No lie, this trainer is off beaten track

JOHN EISENBERG

May 14, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Even before you get to the barn, you know things are going to be different. How could they not be different when the horse in the stall is named Casual Lies?

Horses usually are named Eternally Majestic or Majestically Eternal. Names that could make a tough man cry. Black Beauty. Velvet. Casual Lies? It could be the name of a miniseries starring Valerie Bertinelli as the temptress. Whatever the story behind the name, you figure there has to be a murder or messy divorce in there somewhere.

It turns out there is neither, but anyway, the point is you know things are going to be different long before you get to the barn. Then you get to the barn and there is Shelley Riley.

"Yeah, Casual Lies," she says. "I'm going to breed him to a mare named True Confessions. They're going to make a Danielle Steel novel."

See? Different.

"I was confident we were going to win the Kentucky Derby. OK, I was wrong. Now I'm confident we're going to win the Preakness."

Real different.

"Did I tell you about the time I went salmon fishing and a bird pooped on me?"

This is just not the way it goes. Trainers of Triple Crown contenders are quiet bordering on mute, secretive bordering on paranoid and funny bordering on Joe Gibbs. Then along comes Shelley Riley and her one-woman show.

Charlie Whittingham -- not!

The fact is you have a choice on the backside at Pimlico this year. You can hang around the other stalls and get smart about the fine print of the Lasix rules. Or you can hang around Shelley Riley and see what develops.

Like the other day, someone tells her she could make the Letterman show if her horse wins a Triple Crown race.

"I would love to be on Letterman," she says, "except afterward they would probably find me creeping around the grounds of his house. I'm strange enough."

Then, yesterday, she shows up with a big doughnut. Now, she has this generous figure already, and when a photographer takes her picture eating the doughnut, she raises it in the air.

"And everyone," she says, "is gonna look at the picture and say, 'Like she really needed that.' "

("Actually," she added, "this is not a doughnut. It is a banana shaped like a doughnut.")

Oh, and the part about her fainting after the Kentucky Derby.

"I wore wool," she says. "Just another California girl without a brain in her head."

It would not be such a story without the horse, of course, of course. Casual Lies is the cult colt of this Triple Crown season, the $7,500 horse who ran second in the Kentucky Derby. Riley, a self-proclaimed "small-timer" from Pleasanton, Calif., is demonstrating a fine touch.

The horse has won five of 10 starts and almost $600,000, although he is an incessant eater who is munching up some of the profits.

"He never stops eating," Riley says. "I train by association. I set the example."

But this part is no joke: Riley and her husband have turned down offers of more than $2 million for the horse.

"I guess I'm a millionaire now," she says, "although my bank account is covered with horse hair. But we'll go back to our same, little life. Our cats, our roses, our horses. We love it. The only difference now is the house is paid for. Oh, and I did buy a new BMW. I feel kind of guilty about that. A red BMW. I told the insurance company it was rust."

No, she is having too much fun to sell right now. It is not just the money and success. A graduate of Sacramento State with a criminal justice degree, she is writing a Triple Crown diary for the Daily Racing Form.

"Big fun," she says, "except they keep chopping up my stuff. They said, 'But diaries don't flow like that.' " I said, 'Sure they do, read Anne Frank's.' "

See? Things get real different in a hurry around this barn. But then you knew they would. Casual Lies. So what's the story with the name? Did anyone get poisoned?

"Well," she says, "there are two stories. One is for publication and one isn't."

Then she tells both.

"I was talking to my husband one day about someone else's horse," she says, "and I sighed and said, 'Oh, how casually we lie.' And it hit me: 'Oh, that would make a great name.' "

OK. Right. C'mon Shelley, what's the real story?

"Well, this friend of mine made a dress, and it was just about the ugliest dress I ever saw," she says, "and I told her it was beautiful. Sometimes we don't tell the truth. So easily."

And that's it? That's the whole story? No murder? No divorce?

"That's it," she says, "although I may come up with another one next week. Life is so uncertain."

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