Sitting tall in the saddle takes on more than a single meaning when the subject matter is Tanner Riggs. Granted, Riggs is tall, very tall for a jockey. Granted, his demeanor and behavior alone might warrant the description. His probity and bearing are of professional standards at all times. And, granted, right now there is no one riding any better in Shakopee than the 23-year-old native of Mitchell, S.D.
Yet, it is that long, lanky figure of his, bent over a horse’s neck, that truly grabs a fan’s attention while watching him switch sticks in the stretch run as if he’s juggling a baton, one hand to the other – whack, whack! – just like that.
“He reminds me a lot of a young Jack Kaenel,” said Riggs’s agent, Richard Grunder.
Riggs appears to be at least six feet tall, but has recent evidence it is just that thin, strong frame of his that presents the deception. “I was measured at 5-foot-10 in the doctor’s office the other day,” he said.
He’s a better rider now than he was six years ago when he had the bug in Shakopee. Some things about him haven’t changed, however, and trainer Phil Hartman, for one, says that’s what he likes about him.
“He grew up in South Dakota,” Hartman said. “He’s an honest, hard-working kid and none of that’s changed.”
Hartman also likes the way that Riggs can follow instructions and make it pay off.
Friday night, for example, Riggs brought in a mare named Havasu in the second race. “I told him that we had the 3-5 horse in the race but that the mare might not be tight enough after running on the hard track in Phoenix,” Hartman said. “He saved just enough horse to get there. A picture-perfect ride.”
Hartman also perceives a “down-home” characteristic that he likes about Riggs. “He’s always willing to work hard,” he said. “We don’t have showroom Cadillacs here, and he seems to like riding VWs.”
Riggs had the bug here in 2006 and rode in Shakopee in 2007 as well before heading to Columbus, Neb., and then Chicago, where he won riding titles three times at Hawthorne Race Course and was in the top five riders year round at the Chicago tracks the last four years.
Riggs competed in barrels and poles at local timed events as a kid. Otherwise there was not much in his background to suggest he might one day become a rider. He recalls two or three events that today he thinks opened the door to this career choice,.
There was a trip at about age six to the Chicago tracks with his father, Ron. That planted the first seed.
“There were some races at Fort Pierre and Aberdeen but they weren’t really even tracks, more like rodeo arenas,” Riggs recalled. “I was terrible, losing my stirrups and my goggles. I was a real mess at first and people told me I wasn’t going to make it.”
There was also the time that trainer Mac Robertson paid a visit to Bun Colvin’s farm when Riggs was a youngster.
“Bun and Marlene had a farm five miles from where we live,” Riggs recalled.
“We grew up on a farm with mostly quarter horses, but my sister would ride thoroughbreds for the Colvins before they were brought to the track. I went with her one day, because they had cinnamon rolls. Mac was there and said I could ride some thoroughbreds.”
It is his work ethic that helped Riggs to an early lead in the riding standings in Shakopee. He’s on the backside working horses, pitching in, selling himself by his mere presence and dedication.
“He’s unbelievably disciplined,” said Grunder. “And trainers like him because he can come back from a work and tell him something about the horse.”
A drawback, of course, is Riggs’ constant battle with weight although he is disciplined about that facet of his life, too.
“I try to walk a lot on days off,” he said. “I drink a lot of water, eat yogurt after a meal.”
He’ll also use the treadmill or, like a fighter, jog in a sweat suit. “Then, if that’s not working, I’ll use the sweatbox,” he said.
Even there his job is more difficult than that of his smaller colleagues. “They’ll spend an hour in there and lose four pounds. I’ll lose two,” he said.
Much of the time, Riggs tacks around 121 or 122 pounds. During the summer months he might be able to make 120.
It doesn’t get any easier. “No, it gets tougher all the time,” he said.
Riggs feels more at home working out of the Canterbury stables. “Chicago has a lot of hustle and bustle,” he said. “Here, the horses might not be as good but the people are friendly and treat you well. ”
Sitting tall in the saddle after a race or working a horse in the morning, Riggs displays an easy-going, hard-working feature that everyone seems to like.
“He’s like a Beaver Cleaver, very polite,” said Grunder. “He’s one of those guys who’s so nice that it makes you a little nervous.”
He’s riding well enough right now to make the competition nervous, too.
A WET DREARY DAY
Saturday’s card was conducted on a sloppy and then muddy track that produced a few surprises, certainly influenced in part by the wet conditions.
Riggs rode two winners on Saturday’s card, including the 7-1 long-shot Lady Beryl in the fourth race. At card’s end he had eight winners for the season, two more than Juan Rivera, who also had a winner Saturday and three more than defending riding champ Dean Butler and Bobby Walker, jr., who each had a winner on the card and have five for the season.
Butler’s win came aboard Gold Brew in the seventh race, moved from the turf to the main track. The win was Gold Brew’s sixth straight.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Photo Credit: Coady Photography