Lucien Laurin looked at his groom and asked, "You're with this horse every day, what do you think?" The groom, just recently promoted from hotwalker, replied, "Boss, I'm green, but if any horse can make it this horse can make it."
And that is how Spanish Riddle survived broken bones, torn ligaments and an amputation to become a stallion, a veterinary pioneer and a model of how spirit and try really can sometimes overcome circumstance.
The injury came in the summer of 1973, during a workout on the sloppy main track at Saratoga Race Course.
"He loved a sloppy track, but he blew all of his XYZ (ligaments), fractured his sesamoids, everything," said Steve Jordan, the groom answering Laurin's question back then and now the man in charge of NYRA's pre-race holding barn.
Jordan remembers Spanish Riddle, and all that made him special, even though most people know the horse only as "a name in the program." He put his name there Aug. 18, 1972 by running 6 furlongs in1:08- the fastest time in history and technically tied with Speightstown's 1:08.04 from 2004.
Jordan was a fan in the stands when Spanish Riddle set the mark in an allowance race, but caught on with Laurin's barn as a hotwalker by the end of the meet.
The kid picked the right outfit. Based in Barn 24 (where Tom Albertrani is now) on the backside of the main track, Laurin's 1972 string might as well have been the 1927 Yankees. Riva Ridge was there. Secretariat too. And Spanish Riddle.
"It really was Murderers' Row," said Jordan, who went to Belmont Park with the stable when Saratoga ended - launching a career in racing that has touched parts of five decades. "One good horse after another."
And Spanish Riddle fit right in. Bred by Roy Anderson in Kentucky, the chestnut son of Ridan and the Windy City mare Spanish Breeze won three times as a 2-year-old in 1971. The next year, Spanish Riddle made 20 starts - winning five and finishing second another five times. In Florida, he won the Dade Metropolitan at Tropical Park and the Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park. The Laurin-trained Upper Case edged Spanish Riddle in the Florida Derby, and they weren't even the best 3-year-olds in the barn. Champion juvenile in 1971, Riva Ridge won the Blue Grass, Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Hollywood Derby.
"He was fast, but he could carry his speed too," Jordan said of Spanish Riddle. "He wasn't just a sprinter. He did all the heavy lifting in the Florida Derby before Upper Case came and got him."
By August, Spanish Riddle was sprinting and defeated the classy Tri Jet in the record-setter.
Two days shy of a year after setting the mark, Spanish Riddle broke down. The injury basically shattered his right front pastern. His racing career was over, but a stallion deal with Virginia horseman Stanley Greene had been in the works and Greene wanted to try. Veterinarians stabilized the horse's leg with a soft cast, and Spanish Riddle shipped to Belmont with the rest of the Laurin stable. Jordan became his groom.
"I obviously wasn't rubbing on him a lot," he said. "I could pick his feet while he was lying down though. He wasn't big, I bet he wasn't 15.3, but he was tough, tough as nails. He was mobile enough to get around and I'd take him out and graze him some."
Jordan noticed some changes around the horse's coronet band, and in his general attitude. Laurin called in Dr. Mark Gerard and later Dr. Tom Gorman. The leg was infected, and when antibiotics failed to knock it back the veterinarians summoned Dr. Edward Keefer. A surgeon at New York Hospital, he pioneered the use of transplant banks for human blood vessels and, through an interest in horses, treated 1970 champion 2-year-old Hoist The Flag and foxhunters with the Meadow Brook Hounds.
Keefer consulted an expert in human prosthetics, learned welding from a blacksmith and fashioned a brace for the horse. Every day, Keefer and Jordan would remove the brace, clean the wound and re-attach the brace.
"It was a work in progress, nobody knew anything about this," Jordan said. "It would take an hour and a half to change it, clean everything off and put it back on."
Jordan appeased Spanish Riddle with a bag of carrots a day, took advice from Keefer and tried to make the horse comfortable even as his condition slowly worsened. Everyone wanted a happy ending, but no one was confident. Jordan and the stud colt developed a routine of sorts to get through the brace re-attachment. Spanish Riddle would take a mouthful of Jordan's shirt, and slowly stomp his injured leg - "boom, boom, boom, boom" - then wait and do it again - "boom, boom." Then he'd let go of Jordan and put weight on his leg.
"He's doing that because he has no feeling in the lower leg, but he can feel the vibration from the metal on the sides of the brace," Keefer told Jordan. "He wants to know it's comfortable enough to stand on and then maybe he can go out and do something."
Jordan would take Spanish Riddle outside to pick some grass or go for a brief walk. Despite the positive steps, the horse's leg deteriorated - so much so that Keefer made the difficult decision to amputate and try to fashion a more permanent brace. On a Sunday in November, with Laurin in Canada for Secretariat's final race, Keefer essentially cut the horse's leg off below the long pastern bone.
Spanish Riddle endured the four-hour procedure, and another operation months later to remove a bone fragment that had dislodged and moved down to the end of the stump.
"We had to hold him up," said Jordan of the second operation. "We got it out, sutured him up, put the brace back on and we were about ready to collapse and he walked over and started eating hay like nothing. Like, 'Fellas, what's the big deal?' He got over that and everything else, somehow."
By the new year, 1974, Spanish Riddle had learned to live with his artificial leg and hoof, and Jordan accompanied the stallion to Greene's fledgling Virginia Stallion Station in Hillsboro. Jordan led the horse to the breeding shed for his first test breeding. It was an honor. Jordan taught the staff there how to deal with the horse, the brace and the special care. Spanish Riddle stood five seasons, producing multiple graded stakes winner Love Sign (who won the Test and Alabama here in 1980) among others.
Jordan is proud of his role in Spanish Riddle's life, and Thoroughbred history.
"Whatever facet of this game you're in, everybody knows - or should know - it stops and starts with the horse," Jordan said. "He registered with me. I was around a lot of good horses. Those horses at Lucien's barn and Pearl Necklace and Chief's Crown and some others. There's something about a good horse, something. They're adaptable, they're unfazed by things and that's the way he was. It was just an amazing experience."
Jordan visited Spanish Riddle on trips to and from Florida with the Laurin horses, and even went to work at the stud farm, which had relocated to Middleburg, in 1978. There, he watched Spanish Riddle take his last breath. He'd finished breeding a mare and was being led back to the stallion barn.
"I'll never forget it," Jordan said. "I heard him screaming and he was dragging the stud man, who was a big guy, down the hill toward the stud barn. He got to the barn and dropped dead of a heart attack."
He's buried on the farm. All these years later, Jordan thinks of Spanish Riddle periodically - and especially when Saratoga cards a 6-furlong stakes. Last week, A. P. Indian ran the distance in 1:08.25 to win the Vanderbilt. Pretty fast, but still not faster than Spanish Riddle.
Even Laurin recognized Spanish Riddle's importance.
"He told me once how he wished this horse had come along at a time in his career where he could have appreciated him more," Jordan said of the trainer. "He had Secretariat, Riva Ridge and a really good stable then. The pressure that came with all of that was tough. Spanish Riddle was in the stall next to the tack room. Lucien appreciated him, he just said he wished he could have appreciated him more."
At one point - with Riva Ridge, Secretariat and Spanish Riddle all active at Saratoga - Laurin even joked with Jordan about what may have been.
"You know what would be fun if we could do it and nobody knew about it . . . ?" the Hall of Fame trainer asked with a grin. "Wouldn't it be fun to take those three horses and work them five-eighths-of-a-mile just to see how fast they really are? Just to see it?"
One thing's for sure, Spanish Riddle would have galloped out in1:08.