Updated on 09/16/2011 8:36AM

Reluctant romance was thing of beauty


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Chris McCarron was in the midst of his retirement press conference on Saturday morning when he interrupted himself to deliver a melancholy bulletin.

"By the way," McCarron said. "I heard some news this morning that Mrs. Ridder passed away last night."

McCarron apologized for being the bearer of such a downer. At the time, he was listing the names of the best horses he has ridden - John Henry, Alysheba, Precisionist, Flawlessly - when he came upon the name of Flying Paster, who was bred and raced by Ben and Georgia Ridder.

"Poor Flying Paster," he said. "He just happened to be born the wrong year. But he was a real racehorse."

That he was, hurling himself time after time against the gray brick wall known as Spectacular Bid. At 3 Flying Paster was really no match, in spite of his ranking as the best Derby- aged horse in the West. But in 1980, when both colts were 4, Flying Paster had evolved into a true beast. Even then he could do no better than second to Spectacular Bid in four straight stakes. Two of them resulted in track records. Phil Mickelson knows just how he felt.

Georgia Ridder's death Friday, at the age of 87, not only brought Flying Paster to mind. Her death also marked the end of a tale of reluctant romance. When first exposed to the idea, more than 40 years ago, she thought horse racing and Thoroughbred breeding seemed an outrageous gamble. Her husband, Knight-Ridder publishing giant Ben Ridder, had decided to make the plunge, while practical Georgia remained skeptical. They were new to California from the East. There seemed to be so many more sensible choices for diversionary investment.

Then she fell in love - with the horses, with their farm in Murietta, and with the challenge of the business. Her standards were high, and the Ridders' horses, for a good stretch of years, did not let her down.

Procne, a daughter of Acroterion, got things started with a small stakes score in 1973. Her brother, Messenger of Song, was among California's best colts of 1975-76, then became a useful sire, giving the Ridders Past Forgetting, winner of the Hollywood Oaks.

Cascapedia was a purchase, from Raymond Guest no less, and she was the Ridders' first and only champion in 1977. Later she produced Glacial Stream, winner of the Malibu and the Affirmed.

In 1976, Procne foaled a son by Gummo, who was named for a highly specialized component in a high-speed newspaper printing press. He was Flying Paster, winner of a dozen stakes and $1.1 million.

The death of Ben Ridder in 1983 stirred the usual patriarchal blather. Will the poor, helpless widow soldier on? Those closest to the stable knew that Georgia was already in control, and looking ahead.

In 1987, she joined the board of directors of the Oak Tree Racing Association, which her husband had helped establish. Then, with the advice of trainer Dave Hofmans, a renaissance of the Ridder Thoroughbred Stable commenced.

Raw Gold was just that - fast and precious. Cat's Cradle carried the banner of California to victory in Belmont's coveted Acorn Stakes. Such accomplishments fit comfortably into the Ridder racing history. But nothing could have prepared Georgia for Alphabet Soup.

He was a modest roan, nowhere near the dimensions of his vibrant sire Cozzene. He was bought for a song and bloomed for Hofmans until, during the summer of 1996, Alphabet Soup was the West's best hope as the Breeders' Cup approached.

"I'll never forget the Goodwood," Ridder once said, referring to Oak Tree's signature race for older runners and a final prep for the Breeders' Cup.

"I remember going down to the winner's circle, against my better judgment," she said. "And then he was disqualified. I promised myself that would never happen again."

Ridder was not complaining about the DQ. In fact, she was still kicking herself for such a blatant breach in protocol. Never again would she flout racing custom and make such an assumption, that a race was finished before it was declared official. One month later, her word was sternly tested.

With the racing world watching on a bright October day in suburban Toronto, Ridder remained firmly planted to her spot in the Woodbine box seats while the stewards took one last look at the photo finish of the Breeders' Cup Classic. People told her she had won, but she refused to budge.

"I never dreamed he would win," Ridder said several months later later. "But I wasn't going to move until I knew it for sure."

Then the lights flashed. Alphabet Soup's pink nose had hit the wire just in front of Preakness winner Louis Quatorze and defending champion Cigar. With that, Ridder was on her way. It took a little while, but the ceremony could wait. She was 81 at the time, recently recovered from hip replacement surgery, and caught up in the middle of pandemonium. Chris McCarron, looking down from Alphabet Soup, recalled his concern.

"I remember Mrs. Ridder needed support from both sides, but it wasn't because of her age," McCarron said. "It was because she was overwhelmed."

She was also on top of the world.