California dreamer is one in a million

JOHN EISENBERG

April 30, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Just when you thought the Kentucky Derby was being completely given up to the fat wallets this year, and we're talking wallets fat enough to make Roseanne look like a svelte size 8, you come across Shelley Riley raking a stall in Barn 41.

If every Derby takes on a personality, this one is a Robin Leach "Lifestyles" marathon waiting to happen. It's the sporting antidote for anyone feeling nostalgic for those leering, avaricious days that were the 1980s, the Gordon Gekko Decade, back when there were rich people with no shame.

"Then there is me," Shelley Riley said, wearing dirty tennis shoes and holding a rake. "Down here scooping poop. Still eating at Rod's Hickory Pit."

Thank heavens for it. The Derby is always a human circus, but usually a more democratic one, up-loaded with as many ragamuffin dreamers as millionaire swells. Not this year. The big-money owners are throwing playoff elbows. They have this rickety, old place almost to themselves.

There is not one sheik, but two, brothers Maktoum al Maktoum and Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum -- that's 17 vowels and 25 consonants for those scoring at home -- the former the 50-year-old ruler of Dubai and owner of long shot Thyer, the latter a co-owner of favored Arazi.

This is borderline appalling, but between them they have 11 farms and 700 horses in training. Add their two brothers, and, on horseflesh alone, they have spent a billion. Let's just say it doesn't make for an underdog heart-strummer along the lines of "National Velvet."

Arazi's other co-owner is Gulfstream Aerospace chairman Allen Paulson, who is feeling guilty about having sold half of the colt to Sheik Mohammed for a rumored $9 million, jeopardizing the colt's Triple Crown appearances. Go ahead and feel badly for him, but he still has that $9 million, and we're still possibly getting jobbed out of a Triple Crown, so don't feel too bad.

Anyway, Paulson is just average rich at this Derby. There is Henryk de Kwiatkowski, owner of Al Sabin, who wrote a $17 million check for Calumet Farm. There is Jenny Craig, the weight-loss zenmeister, who used $2.5 million of her $500 million in annual revenues to buy Dr Devious as a birthday gift for her husband.

Not exactly sentimental picks to woo railbirds. Neither is second-favorite A.P. Indy, whose owner, a Japanese real estate man named Tomonori Tsurunaki, reportedly could buy the entire Derby -- fans, horses, dirt, Kentucky, everything. He named the colt A.P. after the Auto Polis amusement center he operates in Japan. Hanky? No thanks.

There also are Dance Floor owner Hammer, the rap star whose father drives around in a white limo longer than Delaware, and the Loblolly Stables of John Ed Anthony, who owns most of the trees in Arkansas and a colt named Pine Bluff.

Put 'em all together, and it's a frightening wall of money. But just when you start giving up on the chances of a heart-strummer, there stands Shelley Riley.

"I could spend two hours Simonizing myself," she said, "and I still wouldn't look like those beautiful people."

Standing there at dawn raking a stall in her dirty tennis shoes.

"I'm too cheap to pay for help," she said. "Can't afford it. I have to work for a living."

She is an owner like the others, but also a trainer, here with a California colt, Casual Lies, whom she bought for $7,500. A thin, ugly yearling, the horse has become a powerful runner who has (( won five of nine starts and earned $445,000.

Riley is a round, wry college grad whose business is buying and breaking in weanlings in Pleasanton, Calif. It is dirty, hands-on stuff, not a big-money gig. Then came Casual Lies.

"He ran his way here," she said. "We couldn't have afforded to bring him. This trip will cost $45,000. And he'll have to keep finishing high to keep running. We can't run for glamour and glory."

She could sell for $2 million right now, but it's getting harder. "I feel like we were meant to be together," she said. "One time, I took a sale for $265,000, and I was sad about it all weekend. But the people never called back."

Would she accept $2 million now? She paused. "In cash I probably would," she said, "maybe. But I come with the horse."

She is standing there in dirty tennis shoes, and it is where she wants to be, not up with the sheiks on millionaires' row Saturday. A real person at the Derby. A dreamer to strum your heart. You have to have it.

Just like the owners with their fat wallets who float the game, you have to have it.

"I know I'm gonna cry Saturday, because I always cry at the Derby on TV," Shelley Riley said. "But no matter what happens, I'm going home and back to work. Up at dawn."

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