Casual Lies runs a big second in the 1992 Kentucky Derby
Thirty years ago Shelley Riley made history. It was the 1992 Kentucky Derby and up until then, no horse trained by a woman had ever finished in the money. But as the field roared into the stretch, Casual Lies, Shelley’s $7500 bargain colt, surged to the front. For several glorious seconds he looked like he might even win. Until Lil E. Tee kicked into gear on the outside and stormed to a one-length victory. Casual Lies was a courageous second. No one else in the field that included Arazi, Pine Bluff, Dance Floor and Devil His Due was even close.
Two weeks later, Shelley Riley made history again. It was the Preakness and once again, no horse trained by a woman had ever hit the board. Over a heavy track he clearly didn’t relish, Casual Lies gritted out a third place finish. To this day Shelley Riley remains the only woman trainer to have finished in the money in two Triple Crown races.
In the thirty years since the 1992 Triple Crown races, Shelley has retired from training, penned a memoir – Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure, and authored a series of fantasy novels. She now lives a quiet life in the San Francisco Bay area. Over a forty-five minute phone call, Shelley and I shared our experiences as women trainers in a male-dominated sport and racing at low-level claiming tracks. She was genuinely humbled when I revealed that I had just passed my trainer’s test shortly before the 1992 Derby and that she had been a huge inspiration to me. Warm, candid, and always entertaining, Shelley Riley isn’t afraid to speak her mind. This is what she had to say:
1. It has been 30 years since Casual Lies’ amazing second-place finish in the 1992 Kentucky Derby – what do you remember most about that day?
Answer: I would have to say finishing second. I tend to hedge my bets when making statements about a horse I’m training. However, I believed Stanley would win on the day. So to say, at the time, that I was gutted after he surged to the front only to get caught would be an understatement.
Once Casual Lies appeared on the racing world’s radar, and the closer we got to the Kentucky Derby, I received a lot of ridicule for my unwavering belief in my horse. But Stanley, Jim, and Shelley were a team, and the only opinion that mattered was mine and Jim’s. Stanley certainly didn’t have one. His main concern was a steady supply of attention and carrots. I never met a horse that was more gregarious than Stanley.
Then and now, while I may have been disappointed at coming so close—in some ways, finishing third may have been easier. Having said that, I was never disappointed in my horse. Casual Lies was as honest as they come, he gave his best on the day, and we couldn’t have asked for more.
2. What makes Casual Lies’ performance even more incredible is the fact that he had a major setback two weeks before the Derby. Would you explain exactly what happened, and do you think he would have won if it hadn’t occurred?
Answer: The what if’s and if only’s are harsh taskmasters. And in this case, there were plenty of those to chew on for years to come.
Stanley loved his chow. When his feed tub was hung, he’d open his mouth and dove straight to the bottom, getting as much as possible on that first bite. When finished, he’d lick the bowl relentlessly. Since he tended, like his owner, to be a good doer, we had to restrict his intake of hay—alfalfa in particular. Not to be denied, Stanley decided straw was dessert, and he liked to eat dessert all day and all night until he looked bloated and unfit. The straw had to go. We went with rice hulls, which are less dusty than wood shavings, and hadn’t been treated with chemicals in the processing. We requested that Churchill downs bed his stall with rice hulls.
However, when we arrived, the stall was lined with wood shavings. If you’ve ever been around them, you can smell the chemicals, and these were particularly potent. We weren’t happy, but we had no choice. Unbeknownst to us, the chubbet found them to his liking.
When you arrive at the barn and find your derby horse, head hanging, and his digestive system sounding like a washing machine, you don’t need to guess. You know you’re in trouble. We couldn’t leave him muzzled all the time, so we bedded him in Timothy—a type of grass hay he found repugnant.
Though he came around quickly, we had lost valuable training time, specifically workouts. We had time for one workout on entry day. He black lettered, and by a lot. The racetrack was abuzz with the news. His jockey at the time said he’d never felt a horse as explosive as Casual Lies when you asked him to run.
Would another workout have made the difference? I know one thing for sure, it wouldn’t have hurt.
3. Your second place finish remains the closest any woman trainer has come to winning the Run for the Roses. Why do you think that is?
Answer: Oh boy. I hesitated to answer this question. Still, what the heck. At this point I’m “un-cancellable” as they say.
Though there are now more women in racing, I would submit that little has changed in thirty years. Have there been successful women in the highest echelon of racing? Absolutely. However, perhaps more so then than now, horseracing was a man’s world.
When a wealthy individual raises his hand at one of the premier sales and buys a sales topper, they don’t generally look for an obscure female trainer. They have many reasons, I’m sure. But history bears me out, at least as far as the Kentucky Derby goes.
A west coast trainer remarked that he hoped I had a stable to return to. As it turned out, I’m sorry to say that he was right. When we returned to Pleasanton after the Triple Crown, our usual clients believed we’d become too important and wouldn’t care to train for them. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
As to having the phone ringing off the hook, nope. The only calls I got were from racing secretaries and reporters. I even had a man approach me after Breeder’s Cup day at Santa Anita, who told me he was representing Kevin Costner (something I never verified). He asked me if I would sell a fifty percent interest in Casual Lies. Before I even had a chance to respond, he told me which trainer we would be transferring my horse to. The very horse I had trained to become one of the top three-year-olds in the world at that time. There really are no words, are there? So there you have it. That’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. I’m sure other women in the business are better positioned to attest to the current state of affairs—still, it’s been thirty years and counting.
4. What prompted you to write your memoir about Casual Lies?
Answer: If I had written the memoir right after the Triple Crown, it would have been far different. I had a lot of material, mainly since I’d been writing a Daily Diary for both the Racing Form and one of the San Francisco Bay Area newspapers. By waiting, the book is less a purge and more of a cathartic remembrance of a remarkable horse who electrified my world for far too short a time.
In 2012, I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writer’s Club, and I planned to finish a middle-grade novel I’d started many years before. Instead, I was encouraged to write a memoir. It was the best advice I’d received since Charlie Whittingham had encouraged me to run Casual Lies in the Kentucky Derby.
Two things happened by sitting down and rereading the daily diaries I’d written. I reconnected with the things that made my horse special. I remembered all the fantastic things that we experienced because of Casual Lies. Truthfully, it’s still hard to believe it really happened. How it happened.
Using the equity in our house, I bought a tiny colt that nobody else wanted. How he grew into a headstrong, charismatic horse and took us on a journey, you couldn’t replicate if you had all the money in the world.
Fans from all over the world have read Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure. You’ll laugh, you might cry a little, and trust me when I say I had no trouble poking fun at myself.
Although Casual Lies didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, he still holds a place in history. But for me, he was my bright-eyed and mischievous Stanley.
5. So how do you go from writing a memoir to penning Sword and Sorcery Fantasy novels?
Answer: When I was a kid, I was an avid reader. But each book always had to have something to do with horses. As I grew older, my taste in literature became increasingly eclectic. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Wilbur Smith, Larry McMurtry, Steven King, Dean Kootz, etc. the list would be endless. But my all-time favorite, as it turns out, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove a close second.
In my opinion, a perfect book doesn’t come with enough pages. A good story involves a fellowship that you can feel a part of. You find yourself invested in the fellowship’s success, and when the story comes to an end, you’re loath to say goodbye to your new friends.
I love writing short stories. A thought or an image often inspires me. The idea for Into Madness – The Born from Stone Saga came from pictures of gargoyles situated atop a gothic cathedral. And that is how Mystislav, a dragon made of stone, came to life under a full moon. He flies across the city and lands on the donjon tower of Carolingian castle. Mystislav hears the cries of a new born babe and . . .
It wasn’t a short story, but it was a strong beginning for a YA Fantasy. As it turned out, the beginning was the easy part. Now I had to write a story. It took over four years.
6. Tell us about Into Madness, the first book of your Born From Stone series.
Answer: Into Madness is book one of a trilogy. The marketing blurb goes like this:
After a decade in hiding, captured, and imprisoned, Ravin Carolingian is left to question everything she thought she knew about herself. Still, as the line between ally and enemy blurs, one thing becomes clear. If Ravin’s going to help the Carolingian people, she must first escape the evil that walks the halls of the place she once called home.
As a reader, I like strong characters, adventure, and scenes that engage the reader’s senses. So that is how I chose to write this story. It never ceases to amaze me how the characters occasionally grab the bit and runoff—going in an entirely different direction than I had first imagined.
7. So what is the title of the second book and when is the release date?
Answer: The second book is Hearts Divided, and the third is The Reckoning. Hearts Divided is nearing completion. I have been receiving good-natured demands for the release date. Words in bold type like NOW! and TOMORROW? have been hitting my inbox tends to light a fire. Every writer knows that you don’t want to piss off the reader.
8. Which horses of the past 30 years made you stand up and cheer?
Answer: So many. But one, in particular, made me stand up and shout my encouragement at the television—California Chrome. From his gorgeous coloring to the story behind him, it ticked all the boxes for me. Unabashedly as one of the many Chromies worldwide, I wear the title with honor.
Shelley Riley’s books are available on Amazon at:
Photos: Courtesy of Shelley Riley