Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Rigney Goes ‘All In’ With Racing Venture

by | 06.17.2015 | 1:42pm
Rigney, with his wife and daughter at Keeneland, say hello to jockey Corey Lanerie, trainer Ken McPeek

Some people have a knack for making life look easy. Louisville-based owner and breeder Richard Rigney might be one of them.

His early partnerships in racing found quick success, with a filly winning a Grade 1 and taking second at the Breeders' Cup and a colt coming home fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

The beverage business Rigney founded in 1987 flew out of the gates and has averaged about 19% annual growth ever since.

Last year, he topped 6,000 other competitors at the World Series of Poker, having never played a hand of poker before.

Perhaps Rigney is a little luckier than most, but his accomplishments are also clearly the product of dedication, patience, and a thoughtful approach. The most recent example of that is Channel Marker, winner of the Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Having claimed the son of Purim for $62,500 a year ago, Rigney gave the 6-year-old a 10-month rest before returning him to the races in March.

“I'm always going to be slowing things down and looking out for the best interests of the horse,” said Rigney.

His patience was rewarded as Channel Marker pulled clear at 10-1 odds to give the owner's current stable, Rigney Racing, its first graded stakes victory. It was also the first graded win for his trainer, former Ken McPeek assistant Philip Bauer, who operates a private stable with Rigney. Rigney watched the race live on at 7:15 a.m. in Tahiti, where he was on vacation with his wife, Tammy, and three children.

“I just had lost it,” Rigney said about seeing the stretch run. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs, and my children were so upset, they thought I had broken my leg. It was quite an experience.”

The excitement was dampened when Rigney learned that another horse in the race, Helwan, had broken down and had to be euthanized.

“It's such a tragic thing for a Thoroughbred to fall, and of course, it takes away from the thrill of the victory,” he said. “We want everyone to come back safe and sound. They're our competitors, but we're all in the same boat.”

Rigney's first taste of the game was as a college gambler going to the track at Santa Anita. It wasn't until later in life, after his Louisville beverage company, Clarendon Flavor Engineering, proved successful, that he sunk his teeth into racing partnerships, the first one a share purchased by his wife.

Two horses, both of whom Rigney still owns, stand out from those early days. Dream Empress was a $60,000 yearling purchase in 2007 for Rigney's former trainer, McPeek.  In 2008, the Bernstein filly won the G1 Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland and finished 2nd in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies behind Stardom Bound. In 2010, the colt Noble's Promise finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby for another partnership. Rigney now stands Noble's Promise in Indiana, and he bought out shares from partners in Dream Empress and began breeding her several years ago. In the process of selling her foals at auction, Rigney hooked up with Bauer.

“I could tell Philip knew all about the conformation and I said, why don't we do this together as a team? Rigney recalled. “Why don't you pick the horses by looks, and I'll look at the (pedigree and racing information).

“It's a partnership with my trainer. It's not like he's the trainer and I'm the owner. We're doing this together.”

Like all racing ventures, Rigney has seen highs and lows since embarking on his own. At the 2013 Keeneland September sale, he sold a Dream Empress filly by Street Cry (IRE) for $570,000 to John Ferguson, agent for Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed and the Maktoum family. But the victory by Channel Marker was his stable's first win from 28 starts this year. Rigney said he doesn't let setbacks influence the way he operates.

“During the downs, you do exactly the same things you did when you were successful,” he said. “You can't let the bad times affect any kind of decisions you make. You should be making those same kinds of decisions when you're on a high note.”

Rigney shares a smile with his groom, Roberto, as Another Lemon Drop gets saddled

Rigney shares a smile with his groom, Roberto, as Another Lemon Drop gets saddled

Rigney's band of horses has grown to 33. That includes 10 currently on the track, a few 2-year-olds in training with Bill Recio in Florida, several mares stabled at Valkyre Stud in Georgetown, Ky., and Noble's Promise, who stands at Breakway Farm in Indiana.

Rigney's family is an integral part of his racing operation, and his horses' names tell quite a few tales. People were upset with him for naming a mare, Putthebabiesdown, but the story behind it is quite harmless.

“My son, when he was two years old, his first sentence was 'put the babies down.' I was holding my twin girls, and he looked up at me, really upset, and screamed 'put the babies down!'”

One of the mare's daughters, a yearling filly by Exchange Rate, was named No More Babies, the product of a family discussion about having children. Our Double Play and Calmbeforethestorm were inspired by Rigney's twin girls. Took Some Tequila — those words came out of his wife's mouth one day at the racetrack.

There's more to the story of Took Some Tequila. Rigney said the 2-year-old Street Sense filly was the first Thoroughbred racehorse to undergo chemotherapy. She was treated at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

“She had cancer in her bladder,” Rigney said. “We were told maybe we should put the horse down, but we wanted to see if we could save her. We weren't concerned about whether the horse has a racing career.”

That's still to be determined, but Rigney said Took Some Tequila is on a farm, “dappled out,” and couldn't be doing better.

Now, about that poker story. Rigney admits he loves gambling but when a friend asked him to join him for a “bucket list” trip to the World Series of Poker, Rigney said he would pay his buddy's entry fee but would not play himself. He eventually changed his mind and flew to Las Vegas, despite having zero experience playing poker.

“I told my wife I'm just going to go all in on the first hand, get this over with and then I'm going to walk away.”

Of course, that's not what happened. Rigney and his wife booked a flight home every day, assuming he would be knocked out, but he was still playing on day four of the tournament. The whole time, he said nothing at the table.

“I had no idea how to play. People thought I was a foreigner because I didn't speak,” he laughed. “I had no idea what a nut flush is, trips, I didn't know what they were saying to me. So I just didn't talk.”

With the field of 6,700 players whittled down to 700, Rigney wound up in a head-to-head match with a pro, who thought Rigney was a European professional trying to rattle him by not speaking and not knowing all the rules. Rigney was on the verge of being in the money at the tournament if he played conservatively, but he also had a very good hand.

“So I was like, do you want to get a check, or do you want to bet a million dollars? I know what I'm going to do. I'm all in. I ended up losing something like $880,000 on the hand (in chips, not real money).

“It was a wonderful experience, and I'm never going to play poker again.”

It's another story with horse racing. Rigney hopes Channel Marker might be a Breeders' Cup contender this year, and several other runners appear to have bright careers ahead. Rigney might make things seem easy, but he knows they're not.

“We look at this as having fun. We've been so lucky and so fortunate with the racehorses we've had in the past. If we ever win a race, it's just icing on the cake.”

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