As we continue our “virtual tram tour” of the historic grounds of The Meadow, Secretariat’s birthplace, we’re moving from the Cove to the Stallion Barns. These are the original barns built by Chris Chenery, founder of Meadow Stable.
There is the L-shaped Stallion Barn, where Chenery’s office was located, and the West Stallion Barn. Perhaps symbolically, the Stallion Barns overlook the tranquil Cove, where the mares and their foals grazed. Chenery could gaze out at his “empire built on broodmares” and the stallions could also see the fruit of their labors.
Painted white with blue trim, the barns stand as sturdy examples of 1930s agricultural architecture. The SFVA, which owns The Meadow, has carefully restored and preserved these structures.
If those walls could talk! Fortunately, the former grooms of Meadow Stable have talked with us a great deal and shared their experiences in taking care of some of the most famous Thoroughbreds of all time. One of those grooms is Howard Gregory. He was “the stud man” in charge of the stallions.
He had been working at the Meadow training track across Rt. 30 for several years when farm manager Howard Gentry offered him the stallion job. “He told me I had a good hand on a horse and no fear, ” Howard Gregory said.
He would need to rely heavily on those qualities. Gregory assumed the responsibility for six stallions, each of which had his own paddock. Breeding time was around 2:00 pm each day in the breeding shed. Often there were four or five mares waiting for the attention of a stallion.
We won’t go into detail about the breeding shed, except to say that little romance is involved when two expensive and valuable horses are mated. No artifical insemination is allowed for Thoroughbreds. Breeding can be a dangerous process for horses and handlers, as Gregory discovered.
“I had three horses die in there,” he said. One was Third Brother, a full brother to Hill Prince, Chenery’s first major champion and Horse of the Year in 1950. “He just dropped dead after breeding the mare,” Gregory said of Third Brother.
Another stallion fell over dead in the breeding shed, nearly crushing Howard Gregory and Howard Gentry against the wall. A rank stallion named Tillman was so ill-tempered that he would charge at any groom who dared enter his paddock. Only the stud man, Howard Gregory, could handle him.
“I did not know what I was getting into!” he said in reflecting on his job. However, not all of his charges were difficult. He was especially fond of First Landing, The Meadow’s second big champion. First Landing was a favorite for the Kentucky Derby in 1959 and had a distinguished career as a four-year-old handicap horse. in 1961, he became the first homebred stallion to stand at The Meadow.
Virginians had roundly criticized Chenery for not standing his Horse of the Year Hill Prince at The Meadow. Rather the stallion had been sent to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, just as Secretariat would be two decades later. Chenery explained that since many Kentucky mares would be visiting Hill Prince, he as a Virginia Gentleman must see that their convenience came first.
By the time First Landing was ready to take up his new duties in the breeding shed, Chenery had more confidence in his farm’s reputation to stand him at The Meadow. To accommodate the bevy of mares seeking his affection, a new barn was built. The grooms instantly dubbed it “First Landing’s Motel.”
Howard Gregory praised his favorite stallion’s disposition. “He was very, very mannerable, ” he said. “When I would take him around to breed, you’d never hear him squeal or make a whimper or nothing.”
Though he did not win the Kentucky Derby in 1959, First Landing more than redeemed himself. He sired The Meadow’s first Derby winner. Not Secretariat. A bay colt named Riva Ridge, whose victories in 1972 would save The Meadow from the auction block.
These are just a few of the stories about the Stallions Barns. If you come to one of our public tours, you may be lucky enough to find Howard Gregory and some of the other Meadow grooms at the barns, talking with visitors.
And you can talk with these men “who had a good hand on a horse” and a hand in the success of some of racing’s greatest champions.
First Landing with Howard Gregory
The “Secretariat’s Meadow Tours” are sponsored by the SFVA. Private group tours are available for groups of 30 or more at $10 per person. Tours are also offered to the general public on certain dates. The next public tours are on July 23 and September 10, 2011. For more information about the tours, see www.secretariatsmeadow.com Tours are narrated by Leeanne Meadows Ladin, co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend.” Proceeds from the tours benefit the future Museum of the Virginia Horse to be built at The Meadow.
Leeanne Meadows Ladin