Secretariat and Me

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The Incomparable Secretariat (photo taken at Claiborne Farm)

The Incomparable Secretariat
(photo taken at Claiborne Farm)

So, what’s this about Secretariat? THAT Secretariat? Yes, there was only one; and in 2013 racing celebrated the 40th anniversary of his amazing Triple Crown. Even if you don’t follow horse racing closely, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Super Horse of 1973 (and 1972)! Secretariat was a phenomenon. He was not undefeated in his career, but – in my mind – that only goes to prove that this was a flesh and blood athlete who, when he was at the top of his game, was the best that ever was. The 44th anniversary of his birth is rapidly approaching (March 30), so I wanted to make certain that my remembrance was posted before the celebration.


Secretariat's Amazing Leap at the Preakness 1973

Secretariat’s Amazing Leap at the Preakness 1973

There are those who say that Man O’War was better. I couldn’t say for certain. I don’t know that anyone truly can. Those who saw them both run couldn’t even agree. Let’s just put all that to bed and say that they both were bright, immensely talented, beautiful-to-look-at, beings who inspired legions with their ability to run. They were immediate celebrities who captured the attention and imaginations of generations. That’s a lot to say about one horse – let alone, two.

Secretariat also came into our lives at a time where the country desperately needed a hero. We had been through years of the tortuous and divisive war in Vietnam. On the heels of that, there was the Watergate scandal. To say that there were a great number of us (especially those of my age group) who were becoming increasingly disillusioned was putting it mildly. This was the early times of the “hippie” movement and counter-culture. Secretariat was a bright, shining beacon of truth and beauty. Even those who had never seen a horse race or had any previous interest in horses tuned into the innocence and power of the amazing, chestnut. Secretariat, in full flight, was almost a mythical beast. His stride (which later turned out to be the greatest measured) ate the ground. He was poetry in motion. It was a kind of beauty that almost everyone could appreciate.

Secretariat is so iconic that the greats have photographed him

Tony Leonard's Iconic Photo of Secretariat at the Belmont

Tony Leonard’s Iconic Photo of Secretariat at the Belmont

(this example is the famous photo of Secretariat at the Belmont by the late, great photographer, Tony Leonard),

Fred Stone's "Final Tribute" - Secretariat

Fred Stone’s “Final Tribute” – Secretariat

and painted him (this is Secretariat – Final Tribute by the incomparable, Fred Stone).

Much has been written about Secretariat the race horse. There have been terrific books (I especially like the one written by William Nack) and even a feature movie about him. This post is a more personal look at the great horse as I knew him.

My “relationship” with Secretariat came many years after his heroics on the track. As you may have learned from earlier posts, my husband and I were in the thoroughbred breeding and racing business for a number of years. My first visit to Secretariat, though, pre-dated that time in our lives, but not by much. Did meeting him have any bearing on our decision to go into the business of breeding and racing horses? Probably, but not directly.


My first encounter with the Great One:

We were living in Georgia, and took a road trip to visit family in Michigan. On the way back, we stopped first in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the pamphlets available at the Kentucky visitor’s center outlined different tour groups that were available to the general public to visit horse farms in the bluegrass. I have been “horse crazy” all my life. (Perhaps that’s a by-product of being born in Kentucky.) We called and requested a tour to Claiborne Farm where Secretariat held court. The tour company said that they would do their best, but that there were no guarantees. We told them where we’d be staying in Lexington and they said they would leave word as to whether or not they were able to book the tour.

When we arrived in Lexington, this message awaited us!

The Note

The Note

I have to say that I honestly don’t remember any of the details beginning at this point until we arrived at Claiborne. I’m sure I enjoyed the amazing scenery (beautiful tree-lined roads and the stacked-stone fences of Paris Pike), but my only thoughts were that I’d actually get to see the horse that I’d dreamt of for so many years.

I do know that I thought I would see Secretariat (or “Red” as I came to call him later) in his paddock and at a distance. Imagine my amazement when he was led out of his stall on a lead and brought in our direction. I’m sure I was breathing; but, at that moment, everything else was blocked out of my vision. Walking right up to me was the most amazing horse of all time.

My First Brush with Greatness

My First Brush with Greatness

Secretariat  - Oh, yes, that's me touching him

Secretariat – Oh, yes, that’s me touching him

As you can see from these photos, I got to actually “touch” him. I couldn’t be bothered to take the camera. I only wanted to stand next to him and spend all the time I could in his presence. Funny thing, the big guy knew he was being adored. I’m sure that he was used to being shown to people from the time he was a foal. His whole life had been documented by famous photographers and award-winning authors. He was totally happy being fussed over by his public. He was the consummate gentleman. From the moment I first met him, I knew I had to take every opportunity afforded me to visit.

Secretariat and Me (Yes, he was THAT easy to love)

Secretariat and Me
(Yes, he was THAT easy to love)

It was quite shortly after that visit that we entered the thoroughbred business. Jim and I made many trips to Lexington to evaluate potential mates for our mare, Permanent Cut. Each time, we would visit Claiborne to both see the stallions we might possibly purchase seasons to and to visit Red. We never failed to bring the requisite “starlight” mints. Each time we approached his stall door, I’d start to un-wrap a mint (I must mention that we always got permission first). Red sure knew that sound. He’d nicker and have his head out of the door before we could get there. After giving him the mint, he’d stand like a child’s pony to be rubbed and fussed over.

Secretariat Reaching for a Starlight Mint

Secretariat Looking for a Starlight Mint

The last time this scenario played out was when we were visiting just prior to the 1989 Kentucky Derby. We visited again in August, but were told that Red wasn’t feeling well and might not come to the door. We were also told that we shouldn’t offer him a mint. We walked to the stall door and looked in. Secretariat was standing in the back of his stall facing away. I called to him and he turned his head, but didn’t walk over. I could tell, then, that he wasn’t feeling well, but had no idea how badly he was doing.

Secretariat & Me (The Pretty One's in Front)

Secretariat & Me
(The Pretty One’s in Front)

On October 4, 1989, I was driving home from work in Atlanta. The radio started to report the death of Secretariat. I had to pull into the nearest parking lot. I sat there, at first in shock, then crying my eyes out and sobbing. It took quite a long time until I could compose myself long enough to drive home. Once home, I told Jim that I’d heard that Red was gone. It was on all the evening news stations. Even 16 years after his Triple Crown triumph, Secretariat was news. He was a legend in his own time.

Many terrific horses have come and gone since Secretariat. Some have caught the imagination of many; however, none have inspired such a multitude as Secretariat has. To this day, with the recent Disney movie, Red is captivating a whole new legion of fans – many whose parents weren’t even alive when Secretariat blazed into history. I’m just so very grateful that I was able to see this spectacular being, not only break all the records with his racing, but to get to know the horse, himself.

I doubt that there will ever be another.


Up Next: Funny Horse Stories


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2 thoughts on “Secretariat and Me

  1. I too have loved racehorses since a young girl and followed racing closely.I love ManOWar and all the past greats.I cried when Secretariat won the Belmont.It was the sheer immense emotion, seeing greatness and the beauty of it.I also cried for the brave horses far back who gamely ran on so far behinde.I hoped they had no broken hearts. My main point is I love thoroughbreds great or not but the one I loved above all others is Ruffian. Bigger in girth and taller than stature than even Secretariat.Won every race and broke stakes or track records in all 10 races but one.She was never headed in any race,In the front at every point of call.Ruffian could not and would not abide another horse to pass her.Andrew beyer stated her figs equalled Secretariats and felt she might be better than Secretariat.The reason is because she was restrained in every race until the last 1/8th where she quickly pulled lengths away in a few effortless stride with her last fractions much faster than her first two ..She was never hit with a whip as she ran for sheer joy.In the CC Oakes the last leg of the filly triple crown her jockey had her under strong restraint throught the race.Her trainer instructed the jockey J.Vasquez to conserve her strength that was two weeks away.He stated his arms and shoulders ached the next day for his efforts.Yet despite this she equaled the stakes record and beat Avatars Belmont time by 2/5ths of a second.Avatar & Foolish Pleasure battled it out to the wire going all out ! Both races at that time were 1 1/2 mile.Ruffian had so much run left that you see her give a couple of bucks or kicks shortly after crossing the finish line.It was for sheer joy of running and it was noted she had not even broke a sweat.Her ten races combined averaged a aprox. 9 length winning margin.Secretariats trainer watched her win the Spinaway in trackrecord time beating prior greats at Saratoga including ManOWar, Secretariat Citation and many other greats times.Lucien Lauren stated”As God is my judge, she is even better than Secretariat was at 2years” William Nack guotes him saying this is well as my original News clippings from that time It was changed in the Secretariat movie aswell as Iin at least 3 books and a movie as being “As God is my witness she may be even better than Secretariat” That is WRONG! Andrew Beyer said “she may be even better” Lucien said “she was better”.Wm Nack whined when ManOWar was voted #1 over Secretariat as the all time Bloodhorse.Two other separate votes by Industry professionals who also rated ManOWar #1. William Nack also stated in Ruffian a racetrack romance that he resented Ruffian when he first heard of her.To come so soon after his idol Secretariats retirement.She walked in the year he walked out.He stated it was a unreasonable and unwanted jeoulousy that did not entirely leave until she was buried at the Belmont racetrack.He did not want her to ruin Secretariats legacy by her freakish speed and beauty.Manuel Gilman Belmonts Veteranarian said she had such perfect conformation that you did not realize how huge she was until you stood next to her.He stated she was perfect and the soundest horse he ever saw as well as the fastest filly in this century.Walter Farley the author of the famous Black Stallion stated she was the only horse he ever saw that matched or did justice to the beauty of “The Black” Many said she took your breath away with her beauty.Her jockey said to look at her was like looking at Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch, she took your breath away.! Always when describing Ruffian it came down to “she took your breath away! …both to look at her beauty and when you witnessed her run. Had Ruffian not injured her foot in the start gate of the match we may have witnessed the continuation of Perfection.It is thought she could have proved to be the greatest horse ever to set foot on a racetrack had she lived.

    • Thank you for your comments. I, too, loved Ruffian. She was so beautiful and amazing. She DID “take your breath away.” I was watching the “match” race. When she went down, I completely lost control. I was screaming and running. I was so terribly distraught. I knew in my heart that there would be no saving her. Such perfection may be a fleeting thing. I still can’t read much about her without the tears coming. Barbaro was another who was lost to us all much to early. I remember him breaking through the gate at Pimlico and hollering “SCRATCH HIM! SCRATCH HIM!” I knew with great certainty that tragedy was waiting. I wish I’d been wrong.

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