Secretariat: Racing Into History
By Meg Mullery
In 1989, a painful and chronic hoof condition known as laminitis forced the heart-breaking decision to euthanize the legendary racehorse Secretariat at the age of 19. The vet who performed the routine autopsy made a stunning discovery. Secretariat’s heart was two-and-one-half times larger than the average heart.
Successful trainers look for commonalities to identify winning racehorses: superior breeding; competitive spirit, awareness of surroundings. But they also agree on another more illusive quality. Heart. A winning horse will put his heart into every single race.
Fifty years ago, Secretariat ran as a three-year-old and became the ninth winner of the American Triple Crown. He set and still holds fastest time records in all three races at Churchill Downs, Belmont Stakes and Preakness.
A big guy at 16.2 hands, his nearly perfect conformation astounded breeders and other experts in the equine industry. A custom-made girth was fashioned to fit around the large chest that encased his huge heart, which he put into every single race.
To mark the 50th Anniversary of Secretariat’s historic Triple Crown, the National Museum of Racing organized the Secretariat: Larger Than Life Traveling Tour of an impressive 21-foot bronze monument of the legend in full gallop with his jockey Ron Turcotte astride. Serving as the symbolic centerpiece of the tour, the mammoth sculpture was loaded on the back of a flatbed and trucked to each of the Triple Crown tracks and numerous other venues.
Last month, the acclaimed National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, played host to the statue and its sculptor, Jocelyn Russell, a wildlife and equine artist from the Pacific Northwest, and Katy Chenery Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat’s owner/breeder Penny Chenery.
Jocelyn presented a fascinating talk on her research to a large, rapt audience. The sculpture on tour is the second casting but with an important change. The first one, installed in Lexington, Kentucky, depicts Secretariat’s win at the Kentucky Derby when he left the gate at post position 1A. The current sculpture shows a number 2 on the saddle pad, Secretariat’s post position at the Belmont Stakes. It was one of the most incredible races in history with Secretariat winning by an astounding 31 lengths.
The artist spent months doing research before starting the project. She twice visited the jockey, Ron Turcotte, who now lives in Canada. She also visited Secretariat’s foaling shed and yearling barn at The Meadow stable in Doswell, Virginia, and his paddock, stall and burial site at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, his retirement home. She felt a powerful connection when visiting and lingering at the grave site. It spoke to her and provided inspiration.
Jocelyn insisted on accuracy, even consulting with the jockey so that every buckle on the horse’s equipment and every wrinkle on the jockey’s boots would be in their proper place. She measured and photographed the actual Triple Crown saddle and girth strap.
Kate Chenery Tweedy joined Jocelyn and recounted tales of her childhood as the daughter of Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. Penny was no stranger to the D.C. area, graduating from The Madeira School in McLean in 1939 where she was the captain of the equestrian team.
As a little girl, Kate watched Secretariat mature. He was a lively and precocious foal and very full of himself. A beautiful chestnut color, Secretariat earned a second name and was affectionately known as “Big Red”.
Kate remembers her mother recounting that Secretariat’s mother, Somethingroyal, was queen of the herd with a commanding presence. Penny believed Somethingroyal passed that ‘Hey look, I’m something special’ mantle on to her son.
Penny herself was something special. An erstwhile housewife, in 1968 when her father became ill she stepped up and became head of the family’s Meadow Stable and its breeding operation. While somewhat improved today, at that time she found herself in an industry virtually run by men. With guidance from colleagues and her own knowledge about horses and decision-making prowess, Secretariat was born.
A surprising and fun addition was a cameo appearance made by Secret Beau, Secretariat’s 14-year-old grandson. Secret belongs to local horse people, Rob and Julie Banner, who acquired him as a foal. The Secretariat gene is evident. Not as large as “Big Red”, but a beautiful chestnut with attitude; totally unfazed standing in the shadow of the huge statue of his grandfather and nonplussed by adoring fans wanting the ubiquitous selfies.
After Middleburg, the next stop on the 3500-mile tour that began in March was Colonial Downs Racetrack in Richmond where it will remain through the Virginia Derby on September 9. Then, the sculpture of Secretariat and his jockey Ron Turcotte winning the Belmont Stakes will finally come home to Ashland, Virginia, where it will be unloaded for the final time and installed near his Meadow Stable birthplace. It will be stored at a private location while the plaza is built. The dedication ceremony in Ashland is planned for spring 2024. For additional information on the Secretariat monument project, please see www.SecretariatforVirginia.com and www.ashlandmuseum.org.
A word about the National Sporting Library & Museum. Located near the shopping, restaurants and other attractions that Middleburg offers, the museum is unique in this region and definitely worth a visit. The inviting six-acre campus, world-class research Library and fine art museum highlight the rich heritage and tradition of country pursuits. Angling, horsemanship, shooting, steeplechasing, foxhunting, flat racing, polo and wildlife are among the subjects available to explore in the institution’s general stacks, rare book holdings, archives, and art collection. The NSLM offers a wide variety of educational programs, exhibitions, and family activities throughout the year. The current exhibition that runs through September 17 is Women and Horses Revisited: Charles Rumph Photography.
About the Author: Meg Mullery is a contributing writer and Blue Ridge distribution “assistant” to the OTC and just a great all around person. She is a Middleburg resident and spends some of her valuable time selling real estate for Washington Fine Properties and volunteering at Sprout – a therapeutic riding program in Aldie.
Racing Into History – Secretariat and Ron Turcotte
- The bronze monument is hollow and weighs 3800 lbs
- The first edition took eighteen months to complete, including research
- It is life + ½, spanning 21’ hoof to hoof and standing 11.5’ tall, sporting a stainless steel armature extending up into the body of the horse
- It was sculpted and sand cast at The Crucible Foundry in Norman, Oklahoma
Did you know?
The average stride length for a Thoroughbred is 20 feet at full gallop. Man O’ War had a stride length of 28 feet. To fully appreciate this, think about football and how players have four tries to go ten yards or 30 feet. Secretariat had a top stride length of 24 feet 11 inches. American Pharoah’s stride was 25 feet but even with shorter stride length Secretariat was able to win in faster time.