Jerry Riordan is as much of a racing fan as he is a trainer, so when he sees good horses come along, he can take a step back and appreciate them. That was the case in the early 2000s when Riordan campaigned Zambesi Flash against world champion Varenne in Europe. Although Zambesi Flash was a good horse whose successes included the Group 1 Orsi Mangelli, he never beat the 62-time winner, $5.6 million earner and Italian, French and United States Horse of the Year Varenne.
Riordan remembered Varenne’s racing career late Saturday afternoon as he pushed a sulky down the hill from the Yonkers Raceway paddock to the makeshift stabling area for the seven European invaders for the $1 million Yonkers International Trot. Still in his black and gray training colors, he guided the matching race bike down the incline while a lineup of cars waiting to enter the casino parking lot waited impatiently on the other side of the road.
“Varenne, we never came close to beating Varenne, but I was as big a fan of Varenne as anybody,” Riordan said. “I was on the racetrack with him, raced against him, and never was even close to him, but boy, what a pleasure it was to get your ass kicked by Varenne because he was a great horse and we all appreciate that.”
One of Riordan’s fondest memories in racing came in 2001 when Varenne came to the Meadowlands to race in the Breeders’ Crown Open Trot. Riordan, who began his career in the U.S. before moving to Italy in 1993, helped coordinate the effort that saw Varenne win the $1 million championship after being tested throughout the mile by Nikki Cole Cole and Dream Vacation.
“When Varenne came here to race, the guys that had him called me up and asked if I’d help them out. I called the race office and set the drives up for Giampaolo (Minnucci) so he got a little experience on the Meadowlands track,” Riordan recalled. “I’ve got a plaque at home, they gave me a little trophy that’s as cool as anything I’ve won on my own, for helping them out with Varenne.
“He was such a great horse. It was such an emotional thing watching him race. That day at the Meadowlands, there you got to see Varenne at his best. It’s so cool that they got to see him doing that instead of the typical race where you just go to the front.”
Saturday at Yonkers, Riordan got a chance to orchestrate the emotion brought on by a good horse as his pupil Twister Bi, a son of Varenne, won the International Trot for Italy in dominating fashion. After the race, dozens of media members, photographers, friends, family, and fans flooded the racetrack. They all tried to pose for a winner’s circle photo with Twister Bi as Riordan unhooked his sulky, draped a blue and yellow International Trot blanket over his back, and led him through the crowd.
Twister Bi was impatient and eager to stay on the move, but maintained his composure as the photo sessions dragged on and the crowd grew unrulier. At one point, Riordan walked Twister Bi away from the throng, as a group of fans on the rail caught his eye. He led Twister Bi to them and posed with driver Christoffer Eriksson as the smiling fans snapped pictures with their phones.
“Just some guys who were yelling,” Riordan said of sharing his horse with the people. “We do that in Europe a lot. There’s a lot of people down at the fence, so we bring the horses up to the fence a lot.
“I thought it was kind of contagious. Did you see how everyone was out in the winner’s circle? Everybody was having a lot of fun because they were in the presence of a great horse. Yeah, he was a great today. They were in the presence of a great horse and everybody got the feeling and everybody was having a great time out there. People that just enjoy racing, just to have been here today, that’s when racing is the best it can be.”
Twister Bi’s International Trot victory was one for the ages.
Although Finland’s Shadow Woodland blasted off the gate, he made a break coming out of the first turn. Italy’s Oasis Bi, last year’s International Trot runner-up, inherited the lead but soon relinquished it to the United States’ Resolve, last year’s winner, as trainer and driver Åke Svanstedt avoided the breaker and opened 1 3/4 lengths through a :28.2 opening quarter. Meanwhile, Twister Bi raced third on the outside, 2 3/4 lengths behind.
Resolve continued to lead past a :57.4 half, but as the pace slowed, Twister Bi drew closer. Racing around the third turn, Twister Bi drew on even terms with Resolve. Approaching the 6-furlong marker, Svanstedt slapped the lines against Resolve’s hind quarters, popped the plugs out of Resolve’s ears and put the whip on his tail. Sensing weakness, Eriksson pounced. He let Twister Bi out a notch and the 5-year-old accelerated, opening up as Resolve began to swish his tail in defeat.
“He was feeling really good when I came on the track before the race. He’s had a lot of really good races in Sweden this year, but I had a really good feeling when I was coming here,” Eriksson said. “He was feeling happy at that moment, he was wanting to race. I only let him go a little bit and he was feeling so strong all the way.”
After 6 furlongs in 1:26.1, Twister Bi trotted a :27.1 fourth quarter and posted the mile split in 1:53.2, which would have equaled the 1-mile track record at Yonkers. Riordan knew Twister Bi’s competition was beaten, but grew concerned about the trotter staying flat around the final turn.
“When he was trotting so fast going up the backside, I was like, ‘ok, just get him around this last turn,’ but he was ok,” the trainer said. “He still had the plugs in. He’s a tremendous athlete. It’s like a football player that does things, like, ‘oh don’t try that,’ but he can do it. The rest of us can’t.”
Eriksson peeked over his left shoulder up the backside, but his rivals were gone. He glanced again entering the final turn before calling out to Twister Bi. He yelled to his mount several times in encouragement, but never lifted the whip or pulled out the ear plugs. Twister Bi cruised to a 5 ½-length win and Eriksson raised his whip in victory crossing the line.
Marion Marauder, the 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner, finished second for Canada while Oasis Bi held third. Tripolini V P, a 50-1 outsider, finished fourth for Denmark.
Twister Bi competed the 1 1/4-mile International Trot in 2:22.1, blowing away the world record 2:23.4 Resolve set last year.
“It’s the first and only time I’ve come here to drive. It’s a new experience and it’s not often you have the chance to do that and also to win one of the biggest races in the whole world,” Eriksson said. “You have that with you your whole life that you won the World Championship.
“Of course, he’s the best horse I’ve driven. I got really good chances this year, I drive really nice horses and win big races in Sweden, but this horse has meant a lot for both Jerry and me,” the 30-year-old reinsman continued. “He’s been getting better and better and now he’s one of the world’s best horses.”
“There’s something not normal about this horse,” he said. “Like today, seeing him getting rimmed out there for like five-eighths of a mile and blow away. That third quarter, what they went. I don’t think Resolve has ever had a horse sitting out there with his teeth in his neck. I was thinking, ‘Åke, why don’t you let him go? You’re picking the wrong horse to do this with.’ It’s this dominance thing that this horse has got.”
With his International Trot win, Twister Bi is 21-for-50 with $1,208,328 earned. The International is the highlight of the trotter’s breakout season, which began with a Group 1 win in the Seinäjoki-Race in Finland April 22. He posted two more Group 1 victories, beating Lionel in the Oslo Grand Prix at Bjerke June 11 before blitzing to a 6-length score in the Ulf Thoresen Grand International at Jarlsberg July 9.
Twister Bi entered the International Trot off a third to Aubrion du Gers and 2016 French Trotting Triple Crown winner Bold Eagle in the Group 1 UET Trotting Masters Series Final. Although he made up 17 1/2 lengths in that race, his grinding style meant he couldn’t keep up with Bold Eagle on the final turn. Twister Bi found himself behind Aubrion du Gers and Bold Eagle in the stretch while hitting his best stride. Off his troubled line, bettors made Twister Bi a 2-5 favorite in the International.
“He was pretty far out of it and they were flying at the end. He takes a while to get up his top speed, he’s not one of these quick horses,” Riordan said. “Bold Eagle sprinted away from him and the whole pace accelerated so much. They got away from him a little bit and then he had to make contact with them again. If he’d gone outside, a lot of people said (he’d have won), but I said, ‘the International is coming up, I’m not worried about a hard race.’ ”
After the winner’s circle celebration ended, Riordan returned to the Yonkers paddock. When he walked down the ramp, the other trainers and drivers in the room flocked to him, each one wanting to shake Riordan’s hand, give him a hug or offer congratulations.
Johnny Takter, who drove On Track Piraten to a fifth in the International and sat behind Twister Bi in his SprinterMästaren victory at Halmstad, Sweden in May 2016, was one of the first to get to Riordan. Jeppe Juel, owner, trainer and driver of Tripolini V P, also piloted Twister Bi to a win last year and was on hand to offer his congratulations. Svanstedt commended the win, too, along with dozens of other horsepeople from the U.S. and overseas.
“It’s very emotional. I had a good time when I was racing here,” Riordan said. “I didn’t leave here because I didn’t like the people, I left because racing was getting shaky.”
Twister Bi gave Riordan a second chance at International Trot glory. When Yonkers revived the race from a 20-year hiatus in 2015, Riordan’s Rod Stewart received an invitation to compete on behalf of Italy. The longshot made a break in stride at the start of the race after hitting the American sulky, which is narrower than the style used in Europe. Riordan made sure that wouldn’t be a factor with Twister Bi. In a change of equipment, Twister Bi pulled a wider, taller race bike.
“I had a bad experience with Rod Stewart. He hit the sulky and I wanted to make sure I had a sulky that was too big instead of too little,” Riordan said.
“He has a really good technique, he hit the wheels a little bit in Sweden, so that’s why we wanted to have a really big sulky,” Eriksson said. “It was a new thing to do, but he was going really good in it.”
Pasquale Ciccarelli owns Twister Bi, a 5-year-old out of the Lemon Dra mare Lorraine. He sent Twister Bi to Riordan in the summer of 2015 after Twister Bi showed promise, winning two of his first five starts in Italy. The connections sought a more calming environment for their high-strung, budding star to develop and they chose Riordan’s stable in Halmstad.
“It was my lucky day when they sent him up to me,” Riordan said. “It’s super satisfying because they hoped we could turn him into the horse that he could be. He took us on some rides every now and then. He wasn’t easy, he’s no kid’s horse. Even today, you have to be careful with him. He’s a smart horse that has a tremendous desire. Fortunately for us, he has both of those characteristics. He wants to go out and fight and he wants to go out and race and he just has matured mentally and that’s been a huge factor.
“We train at a great place where the track is super. Without getting too heavy into the difference between Europe and here, this is like the prototype horse for today. He can go any distance, any size track, he can sit out and take air. These are horses that make people come to the racetrack.”
Although Twister Bi received an invitation to the Breeders’ Crown Open Trot by virtue of his International Trot victory, Riordan will take his star back to Europe and prepare for the lucrative winter meet at Hippodrome de Vincennes in Paris. The meet culminates in the €1 million Group 1 Grand Prix d’Amérique January 28 where he will likely get a rematch with Bold Eagle. Twister Bi will have two preps for the 2700-meter classic for older horses, Riordan said.
“He’s young as far as his racing career. We’ve been super careful with him, we try not to overdo it,” Riordan said. “When you have a horse that you know is a contender in any race that you enter him in, it’s fabulous. Especially, the history of trotting is the Prix d’Amérique. He can race in the 5-year-old races, the Tenor de Baune (December 24), maybe the one before that. Make sure we don’t have to worry about that and get him qualified.”