06/20/2014 3:33PM

Illinois-bred champion River Bear still going strong

Four-Footed Fotos
Illinois champion River Bear won his third edition of the Robert S. Molaro Handicap this year.

There’s a specific stall in trainer Rusty Hellman’s barn that veteran campaigner River Bear prefers.

“He loves the end stall so he can keep an eye on the track,” Dana Waier said of her homebred gelding. “He has to be looking at the track at all times ... You put him on that end stall where he can see the track itself. And he’ll hear the call to the post go off, and he’s looking at the track like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ ”

River Bear has kept his eyes on the track for a long time. The 9-year-old Unreal Zeal gelding, who was named champion Illinois-bred sprinter in 2010, 2011, and 2012, has won 20 of 56 career starts and is closing in on the million-dollar mark in earnings, with a bankroll of $910,206. Almost half of his victories – nine – have come in stakes races, with 11 additional stakes placings.

“I look at him, and I’m amazed,” Waier said. “I’m humbled and amazed. I can’t even express the words that you feel whenever you look at a horse that gives you his all.”

The path toward this point began when Waier and Hellman claimed River Bear’s dam, the Minneapple mare Jabber, for $25,000 out of a win at Oaklawn Park in February 1997. They campaigned the mare for just over two years, earning back roughly double her purchase price. However, Jabber has paid even greater dividends as a broodmare, producing seven winners from as many runners, including four stakes horses. Her progeny, led by River Bear, have bankrolled $1,643,215. Remarkably, her runners are by six different stallions.

“[Jabber’s foals] just have heart,” Waier said. “They don’t have the same father, so they’re definitely getting it from the dam’s side, to have that heart to win.”

Lady Riss, a full sister to River Bear, was Illinois reserve champion older female in 2005, winning eight stakes over the course of her career and earning $325,390. Devient Behavior, by Ecton Park, captured the 2009 Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity to earn honors as the state’s champion 2-year-old male. Another half-sibling, Guccione, by He’s a Tough Cat, was multiple stakes-placed and earned almost $200,000.

Devient Behavior has continued to play his own part in the story as Hellman’s stable pony.

“He transitioned right over to that beautifully,” Waier said. “He was actually the only one that could catch River Bear when River Bear was running off one day. [Observers] were going, ‘They’ll never catch him,’ and Rusty said, ‘Watch this.’ And then they were running, eye-to-eye, eyeballing each other, like, ‘No way.’ ”

Young racehorses are typically broken to saddle in controlled circumstances, going for their first rides in a round pen or an arena before transitioning to a racetrack or training center. River Bear’s early lessons were somewhat unconventional, and Waier credits Hellman for giving the gelding a foundation that has continued to benefit him as a racehorse.

“People ask how River Bear has been able to have this staying power. I give that to Rusty – all the kudos to Rusty and what he did and how he broke him,” Waier said. “Rusty broke River Bear himself – he didn’t use any outside people. He would get on the horse for hours and put a foundation underneath him and ride him through the woods and over the levees and down dams. Just [riding] through anything.

“It makes a world of difference,” she added. “Hours and hours of handling and riding and just not putting too much pressure on [the horses]. When you spend the extra time with them, it really shows.”

Despite the lack of pressure, River Bear was a quick study. He won his maiden in the Troy Our Boy Stakes at Fairmount Park as a juvenile and notched his second stakes win almost two years later in the 2009 White Oak Handicap at Arlington Park.

In 2010, he captured the Robert S. Molaro Handicap and Lightning Jet Handicap, both at Hawthorne Park, to earn his first sprint championship. Going for a repeat in 2011, he placed in five stakes – beaten a length or less in three – before romping by five lengths in the Holiday Cheer Stakes at Turfway Park on the last day of the year.

That campaign garnered him his second sprint title as well as reserve champion older male honors. He notched a third championship in 2012 with his most productive campaign yet, repeating in the Molaro and adding the Prairie Express Stakes at Prairie Meadows and the Tex’s Zing Stakes at Fairmount.

River Bear’s 2013 campaign was abbreviated due to an abscess and a minor leg issue. He came back strong this year to win his first two starts off the bench, including the Molaro for the third time. But in his most recent outing, he finished 11th in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard, his first start in a graded stakes race.

“There was nothing wrong with him, other than he doesn’t travel well,” Waier said. “We had to be there Thursday. Normally, what we do is ship in the morning of the race and get there in time for the Lasix [deadline] ... [Jockey Tim Thornton] knew that he came flat out of the gate, and there was no reason to push him. He saved him for another race.”

Waier and Hellman haven’t picked out a next spot for River Bear yet as he closes in on joining the millionaire’s club. Waier said she feels no pressure to reach the mark.

“He owes us nothing,” Waier said. “All he’s doing is he’s running for himself now, because he doesn’t want to stop doing what he loves to do ... If we don’t make it to a million, we don’t make it to a million. When he says he’s done, he’s done.”

One thing that is certain is that when River Bear does retire, he will head home to Waier’s farm in Missouri to live alongside his full sister, Lady Riss, whom Waier plans to pension from broodmare duties. Both may have second careers as riding horses for Waier, who is preparing herself to deal with the intelligent River Bear’s antics.

“River Bear’s got them kind of trained now,” Waier said of Hellman’s barn staff. “He’ll be in his stall, and you can’t catch him anymore, because he knows that in order for them to catch him, they have to have a peppermint in their hand. He’s kind of outsmarted them now. They say, ‘River Bear, you have to turn around,’ and he won’t do it till they come up with a peppermint.”