Cup of Coffee: Old Man Horse

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Every year at Saratoga, I see Steve Jordan and the former trainer looks me in the eye and waits.

“He’s doing great,” I say.

Jordan smiles. Relief and amazement, like everything is right in the world again.

This year, I can’t tell him that.

“He’s gone, Steve.”

Riverdee died this year. At 30, he had finally started to fail, struggling with the heat of the summer. My father, who trained him to two wins in 1988 and has looked after him for the last 15 years, did what fathers do, what old horse trainers do and made the decision to put down Riverdee. Dad has done this for me in the past – burying my first race pony Red Raven, the great old chaser Gogong, my sweet Succeed and now Riverdee.

Dad always calls me afterward, never before. He warns me, subtly, “Cage isn’t doing very well, bud,” he said to me this summer, referring to the nickname given to Riverdee when we met him in December, 1987. A little bay gelding, wearing a halter that said Cage Rattler, he needed another chance, another option.

We gave it to him. He took it. Like he knew what was good for him, Riverdee was always the first in line, always the first from the plane, from hurdling at Saratoga to eventing at Rolex to showing at Palm Beach and the Hamptons to hunting with the Cheshire Fox Hounds and finally to aging gracefully in big field of green grass. Nearly 27 years later, we said goodbye to our loyal servant, our old friend.

In 1986, Riverdee made his debut at Belmont for owners/breeders Leverett Miller and Joseph Shields and trainer Mickey Preger Jr. He made nine starts on the New York circuit, he finished sixth once. Demoted to the Mid-Atlantic circuit and transferred to Jordan, the son of Royal And Regal won one race at Atlantic City on the turf before sliding down the ladder and getting hammered for a $5,000 claiming tag.

My dad’s friend Bobby Connors wound up with him as winter descended at Delaware Park. Connors was going south. Riverdee wasn’t going south. Connors called dad, “I got a horse for you.” He had dad at the trot. Flicking his feet like Nureyev across a stage, Riverdee floated across the grass in the hollow of the old steeplechase course at Delaware Park. Dad organized the van.

Riverdee went home with dad, I met him at Fair Hill Training Center, he was weaving so fast, the straw was billowing up like an upside down tornado. We had him sold once, maybe twice, but vets and checks failed and he became a hurdle horse in 1988. He had two speeds, slow and fast. Carrying an unnatural – OK, scared to death – 18-year-old kid around tough courses at Radnor, Saratoga, Monmouth, Atlantic City, Middleburg, Red Bank, Fair Hill, Montpelier, Charleston, he won twice, putting nearly $20,000 in the Clancy’s till before bowing a tendon. He bought my first car, a used Chevy Cavalier as I went off to college.

Given a year off, we brought him back and the tendon filled again. I asked my girlfriend at the time if she wanted a project. She took him, taught him and had him sold once, maybe twice but wound up keeping him. He evented through the advanced level, placing in the horse trials at Rolex before moving to the low amateur owner division in show jumping when she moved to Manhattan and we had long since broken up. Eventually, he started putting two strides in the one strides (which he originally tried to bounce – no stride) and I was asked if I wanted him back.

I wanted the girl back but I wound up with the horse (must be a Country song in there somewhere).

My father and I hunted him, first flight with Cheshire. We had big days, jumping the big timber fence in the chute of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup course, whew, one of those jumps that etch into your soul. Eventually, he started twisting at his fences and adding strides – like Jordan passing up the shot – and we knew it was time for retirement. Buddy and Kate Martin provided a big field, Dad provided the care and Riverdee aged gracefully, becoming a babysitter for new horses, a riding academy for nephews. I opened a racing stable, naming it Riverdee Stable and registering the same silks I used when I rode him.

As for the girlfriend, we got married in 2006. I’d like to think Riverdee had something to do with it.