When Racing Means More Than Money

The horse has been getting fan mail. Shelley Riley thinks that's pretty funny. Then again, she knows what a ham he is. She sees him pause and pose for the photographers and swears he is eager to model for Horse Illustrated.

"Why don't you just put sunglasses on him?" she asks.

This is a story that belongs in children's fiction, except it is true. It is the story of a small, unwanted horse, bought for peanuts by a small-town trainer who had never won a big stakes race, ridden by an old-time jockey who knocked around looking for someone to believe in him, all of whom together could be headed for the Kentucky Derby.

This is the story of Casual Lies.

Riley calls him "Stanley" because he refuses to answer to his name. Besides, she enjoys giving her horses pet names. She thinks of them as pets, particularly this one. She says: "If Stanley didn't poop, he'd be welcome in the house."

The house is in Pleasanton, southeast of San Francisco. Shelley Riley is based at the Alameda County Fairgrounds. She has owned and trained horses for years. She is no Charlie Whittingham, no Wayne Lukas, not by a long shot, and doesn't pretend to be. But neither is she some rube. Their operations, she concedes, are bigger than hers, not better.

But that's the trouble sometimes--being taken seriously. Some try to take advantage. They offer to buy Casual Lies, making out like they are doing Riley some big favor. And she listens. She is willing to consider selling a large interest in her horse. Because that's her business.

"Only sometimes you get treated like you're Ma Kettle or the Clampetts, come to the big city to get tricked by the city slickers," Riley says.

And there is one other catch.

Selling Stanley is one thing.

Giving him up is another.

Somebody calls Riley with an offer for Casual Lies, but says they intend to change riders, change trainers.

Whereupon Shelley's husband asks: "How much did they offer?"

And Shelley replies: "I didn't ask."

Because she has come this far with this horse and wants to go the distance. Wants to know how this storybook tale ends. Because if Casual Lies won the Kentucky Derby now, with somebody else handling him and somebody other than Alan Patterson riding him, it would be like abandoning your baby on somebody's doorstep and then watching the kid grow up to become President of the United States.

In January of 1990, Riley went to Kentucky for a yearling sale at Keeneland. She had money to spend. But she didn't represent one of the large combines, the outfits that purchase horses by the hundreds. She was a typical small-scale breeder, searching for a bargain.

As usual, Riley pored through the catalogues, doing her homework, dog-earing the pages. What you want might be a colt with enough pedigree to be promising but with a visible enough flaw to discourage the big spenders. Maybe a horse with poor conformation, too small, too immature, whatever.

Casual Lies caught her eye.

And for $7,500, he was hers.

There is a song written and sung by Don McLean--the artist, not the basketball player--called "The More You Pay (The More It's Worth)" about a horse auction during which a buyer lands a remarkable mare for a cut-rate price because nobody else is wise enough to recognize her potential. Well, that's how it works. Money can buy you luck.

"I would have gone as high as 20 (thousand)," Riley says.

She wanted that horse. And she got it. He wasn't handsome, but had been born and raised properly. He had good bloodlines, too. And as soon as Casual Lies took a turn around a track, the trainer could see that the most serious problem she had was trying to slow him down.

At the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, Stanley went 5 1/2 furlongs and was all over the track. He was almost out of control. But he also won the race by two lengths.

"Our little ugly duckling," Riley said, "turned into a swan."

What was needed next was a worthy rider. Riley's first choice was Russell Baze. But, she says, Baze's agent never returned her call. Her husband kept suggesting Patterson. The trainer had always liked Alan. He was a family man, a Vietnam veteran, 42 and "not some 22-year-old hotshot trying to make a name for himself." Besides, the jockey's wife made great peanut-butter cookies.

Patterson doesn't even have an agent. He hustles rides for himself. He has worked at 50 or 60 tracks, coast to coast, looking for decent mounts.

He got one. Casual Lies won the $100,000 Sausalito Stakes, won the $300,000 El Camino Real Derby. When he ran third in the $500,000 Hollywood Futurity last December, behind A.P. Indy and Dance Floor, it was as a 52-1 shot, not taken seriously.

And now, for her $7,500 horse, bidders talk numbers to Shelley Riley more along the lines of $2.7 million.

"I'm telling people now that I bought him for 7.5 hundred," she says. "Sounds better."

She's thinking about entering Casual Lies next in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4. Either that or in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields one week later.

After that, the big one--Churchill Downs.

Another photo opportunity.

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