed there in his honour.
Please join Standardbred Canada in offering condolences to the connections of Riyadh.