Stretch run proves bugged for Riggs

JOHN EISENBERG

May 12, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The one experience shared by everyone in racing, from the most obscure hot walker to the richest owner, is the moment they catch the bug. The moment they witness the quiet splendor of a chilly morning workout, or feel the flinty fraternity on the back side, or stand in the winner's circle, and realize this game will always have them in its thrall.

It's a sporting epiphany that tends to occur early in life, sometime during the school years, when you wouldn't care so much that a lot of money is going to pass through your hands without much sticking.

Adelaide Riggs, whose colt Woods of Windsor will run in the Preakness on Saturday, has to be the first person in history to catch the bug at 80 years old.

That just doesn't happen. You get out at 80, not in. Racing is no game for the golden years. Forget that it doesn't make sense to start spending when you should be saving. A photo finish could be life-threatening, for crying out loud.

"But Mrs. Riggs is a very funny lady," said Mike Cavey, who runs Riggs' operation from her Happy Retreat Farm in Howard County. "At the age when everyone else gets out, she's on the muscle."

To say that she caught the bug at 80 is a bit inaccurate, of course. The daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, she has DTC been around racing since she was young. We're talking a few years. She bought her first horse when Hoover was president.

The game never did grab her that much, though, at least not enough to persuade her to buy or breed expensively. She always had local horses, but nothing much to make you want to get up early to watch a gallop.

Her interest was show dogs. A world-class judge, she worked competitions in England and New York. "Dogs," Cavey said, "took up a lot of her time."

But then her third husband died in 1975 and she met Cavey, a young veterinarian from Woodlawn who wound up shutting down his practice to help her run her small thoroughbred operation. "She made me an offer I couldn't refuse," he said.

She gradually became more interested, and began investing more in broodmares and stud fees. Then the bug hit four years ago. "She just said, 'I like this and this is what I want to do,' " Cavey said.

What has happened is no less than remarkable. She began paying for breeding seasons to the best stallions in the business, Alydar and Secretariat and others. She spent a small fortune to install a training track and fix up the barns and fences at Happy Retreat. Last year she bought Lucien Laurin's farm in South Carolina.

At age 80, she gave birth to a major-league breeding and racing stable.

The breeding side was an instant success. At a Florida sale in the winter of 1992, she sold the highest-priced filly and colt for a combined $600,000. The year before, she sold three yearlings at the Keeneland summer select sale, the most prestigious sale in the industry.

There was only one problem: Her racing stable was a bust. Her immaculately bred horses wouldn't run for her.

"We tried a bunch of local trainers but it didn't work out," Cavey said. "She handed them these sons of Seattle Slew and Secretariat and they didn't know what to do with them."

Next she tried D. Wayne Lukas, but she didn't like the size of the barn or that the horses ran in Kentucky and she couldn't see them. Not that many ran well anyway.

"She was getting real discouraged," Cavey said. "Maybe close to getting out."

She changed trainers again, signing on with Bowie-based, Ivy League-educated Ben Perkins Jr.

Bingo.

"Last year the racing side made half a million," Cavey said, "which was nice. The accountants were after her to show a profit year."

They were making the same demands when Cavey put Woods of Windsor in the ring at the Keeneland sale in 1991. He wound up buying back the colt for $405,000, and two years later Riggs has her first Preakness horse.

"It makes me glad," Cavey said, "because I put my butt on the line buying that horse back. I've been sweating bullets for two years waiting for the horse to prove I didn't do the wrong thing."

Riggs now owns some 20 broodmares, a third more than a year ago, and invests a small fortune in stud fees. The sad fact is that she suffered a stroke last winter, just as things were taking off.

"But the horses give her something to look forward to," Cavey said. "She's in a wheelchair now, but she's still very involved, out watching [the horses on her training track] every morning. And she knows horses, too. She's got a keen eye. She loves it. There's no doubt she'll be doing this until the day she dies."

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