The winning 'Proof' Horse: Owner Bernie Riddle faithfully stuck with Plenty of Proof through 37 starts before she got her first win.

January 13, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

A man buys a racehorse. He takes care of the horse every day for three years. The man races the horse 36 times. The horse never wins.

The 37th time, the man walks to a betting window and wagers on the horse not only to win, but also to finish first in exactas and trifectas.

The next day, after the horse has won and the man has collected a bundle of money, the man says: "I knew it. I knew she was going to win this time. I even told two or three people, but they didn't believe me."

You have entered the world of Bernie Riddle, where the sun always shines, the glass is half full and if you don't succeed, try and try again.

Riddle trains three horses at Laurel Park, including the 5-year-old mare Plenty of Proof, whose win in Laurel's 10th race on Jan. 2 was a most remarkable feat. But to Riddle, 64, the retired owner of an excavating company, the win was not remarkable at all.

It was an occurrence if not ordinary, at least predictable, to a man who throws himself out of bed every morning expecting to land on the red carpet of life.

"That's the way he is," said his wife, Barbara, the official owner of Plenty of Proof. "I got discouraged, thinking she might never win. But Bernie never gave up. He always had faith."

For winning, Plenty of Proof earned $11,400 -- by far her richest payday. That increased her earnings in 37 races (one win, five seconds, two thirds) to $52,604.

That's a check of a different color from Cigar's record $9,999,815, but for small-timers such as the Riddles, it covers expenses and adds spice to retirement's recipe.

"If you don't have anything to get out of bed for in the morning," Bernie Riddle said, "you're not going to be around long."

Riddle contemplated that unnerving prospect in 1990, when he suffered a heart attack. He was always a positive sort, but, after that, he became downright rosy.

He gave up his excavating company and began buying and training horses. He had owned a few when his brother, Paul, worked as a trainer. But Paul died in a traffic accident about the time Bernie had his heart attack, so once Bernie recovered, he passed the tests required to obtain a trainer's license and began training the horses himself.

Nothing deterred him, not even Plenty of Proof.

Riddle bought her at auction in December 1994 for the bargain-basement price of $1,600. She was 1 year, 7 months old, but officially about to turn 2 (all horses become a year older Jan. 1). Even though her sire was Deputed Testamony, winner of the 1983 Preakness, Plenty of Proof was small and not an eye-catcher.

"I thought she'd grow out bigger," Riddle said. "But she had the look of a racehorse to me."

Trouble was, that look didn't translate into victories. She lost all // her races at 2, 3 and 4 -- 36 races in all.

Although a streak of dubious distinction, that's far from a record. Two horses broke their maidens on their 86th try: Really a Tenor in 1990 at Ohio's River Downs and Gussie Mae in 1995 at Atlantic City.

In Maryland, Four Tries, a 9-year-old gelding, was apparently the local leader in futility until his trainer, Mike Tanzell, retired him three months ago. Four Tries was 0-for-43. His nickname was well-earned: "Forty Tries."

A long time coming

As for Plenty of Proof, she ran hard and earned checks, but never made it first to the finish line. And Riddle kept her racing against the most highly regarded maidens. He refused to drop her into a claiming race, where the competition would be softer but another trainer or owner could buy her for the claiming price.

"If I'd run her for a claiming tag, she'd be gone," Riddle said. "Somebody would have claimed her and broke her down. She'd have been dog food by now.

"She's never done anything wrong. She's just really small; she's pony-size. These big mares push her around, and it's hard for her to recover. She's got to take two jumps to their one. But she's got a heart of gold."

Riddle bet her from time to time, but not always to win. He also played her with other horses in various wagers to finish second or third. And she occasionally rewarded him not only with a check from the track for a gutsy run, but also with a gratifying payoff.

But on her 37th try, her initial race as a 5-year-old, Riddle bet her only to finish first. He studied the past performances of her challengers. He evaluated their breeding. And he concluded that she would win.

Riddle was right. In the nine-horse field in a race of seven furlongs, Plenty of Proof broke out of the gate third, pursued the leaders around the turn and then blew past them turning for home. She won by 3 1/2 lengths.

Plenty of Proof paid $19.20 to win and headed a $75.80 exacta and $339 trifecta. Riddle wouldn't say how much he collected, but he acknowledged that he doesn't bet just $2. Suffice it to say that Plenty of Proof made him plenty of cash.

Success for the stable

The next day at the barn at Laurel Park, Riddle showed off his stable of three horses -- as proud as if they were Citation, %J Secretariat and Cigar.

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