Saratoga CTC portraitWe’re interrupting our “Ancestors of Secretariat” series to take a moment to remember the visionary founder of Meadow Stable, Christopher T. Chenery.  He died 40 years ago on January 3, 1973 at the age of 86.  The man who created “an empire built on broodmares” in Caroline County, Virginia, never lived to see his greatest horse win racing’s greatest prize – the Triple Crown – on June 9, 1973. And now, as we prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic victory, it seems fitting to pay homage to the man who set it all in motion. 

Chris Chenery evinced a passion for horses starting in early childhood. Perhaps it began in 1888 when his father Jimmy Chenery lifted him aboard a horse as a toddler at The Meadow, the family’s ancestral homeplace owned by their cousin, Mary Ann Morris. Chris spent many happy summers there, riding over the fields and by the brambly riverbanks on a borrowed horse. 

Later, he would walk seven miles from his house in Ashland to exercise the Thoroughbreds owned by his cousin Bernard Doswell at his farm at Bullfield, once a legendary racing stable. There, young Chris soaked up the lore of Bullfield’s glory days and admired the gleaming trophies won at tracks from New York to New Orleans.  It inflamed his imagination and quite likely set the stage for what was to come.  

The horse-crazy boy grew up to become an accomplished horseman, teaching equitation for the U.S. Army during World War I.  Rising from humble roots, he became a self-made millionaire in the utilities industry.  Finally achieving financial security for his family, he could indulge his passion for horses further.  Robust and vigorous, he played polo, foxhunted and even started his own riding club, Boulder Brook, in Westchester, New York. 

 But Chenery longed for more.  In 1936, he made a decision that would forever change his life, his family’s life and the sport of horse racing.  In the middle of the Great Depression, he went back to Virginia and bought back The Meadow, which had been sold out of the family in 1912.  As a man accustomed to shaping his own destiny, Chenery was determined to restore and reshape the dilapidated property into his vision of a first-class Thoroughbred horse farm and racing stable. 

Once he rebuilt the farm, he set about building up his foundation stock.  Known to have “an eye for a mare,” Chenery purchased well-bred but affordable broodmares. Several of them, such as Hildene, Iberia, Imperatrice and her daughter,  Somethingroyal, became some of the most influential broodmares of the 20th century.

By 1950, Chris Chenery and his upstart Meadow Stable produced Horse of the Year, Hill Prince.   Hill Prince  won the Preakness and several other notable races that year, but ran second in the Kentucky Derby.  For the man who seemed to possess the golden touch in all his pursuits,  Chenery would find winning the golden trophy of the Kentucky Derby his most elusive goal.  

He sent two more Derby favorites to the post: First Landing in 1959 and Sir Gaylord in 1962.   First Landing finished third and Sir Gaylord broke down before the race.  Cicada, the favorite for the fillies’ race, the Kentucky Oaks, in 1962, could have run in the Derby after Sir Gaylord was injured.  However, Chenery kept her in the Oaks, which she won handily.  

Not until 1972 did Chris Chenery’s dream of breeding a Kentucky Derby winner finally come true.  Riva Ridge, by First Landing, avenged his sire’s defeat and brought home the roses for Meadow Stable. But by this time, Chenery was not in his customary box seats at Churchill Downs. He lay mute and immobile, confined to a hospital bed in New Rochelle,   felled like a giant timber by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and what was then called hardening of the arteries.  When the nurse pointed out his daughter Penny in the winner’s circle with Riva, a tear rolled down his withered cheek. 

Penny had taken over management of Meadow Stable when her father fell ill in the late 1960s. Over the protests of her family, she vowed to keep racing the horses and to keep her father’s dream alive.  “At least he knew,” she has said about Riva winning the Derby.

 Of course, the next year in 1973, Secretariat, who was born and raised at The Meadow,  took  Chenery’s dream to heights no one imagined. Secretariat, the first Triple Crown winner since 1948, broke the track records for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the only champion to ever do so.  Together he and Riva Ridge won five of six consecutive Triple Crown races in 1972 and 1973, something no other stable had done. 

The bloodlines that Chris Chenery established for Meadow Stable produced 43 stakes winners.  Most outstanding were:

Hill Prince:  1949 Champion two-year-old colt; winner of 1950 Preakness; 1950 Champion three- year-old colt; 1950 Horse of the Year; 1951 Champion handicap male; elected to Racing Hall of Fame

First Landing:  1958 Champion two-year-old colt

Cicada:  1961 Champion two-year-old filly; 1962 Champion three-year-old filly; 1963 Champion handicap female; elected to Racing Hall of Fame (additionally she ranked as the top money-winning female for nine years)

Riva Ridge: 1971 Champion two-year-old colt; winner of 1972 Derby and Belmont; 1973 Champion handicap male; elected to Racing Hall of Fame

Secretariat:  1972 Champion two-year-old colt; 1972 Horse of the Year; winner of 1973 Triple Crown; 1973 Champion three-year-old colt; 1973 Champion turf male; 1973 Horse of the Year; elected to Racing Hall of Fame

Additionally, the great mares Hildene, dam of Hill Prince; Iberia,dam of Riva Ridge; and Somethingroyal, dam of Sir Gaylord and Secretariat, were named Broodmares of the Year. Sir Gaylord, after his pre-Derby injury, distinguished himself as a sire of international importance through his best son, Sir Ivor.

Today, Chris Chenery’s legacy lives on.  Many of racing’s brightest stars in the 21st century can trace their bloodlines back to Secretariat, who became a great broodmare sire.  His daughters such as Weekend Surprise, Terlingua and Secrettame  produced such outstanding sires as A.P. Indy, Storm Cat and Gone West.  The progeny of those stallions  – think Smarty Jones, Bernardini, the late Pulpit and his son, Tapit, for example – have further distinguished themselves in the sport.

And so we celebrate Chris Chenery, the  “Virginia gentleman” as sportswriters called him, whose dream turned into an American legend!

NOTE:  Look for our upcoming post on Penny Chenery, who celebrates her 91st birthday later this month and has kept the legacy of her father and Secretariat alive for over 40 years.

 by Leeanne Ladin

co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow –  The Land, The Family, The Legend”  and “Riva Ridge – Penny’s First Champion”

  In our book “Secretariat’s Meadow,” Chris Chenery’s granddaughter, Kate Chenery Tweedy, chronicles how her grandfather’s driving ambition lifted him from humble beginnings to the heights of corporate America and into the top tiers of Thoroughbred racing. You can order the book at

Before there was Big Red…there was “the Great Red Fox”


A century before Meadow Stable, home of Hall of Famers Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Hill Prince and Cicada, put Doswell, Virginia on the racing map, Bullfield Stable in nearby Hanover County dominated the American racing scene.  Its most famous son was a long-striding chestnut stallion named Planet, also called “the great red fox.” He was considered, after Lexington, the greatest racehorse up to the time of the Civil War.

On August 10, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga will induct Planet into the Hall of Fame in the historical category.  Not only did this great champion and Bullfield Stable symbolize an era known as “the golden age of Virginia horse racing,” but they were an early influence on a horse-crazy boy named Christopher T. Chenery and the future Meadow Stable.

 Founded in 1824, Bullfield became known as “the Red Stable” because so many of its winners were sorrels and its jockeys wore flashy orange silks.  Operated by Major Thomas  Walker Doswell and his father, Bullfield gained renown as one of the most successful Thoroughbred farms of the East Coast.  In fact, the locality of Doswell was named in their honor.

 Planet was born in 1855, sired by Revenue, the leading sire in 1850. His dam was the great racer and broodmare Nina, said to be the best racing daughter of the top sire Boston. A prolific broodmare, she gave Bullfield Stable 15 outstanding foals, including Exchequer and Ecliptic, a son of the great Eclipse. Planet was said to be Nina’s best. She was one of the reasons that writers of the period referred to Bullfield as “a nursery of Virginia racehorses.”

 Planet was a handsome horse, described by John Hervey in his book “Racing in America – 1665-1865” as follows:  “In color a rich chestnut, 15.2 ½ hands tall, he was remarkable for his symmetry of mould and the excellence of his limbs…” 

 Those limbs exhibited whirlwind speed against the top horses of the day such as Daniel Boone, Congaree, Hennie Farrow, Socks and Arthur Macon.   Planet won 27 of 31 races and became the top money winner with nearly $70,000 in purses, a record that stood for 20 years.  

He possessed enormous stamina as well. Those were the days when horses raced in heats ranging from one to four miles, sometimes running as much as 12 miles in one afternoon. Such races would be unthinkable today, as would the practice of racing the horse again after only a three-day layoff, as Planet’s schedule occasionally dictated.

 However, the versatile Planet could win at any distance, long or short, posting some of his best performances at four mile heats. He carried Bullfield’s orange silks on familiar Virginia tracks at Ashland, Petersburg and Broad Rock and further afield on the Southern circuit from New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston and even north to New York.  

 Planet also displayed another form of versatility.  He was an accomplished trotter who could do a mile in three minutes. According to John Hervey, this talent landed him in trouble at the New York track in 1860 where he was being worked at a flying trot before a meet. A race official ordered Planet and his rider off the track, declaring that trotters were not allowed. Other horsemen jumped to Planet’s defense, finally convincing the official to rescind his order against the champion Thoroughbred.

 The Civil War and its aftermath curtailed racing in the South and interrupted what would have been Planet’s best years at stud (1861-1868). During that time, many of the Bullfield horses were hidden in the woods to protect them from marauding horse thieves. Nevertheless, an advertisement of the era proclaimed that “Planet – Virginia’s Unrivalled Race Horse will make his season of 1866 at Bullfield… commencing March 1st and ending July 15th, at $50 the season, with $2 to the groom.”  

 Despite the handicap of war, Planet managed to sire impressive offspring who made turf history of their own.  His blood figures in the pedigrees of Kingman, winner of the 1891 Kentucky Derby; Bowling Brook, winner of the 1895 Belmont Stakes; the great filly Regret who won the Kentucky Derby in 1915; Exterminator, winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby; and (on the female side) Fleet Nasrullah, successful son of the legendary Nasrullah, the grandsire of Secretariat.

 Planet passed his trotting blood, which flowed from his sire Revenue, to his daughter Dame Winnie. She was bred to Electioneer, the great Standardbred, and produced the champion trotting stallion of his day, Palo Alto. 

 In the custom of the day, Planet’s portrait was painted by the famous equine artist Edward Troye, who at Major Doswell’s insistence, included Planet’s black jockey Jesse in the saddle.  During a raid on Bullfield, the portrait was cut from its frame by Yankee soldiers. It was later found in a ditch and returned to the Doswells by someone who recognized the orange silks worn by Jesse.  

Major Doswell sold Planet to Mr. Alexander of Woodburn Farm in Kentucky, where he lived until his death in 1875 at the age of 20.

Planet and Bullfield influenced not only Thoroughbred history but also the history of  Meadow Stable in neighboring Caroline County.  After Major Doswell died in 1890, his son Bernard inherited a portion of the farm called Hilldene and ran his own small stable there. Bernard’s younger cousin by marriage, Christopher T. Chenery, would walk seven miles from Ashland to Bernard’s farm and exercise his few remaining horses on the old Bullfield track.  Here, Bernard regaled Chris with tales of Bullfield’s glory days, introducing him to a  heady world of gleaming trophies and fine-blooded Thoroughbreds, a world far removed from  the boy’s humble circumstances in Ashland.  Perhaps it is no small coincidence that when Chenery purchased The Meadow in 1936 and began building his foundation bloodlines, he named one of his most prolific mares Hildene.

 And, as everyone knows, The Meadow also produced a great red stallion, one who became Virginia’s and the nation’s “unrivalled racehorse.”  Secretariat, “Big Red,” together with Planet, “the Great Red Fox” of Bullfield  stand as pillars of equine perfection and performance, reminding the world that some of the most magnificent horses of the American turf sprang from Virginia soil.

We will have the honor of attending the Hall of Fame ceremony in Saratoga next Friday with Sarah Wright, the 93-year-old granddaughter of Bernard Doswell and her daughter Cecelia.  Sarah’s meticulous documentation of her family history in her book “The Doswell Dynasty” helped the Secretariat’s Meadow book team offer the nomination of Planet for the Hall of Fame.  You can read more about  Planet, the Doswells and Bullfield in “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend.”    

by Leeanne Meadows Ladin

co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – the Land, the Family, The Legend”

Viva Riva! Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Riva Ridge’s Derby Victory

                                                                                 In 1969, a muddy-bay colt with floppy ears would be saved from the floodwaters of Hurricane Camille at his Virginia farm. Later, he would rescue the same farm as it was sinking into debt and preserve it as the launching pad of its greatest champion.  Though he would be swept aside in the wake of the national adulation for his charismatic stablemate, he never gave up.  Riva Ridge, the forgotten champion of Meadow Stable, most assuredly earned his place in racing history and in the hearts of his fans.

This is an excerpt from our upcoming book “Riva Ridge – Penny’s First Champion” (by Kate Chenery Tweedy and Leeanne Meadows Ladin) due out in September.  This coming Saturday, May 5, 2012 marks not only the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, but the 40th anniversary of Riva’s Derby victory of 1972.  

 And Riva is getting some long-overdue recognition!   We are delighted that the Kentucky Derby Museum is hosting a party in Riva’s honor on Sunday, May 6.  (see

To fully appreciate the signifciance of Riva’s victory in the 98th “Run for the Roses,”  here is another excerpt from our book. 

(from Chapter 4 – The Thirty Year Road to the Derby)

“I knew he was the best horse in the race, he was feeling good and had worked good over the track which was very fast. Everything was to his liking and I could smell the roses,” said Ron Turcotte.

The “Golden Boy” of Meadow Stable did not disappoint. Riva broke well out of the gate, grabbing the lead right away.  Bumped in the initial rush, he quickly recovered with no trace of his old timidity.  Galloping easily, he held off a challenge by Hold Your Peace as the two drew away from the field.

 Bill Nack, author of “Secretariat – The Making of a Champion,” described Riva’s Derby run.  “Riva toyed with Hold Your Peace like a cat with a mouse.  His attitude was ‘come and get me.’ I thought that day that Riva looked like a Triple Crown winner.”

No Le Hace also tried to make a run at Riva, but the bay colt sailed across the finish line under a hand ride by Ron. Winning by three lengths, Riva became only the thirteenth horse to win the Kentucky Derby wire to wire.  He posted a time of 2:01 4/5, the seventh fastest on record.

Mom (Penny Chenery is Kate Tweedy’s mother) could not contain her elation. She was sitting with Bull Hancock’s family and literally beating on Clay Hancock as she shouted “We’re winning! We’re winning!”

The Kentucky sun shone brightly on Virginia’s Meadow Stable that day as Granddaddy’s Derby jinx finally lifted. The stars had indeed lined up in our favor.  Lucien had trained Riva to peak at the perfect time.  Ron had kept Riva off the rail where the deep soil of the “cuppy” track could have tired him. This allowed the colt to sprint to the front where the field of fifteen couldn’t block him. The chancy, last-minute tactic of widening the blinker slits had helped Riva keep his challengers in sight.

The saying goes that the Kentucky Derby is the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”  Riva’s  two-minute run symbolized the culmination of a dream that kindled in an old horseman’s heart more than thirty years prior to May 6, 1972.  My grandfather Chris Chenery had defied all the skeptics when he founded Meadow Stable on the dilapidated land of his ancestral homeplace in Caroline County, Virginia in 1936. Breeding for both speed and stamina, he had sent three strong Derby contenders to the post (including Riva’s sire First Landing)  as well as many notable stakes winners. Now my mother too had defied all the skeptics and fulfilled her father’s lifelong ambition.  Her unshakable determination and perseverance, along with a solid belief in the homely bay horse who could run like a deer, had brought her far from those first tentative days of running a racing stable.

                                                         (end of excerpt)

Kate and I will be at Churchill Downs with Penny this Saturday watching the latest crop of Derby hopefuls vie for their place in racing history.  And we will be remembering Penny’s  first champion,  Riva Ridge, his speed, his spirit and his all too brief moment in the spotlight.

Here’s a link to Riva’s Derby on YouTube.

by Leeanne Meadows Ladin

Co-author “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend”

Happy Birthday Big Red!

March 30, 1970….a legend was born on a storied piece of land called The Meadow in Caroline County, Virginia. His fame would extend far beyond its pastures and paddocks.  Decades later, his legacy and the loyalty of his legions of fans remains undiminished by the passage of time.

Writers and commentators exhausted their adjectives in trying to describe Secretariat’s astounding career.  But here is a sampling of quotes from an ESPN documentary that captures that essence:

Secretariat came to us as a shining example of aristocracy, big, handsome and full of charge. He walked with style, stood tall, and displayed the best manners. On paper he wasn’t perfect, losing 5 of his 21 races as if to say, I’m only human. To the eye, he was perfection itself. And when he performed, he took your breath away. Yet some may ask, how could he have been voted among the 20th century’s 50 greatest athletes? The answer:  because he was Secretariat, more than just a horse.”  Chris Fowler, ESPN narrator

“In another quarter of a mile, he might have taken to the air and flown, which was obviously what was in his blood. ”   Heywood Hale Broun, CBS commentator, on Secretariat’s Derby.

He went into another level of consciousness in the public eye. There were actually kids standing on the rail as he came by. He had now captured the public, not just the racing crowd.”   Ed Bowen, The Blood-Horse

I believed in Pegasus that day, because I saw. I mean I never saw anything like that in my life. 31 lengths? That’s unbelievable. It was like they were racing on two different tracks.”  Jerry Izenberg, the Star-Ledger

And as the horses came out of the final turn, you could see Secretariat alone in front, and steam was blowing out of both nostrils with each exhale like a locomotive. It was an incredible sight. And that was the final competitive moment of a career that probably could have known no limits had he kept racing.”  Jay Hovdey, Daily Racing Form, on Secretariat’s last race at Woodbine

We waited a long time for him. We waited since Man O’War. I don’t expect in my lifetime to see another one like him. We might see another Affirmed or another Native Dancer or something. But he was perfect.”  Bill Nack, author of “Secretariat – The Making of a Champion. 

And here is a sampling, 42 years after he was born, of what Secretariat still means to his fans  (from our Facebook page) :

“I screamed and shouted in my living room, watching on black-and-white TV, then ran outside to tell someone, anyone – but nobody was home but me! I found a soft rock and wrote on the front walk, “Secretariat wins Belmont by 25 lengths – Triple Crown!” so everyone would see it when they came home! (I was 10, what do you want??) Oddly, not everyone was as excited as I was! For that entire summer, my pony’s name was not Thunder, but Secretariat (or “Big Red”), and I relived that thrill every single day! Now I remember it like it was yesterday, and I get goose bumps when I see footage. At that point in the Secretariat movie, I was sobbing in the theater, even though I knew the outcome.”  Rose Beebe

My favorite memory was seeing him in Kentucky after he retired to stud. He was not available to the public yet but we knew the farm manager and went to see him. He strolled around the field and went to his waterer for a big drink. Then he lifted his head and turned toward us for a “photo op”. What a magnificent horse!”  Anne Tucker

“Secretariat won my heart forever with his triple crown races especially after his amazing Belmont. I was 16 and took my huge wall poster of Secretariat in the Derby with me to Va Tech. I had that picture with me for 4 years where I could see it every day in my dorm room. Whenever I had difficulties or a bad day I always had Big Red to cheer me on. He really did help me realize I could get through anything. Now I have a Secretariat wall in my home.”  Susanne Di Carlo

 “I was chasing after a 2 year old in 1973 and did not know much about thoroughbred horse racing. But, I vividly remember flashes on the colored TV of a beautiful blonde lady in a white dress standing next to a gorgeous chestnut horse with a white star on his forehead. That glorious picture made me stop in my tracks. Secretariat and Mrs. Penny Chenery came to mean so much to America. They represented the best America has to offer. And, they still do.” Vera Conwicke

And that says it all.  Happy Birthday, Secretariat!  The Big Red flame burns brighter than ever.

Leeanne Meadows Ladin

co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land,  The Family, The Legend

copyright 2012


Rainaway, The Mascot of The Meadow

March may come in like a lion but it’s going to go out like a Thoroughbred!

In honor of Big Red’s birthday (March 30) and the  celebration at The Meadow (March 27)  we will be posting stories about his birthplace and his descendants all month.

We’ll start with a descendant who actually lives at The Meadow…a great-grandson named Rainaway.

The chestnut gelding, born in 1994, was sired by Summer Squall, winner of the 1990 Preakness. Summer Squall’s dam was the very successful broodmare Weekend Surprise, a daughter of Secretariat.  Rainaway earned over $90,000 during his racing career before retiring at the age of six in 2000.

Somehow he ended up on a farm in Blountville, Tennessee on the verge of starvation with several other hapless horses.  In 2007, the farm’s owner was arrested for animal cruelty and the rescue organization, Horse Haven of Tennessee, mercifully took over the care of Rainaway and his stablemates.

HHT nursed  the emaciated horse back to health. He gained weight  and his dull coat regained its bright chestnut shine.  That he could recover from such unconscionable neglect speaks to the stamina inherent in his famous genes, as well to  the excellent care he received from his rescuers.

HHT found him a new home as the “mascot” of The Meadow, the birthplace of his great-grandsire in Doswell, Virginia. In September 2008, Rainaway made his first appearance at the State Fair of Virginia, which owns The Meadow.  He lived at a nearby farm while the State Fair completed its move from the old fairgrounds in Richmond to the rolling green fields of Caroline County. By 2009, Rainaway was settled in at The Meadow,  free to gallop in his spacious paddock and play with his beloved companion goats.

Today he continues to greet visitors at the annual State Fair and events such as the Equine Extravaganza and now Secretariat’s birthday party.  Rainaway will also be available to make an appearance during  the customized group tours now offered at The Meadow. 

From his paddock,   Rainaway has a panoramic view of The Meadow and the historic land where a bold young chestnut stallion once galloped.   Surely Rainaway can see that he’s home.

Our next post will be about Secretariat’s grandson Covert Action, who lives in nearby Goochland County.  Both he and Rainaway will be at the birthday party  on March 27.

Leeanne Meadows Ladin

copyright 2011

A Good Hand on a Horse…the Grooms of Meadow Stable


In honor of February as Black History Month, we’d like to share some stories about the African-American grooms of The Meadow in Doswell, Virginia, birthplace of Secretariat.  Though they were never well known like Secretariat’s racetrack groom Eddie Sweat and exercise rider Charlie Davis,  the grooms in Doswell were the first to take care of Big Red and the other champions of Chris Chenery’s Meadow Stable.  

Though some of the men had passed away before Kate Tweedy and I started working on “Secretariat’s Meadow” in 2007, we were able to interview several of the grooms over time and even do a videotaped oral history.  They shared stories that had never been told and we are greatly indebted to them for so vividly enriching our book.

Here is the excerpt of their chapter from”Secretariat’s Meadow:”

” A Good Hand on a Horse…the Grooms of Meadow Stable.”  

They grew up working with their hands in the rural Caroline County of the post-Depression years.  Local jobs were scarce and mostly limited to cutting pulpwood for the local sawmill, working on the railroad, in a mechanic shop or as a farm laborer. But the calloused black hands of the men who became the grooms of Meadow Stable would touch some of the greatest Thoroughbreds in racing …and leave their own indelible imprint on the history of The Meadow.

Their names did not appear in the headlines or record books, but Lewis Tillman, Sr. and Lewis Tillman, Jr., Bannie Mines, Alvin Mines, Charlie Ross, Wesley Tillman, Garfield Tillman, Raymond “Peter Blue” Goodall, Howard Gregory and others from the closeknit web of local families most assuredly contributed to the success of Meadow Stable. Personally selected for their jobs, these men would be entrusted with the daily care of the valuable broodmares and their foals, helping with the early training of skittish colts and fillies, the transportation of finely-tuned racehorses and the handling of powerful stallions in the breeding shed.

Wesley Tillman came to work at The Meadow as a youngster.  In 1946, at the age of twelve, he began helping in the hay fields with his grandfather Samuel Tillman during the summer.

“My grandfather said, ‘If you’re big enough to walk all the way down here to the farm, you’re big enough to work.’  So he gave me a pitchfork and I started throwing hay on the wagon. That was my first job,” Tillman said. He made two dollars a day.

 By age eighteen, he was helping his uncle Lewis Tillman,Sr., who was in charge of the broodmare barn. They would turn the horses out in the morning after feeding and get them back up in the evening.  In the meantime, they would clean out the stalls and put in fresh bedding. When the mares and foals came back up from the Cove in the evening, they would feed them and put them in their stalls for the night. Wesley also pulled night watch duty when mares were getting ready to foal.

 His next job was “up the hill” to the yearling barn. “That’s when I started breaking horses,” Tillman said.  “You had to be real gentle with any horse and take your time with them. If you groomed them right, they would even get to like you so you could get them to cooperate with you.”  

 The next stop for young horses was the training center located across Route 30 where they would begin to learn the fundamentals of racing. The grooms would saddle the horses up for the exercise riders for the day’s work on the Meadow track. Afterwards, the grooms would wash the horses, brush them down and put them on the hot walker (a mechanical walking machine) for awhile. Lastly, they would lead them back to the barn and turn them out into the fields until feeding time. In between their grooming duties, the men would cut grass, fix fences, paint barns or do other chores around the farm.

Tillman, along with other grooms, sometimes traveled with the horses when they were shipped out as two-year-olds to the training stables in Hialeah, New York or Delaware. As they would see, it was a different world outside the rolling green fields of The Meadow. 

“Everybody was treated equally at the farm,” Tillman said.  “I didn’t see any racism.  We were all like a big family.”   

But on the road, in those days of segregation, “coloreds” were not allowed in many restaurants or hotels.  “I had to stay back in the back with the horses from here to New York,” Tillman explained.  When the van stopped for lunch, the white driver, Bill Street,  would bring him his meal which he ate in the van as the racehorses munched their hay and occasionally sneezed on his food.  If the grooms did take a break from the van, they had to go the back door of the restaurant to get a sandwich or eat in the kitchen with the cooks. Mostly they shrugged it off as part of their job.  

At the racetrack, the Meadow grooms would stay with the horses for maybe three or four weeks.  “We had our bunks right on the end of the barn, so  if anything happened, like if the horses would get down in the stall or start kicking,  we’d be right there with them,” Tillman said.   After new grooms were hired and the horses were settled in, the Meadow grooms would return to Virginia to start working with the next crop of young hopefuls.

Alvin Mines first came to The Meadow at the age of eight or nine, tagging along with his grandfather Lewis Tillman, Sr., who was affectionately called “the Mayor of Duval Town.”  (their nearby community)   He remembers playing in the fields with the other grandchildren until feeding time when his grandfather would call the mares and foals up from their pasture in the Cove.

“Man, the horses used to come running up, maybe about fifteen of them with their colts and the foals,” Mines recalled. “I remember we’re grabbing round his leg because we thought the horses would run us over. He said, ‘Don’t worry, the horse is not going to bother you.’ And sure enough, they’d come up and they’d just circle around you and go on.”

Alvin began working at Barn 33, also known as “First Landing’s Motel” around 1974. (First Landing was the sire of Riva Ridge.) There with groom Clarence Fells he helped with the visiting mares who were to be serviced by the Meadow stallions. Often the mares had foals at their sides, who did not want to leave their mothers for even a few minutes.

“I had to hold the foals and then you were in a rassling match!” Mines said.

Next he worked at the broodmare barn with his uncle Lewis Tillman, Jr.  Later he went across the road to work at the racetrack/training center, with his brother-in-law Raymond Goodall. Goodall was the chief groom for Riva Ridge.

He taught the short and stocky Alvin how to handle the tall, high-headed Thoroughbreds who often did not want to have a halter or bridle put on them. It seemed that farm manager Howard Gentry liked to test the young groom by giving him the tallest horse in the barn to lead.  Mines recalled being jerked off the ground more than once.

The grooms who had a special way with horses were highly respected at the farm.  This was particularly true of Howard Gregory, who worked at The Meadow for nearly thirty-two years.  He was known as “the stud man.”

He began as a farm worker, making twenty-five dollars a week in the 1940s.  Like the other grooms, he had no prior experience with horses, other than some farm mules. He simply learned by doing, mostly under the watchful eye of Howard Gentry, who supervised all the breeding.

He had been working at the training track for several years when Gentry offered him the job taking care of the stallions, along with a raise. “He told me I had a good hand on a horse and no fear,” Gregory recalled. “I had five young children to take care of, so I took the job. I did not know what I was getting into!”

He took charge of six stallions, each of which had his own paddock. Breeding time was around 2:00 p.m. each day in the breeding shed. Some days there would be four or five mares to be serviced. 

 “I had three horses that died in there,” Gregory noted.  “One was Third Brother, a full brother to Hill Prince. He just dropped dead after breeding the mare.” Another time, a stallion fell over dead, nearly crushing Howard Gregory and Howard Gentry against the wall.

One stallion, named Tillman in honor of Lewis Tillman, did little to flatter his namesake. He was especially rank and ill-tempered. “That horse looked to kill you!” Gregory said, adding that the horse would charge at any groom who entered his paddock.  Gregory was the only one who could handle him. “I had many people come watch me,” he said of those who came to learn his techniques.

His favorite stallion was First Landing.  “He was very, very mannerable,” Gregory noted. “When I would take him around to breed, you’d never hear him squeal or make a whimper or nothing.”

Despite the inherent dangers of his job, Gregory said, “I would turn back the hands of time” to do it all over again.

Charlie Ross also came to the Meadow in the early years. He would earn the distinction of being the last Virginia groom to take care of Secretariat before the colt was shipped down to Lucien Laurin’s training stable in Hialeah in January 1972. Though track groom Eddie Sweat and exercise rider Charlie Davis were more closely affiliated with “Big Red” during his meteoric racing career, it was Charlie Ross, along with trainer Meredith “Mert” Bailes, who helped start Secretariat under saddle. 

Ross had been working at the farm for over twenty years when Secretariat was transferred over to the training center and became one of his charges. He held the colt while Bailes first “backed” him, laying himself over the colt’s back to get him accustomed to human weight. He was the groom who led Secretariat around with his first rider, Bailes, in the saddle. 

“Yeah, he sat up on the saddle in the stall and I turned him around in the stall, waiting until he got used to that. Then the next move we would take him out in the big round shed and we’d walk him around in there until he’d get used to that,” Ross recalled.  He added that Secretariat did not act up or buck like some of the other horses did in those circumstances.

Typically taciturn, Ross admits he was a part of history. Then a flash of pride breaks through and he says, “They called me The Man,” for his way with horses. He agreed that the early care a young horse receives can influence him for life.

Alvin Mines put it best.  He said, “I think the horses, once they got the feel of the grooms that were working with them, there was something that growed up in them, you know. They go to someone else’s hands when they leave here, but I think the horses always know who had the first hand on them.”

 Meadow groom Lewis Tillman holding a colt for his Jockey Club ID photo. Photo by Bob Hart. 

Note:  To see what the grooms said about Secretariat and Riva Ridge as colts, read Chapters 11 and 12 in “Secretariat’s Meadow.”

by Leeanne Meadows Ladin

copyright 2011

This excerpt may not be reprinted without permission.