He pranced onto the track, copper coat gleaming in the sun that cold November day. At the sight of him, 33,000 fans burst into thunderous applause and cheers. He was keyed up, ready to race and no doubt wondering where the other horses were.
But on November 6, 1973, there were no other horses, no starting gate, no finish line. It was “Farewell to Secretariat Day” at Aqueduct racetrack in New York. It was Big Red’s “last hurrah” before he and stablemate Riva Ridge would fly to Claiborne Farm near Lexington, Kentucky on November 11 to begin their new careers at stud.
Secretariat had to be content with Ron Turcotte jogging him up to the quarter pole and back in front of his adoring public thronging the stands. He wasn’t content. In fact, Lucien Laurin was quoted as saying that Secretariat was so mad he didn’t get to race, he ate the flowers in Penny’s bouquet when posing in the winner’s circle for the final time.
After his hero’s farewell at Aqueduct, Secretariat received a hero’s welcome in Lexington, Kentucky. Over 300 fans gathered at the Blue Grass Airport to cheer the two Meadow Stable champions as their private plane touched down. One person remarked that more people turned out to see Secretariat than they did to see their governor.
Fans waved signs that said, “Welcome Home, Secretariat!” Penny recalled thinking, “He was not born in Kentucky. Virginia was his home.” She, Lucien Laurin, Elizabeth Ham and Eddie Sweat, had accompanied their beloved horses to Claiborne, capping off a journey that would have a lasting impact on their lives as well as the world of Thoroughbred racing.
The Claiborne team quickly loaded Secretariat and Riva into the horse van and, under police escort, headed for the farm. It was not only a physical transition, but an emotional one as well, for the horses and humans. Secretariat did not seem to appreciate being handed over to Claiborne stud manager, Lawrence Robinson, as his long-time groom Eddie Sweat stood on the sidelines. Snorting and pulling away, he showed his displeasure by kicking his new handler on the way to the stallion barn.
The former stall of his great sire, Bold Ruler, was freshly bedded with straw and awaiting Secretariat. In the last act as his groom, Eddie helped take off Secretariat’s leg wraps. Riva was settled into the adjoining stall. Penny and Lucien came in to say their final goodbyes. Penny remarked that leaving her two horses was like giving up a child for adoption. Eddie was in his own world of private grief at leaving his beloved “Red.”
Penny knew that Secretariat, “America’s Super Horse,” had already transcended being her horse and had become the people’s horse. He would become the star attraction at the renowned farm, bringing in 10,000 people a year.
That may have surprised the short-sighted farm worker at Claiborne who reportedly said of Secretariat on that long-ago day of transition, “He’s just another horse,” until he proves himself at stud.
He did that too. Here we are, 38 years later, and Secretariat’s “little children” as Eddie Sweat called them, are still carrying his flame into the winner’s circle. Our next post will look at how many of his descendants ran in the Breeders’ Cup races this year.
On the track, in the breeding shed and in the hearts of his legions of fans, Secretariat has indeed “gone the distance.” On this date, November 11, we salute his lasting legacy!
A photo of Secretariat’s stall at Claiborne, 2010. Though others have occupied his stall, none have ever filled his shoes.
Leeanne Meadows Ladin
co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend”