Day is breaking over New York's Belmont Park, and Shelley Riley is bustling around the barn. She's tending to every need of her 3-year-old colt, Casual Lies: over there for a bucket of grain...back for hay...outside for water...back to bandage his legs...time to muck out his stall...outside to wash him...back to feed him a carrot. She pauses briefly and says, "I put the lie to fat people being lazy, don't I?" Indeed, everything that fancy, big-time racing is, Shelley Riley is not.
Hey, middle-class America, Shelley Riley is Our New Hero! Strike up the band and pass the Doritos. She's one of us. "I can't believe all this," says Riley, 42, the owner and trainer of the horse that could turn out to be the top 3-year-old of the year. This is the stuff of dreams. Riley bought the colt at the Keeneland (Ky.) sales in 1990 for $7,500. To put this in perspective, Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy, one of the colt's chief rivals in the Belmont Stakes this Saturday, cost $2.9 million.
Casual Lies was so undistinguished that when Shelley called her husband, Jim, back home in Pleasanton, near San Francisco, and told him about the yearling she had just bought, she fumbled around for words and finally said, "Well, he's brown."
Well, it turns out he's a lot more than that. Should Casual Lies win Saturday's 1½-mile Belmont, the third of the Triple Crown races, he would jump from being merely a respected colt to being a superior one with a big future as a stallion.
Riley has a nickname for Casual Lies. It's Stanley. She hung that on him for no other reason than that she had decided against either Bruce or Maurice and because "you can't say, 'How are you, Casual?' It doesn't sound right." As a 30-1 shot, Casual Lies helped put away the much-ballyhooed Arazi with a strong stretch run and missed winning the Derby by just a length. "Sure, I was surprised at the Derby," says Riley. "I thought we'd win." Two weeks later Stanley was third in the Preakness. On Saturday he should go off as the second choice in the Belmont to A.P. Indy. The fact is, Casual Lies has been the most consistent of this year's Triple Crown horses, and if form holds and he finishes third or better in the Belmont and ahead of Preakness winner Pine Bluff, Riley's colt will earn the $1 million Chrysler bonus that goes to the horse with the best Triple Crown record.
A woman on the backstretch calls out, "Shelley, how are you?"
"Good, good. You?"
"You look great," says Shelley.
Let's analyze this exchange. Did the passerby truly care how Shelley was? No. Is Shelley good? No. In fact, she has a headache from being up too late the night before, when she went to see Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Did the passerby feel great? Almost certainly not. Did she look great? No, she looked more like the runner-up in a shovel fight. Riley laughs and says, "Casual lies. What did they hurt? Nothing." Riley came up with the name one day in 1990 when she saw a horse obviously too sore to go to the races and heard the trainer tell a vet that the horse was "fine, just fine." Shelley muttered to Jim, "How casually we lie." And so one of the alltime great names in racing was born.
A more honest conversation comes moments later when another woman throws her arms around Riley, congratulates her and says, "Remember what we women have to do. Aim high and kick low." Riley is not quite sure where to position herself as a feminist. "I went through my bra-burning days," she says. "That didn't work. And when you blast about women's rights, all that happens is people slam the doors harder in your face. I think the solution is don't talk, work." Still, she ranges from being bemused to being furious over the fact that since she started training in 1976 she has had little luck getting clients to give her their horses. Even with the emergence of Casual Lies, she says, she has not gotten a single call.
"Men," she says, "are not going to send women horses." Riley says that racing is so gender-biased that once when she was trying to sell a horse, she listed herself as "S.L. Riley." Soon an interested agent came around and said. "Where is he?" Responded Riley, brightly, "He be me." The prospect wandered away.
But it must be said that Riley has been plying her trade in Northern California, which is small potatoes compared with racing in New York, Kentucky, Florida and Southern California. Mostly she and Jim (who have been married for 22 years) have carved a niche for themselves by taking yearlings and teaching them the manners and skills they need to go racing.
Sure, Shelley would love to go to Louisville, Baltimore and New York every spring, but she needs a big horse as a companion. In the meantime she trains six to 12 babies at a time, each bringing in $38 a day, and that puts groceries on the table. Jim is a blacksmith; he makes $70 for shoeing a horse, which takes 35 minutes. Shelley also picks up change with her show cats; not long ago she was offered, but refused, $25,000 for a half interest in a national and international champion British shorthair, Mimindsi Night Dreams. Instead of having bales of alfalfa delivered to their barn (at $10.50 each), Shelley and Jim often drive their truck to Stockton to pick up 28 bales, saving $3 a bale, $84 for the load.
Don't misunderstand. The Rileys are not down-at-heel folks who depend on the kindness of strangers. In 1984 they bought a house in Pleasanton—one of the Bay Area's classier addresses—for $138,500, and it's now worth $265,000. They have been portrayed by the media as Ma and Pa Kettle, which they aren't. They have been portrayed as country bumpkins overwhelmed by New York City's tall buildings, which they aren't. They have been portrayed as a rags-to-riches couple, which makes Shelley declare indignantly, "I've never worn a rag in my life." They have been portrayed as people who like to bowl and often eat lunch at Jack-in-the-Box. Well, O.K., they do that, but come on. So do a lot of people. "What we are," says Shelley, "are two middle-class people who caught lightning in a bottle."
In 11 starts Casual Lies has finished in the money nine times, winning five of those, and has earned $665,108. Shelley figures the colt is now worth around $6 million. His stud fee alone, if he wins the Belmont, could be as high as $20,000. That would add up to some $800,000 a year in stud fees for at least four years or until he either proves or disgraces himself as a stallion. Thanks to Stanley's performances on the track so far. Shelley has indulged herself with a new BMW 735. "I bought it because it spoke to me," she says. "It said, 'Buy me.' I feel guilty, ostentatious when I drive it—and glad. I also feel like Raquel Welch when I drive it."
But don't get the wrong impression. Shelley Riley is not your pretty-in-pink kind of woman. "I didn't buy Stanley because he was cute and fuzzy," she says. "And we are not dummies who got lucky. We worked our way up from the bottom of the stall." For all her affection for and devotion to Stanley, the colt is not a pet. If he doesn't do well at the races or if the price is right, he'll be out of Shelley Riley's barn in a New York minute. He acts as if it's love. Shelley says it's business. Consider this chain of events.
Riley started buying horses in 1988, because people wouldn't send her any to train. Of the nine she has purchased so far, the most expensive cost $9,000. Shelley says she had the money to buy Casual Lies because she and Jim had just refinanced their house and had an extra $30,000. "A real estate friend told me I should refinance and buy another house," she says. "I thought she said horse." She bought three babies for $20,500. Casual Lies came up early at the Keeneland sale, and there was almost no interest in him. His right hind toes out a bit, and he had suffered from epiphysitis (inflammation of the growth plate above the ankle joint), which made his right fore look swollen. Perhaps worst of all, his sire, Lear Fan, once a respectable stallion, had fallen out of favor. No high roller is interested in a colt like this. But what no high roller or anybody else ever knows for sure is when there will be a lucky dip into the gene pool. It doesn't happen often, and even Riley admits. "Genetics usually work. You breed a thief to a murderer, and you normally get a thieving murderer."
But the Rileys worked with Casual Lies, saw his promise and figured they could put him in a 2-year-old sale in Pomona, Calif., from which they hoped to get $100,000. However, being solid businesspeople, they decided not to sell him for less than $50,000. Nobody was interested. Depressed, they bought him back for the costs of putting him in the sale, $2,250, and figured they lost another $11,000 or so in expenses and lost income for the three weeks they were in Pomona.
So they loaded Stanley back in the van, took him back to Pleasanton and got him ready to race. He did well, winning three of six as a 2-year-old. Heads turned. In January a buyer was interested in paying $2.7 million for 90% interest in the colt. The buyer's agent offered $1.2 million immediately, $700,000 in 1993 and the rest at a date not mentioned. The agent said, "My people will also give you box seats to all three Triple Crown races and limousine service to them." Sniffed Shelley, "What about the mink coat and the Sunday hat?" No, she said, the deal will be $2.7 million, cash, now, and the hell with the bells and whistles. She says, "They didn't want to play."
Stanley went Triple Crown racing. "I want to thank all those people," says Riley, "who didn't buy him." But is he still for sale? "Make me an offer. What's he worth to you? I get the feeling people think he's worth less because he's in my barn." Tom Knust, racing secretary at Santa Anita and the most influential voice urging the Rileys to try Louisville, says Shelley gets little respect "because she's a woman, she's from Pleasanton, she only paid $7,500, she hasn't had many horses, and nobody knows her. But what they overlook is that her horses do the right thing at the right time." Last year Shelley's other horses won three of nine starts.
What has happened is that Stanley has gotten too big for these nice, reasonable, bedrock people. The colt has become a diamond, too valuable to take out of the safe-deposit box. The most money one of the Rileys' horses had ever won before was $40,000. The Rileys, who met at San Francisco's Bay Meadows, where Shelley worked as a groom and Jim was a jockey, do almost all the work on their horses. A groom would cost $300 a week, and the Rileys don't pay $300 a week for something they can do themselves. It costs $7 every time an exercise rider climbs on a horse, so Jim does the job.
Happily, the Rileys are not panicky, and they are not hysterical about the horse that Shelley calls "my ugly duckling who turned into a swan." They just go about their business. And they're good at it. Shelley, who has a degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State, even sees benefits in cleaning out the stall herself. "By being observant, you can learn a lot about the condition of a horse," she says.
Retired vet and longtime friend Jack Woolsey of Santa Rosa, Calif., says of the Rileys, "They do the common things uncommonly well." All an observer has to do is watch Shelley as she tends her horse and watch other grooms around the barns at Belmont tend to theirs. Shelley does it to perfection, with professionalism and. yes, with love; many of the other grooms do it to get it done. There's no question Shelley gets it right when she says, "We are born animal people. You can read a book about training but have no sense of the animal. I can see through animals. I don't want to sound like this is The Black Stallion or My Friend Flicka, but I have rapport with Stanley. I know when he wants to be petted, and I don't have to be bitten to know he's had enough."
Riley also knew enough to hire Gary Stevens, one of the nation's top jockeys, before the Kentucky Derby. "I didn't have a lot of confidence in Casual Lies," says Stevens. "Then I worked him at Churchill Downs, and my confidence went up to 100 percent."
Stevens's confidence has proved to be well founded, but Stanley's success has hardly gone to Riley's head. Anyone who has a stable like hers at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton is not going to get carried away. That explains why Riley, when asked what she plans to do with Casual Lies's earnings, says, "I think I'll put paint on our new garage door." More important is what she won't do: "I will not spend more than $30,000 on a horse. I will not be stupid. I know I can easily throw it all away. I won't do that, because I'm very into not living in a car."
Then she looks over at Stanley in his stall at Belmont: "I think we're going to win. In fact, we feel real cocky." And that is no casual lie, just an honest opinion from the middle class, for whom she has a suggestion: "Don't be without hope. Look at us."