Written by Juliette Beauchamp
Last June, American Pharoah galloped into the history books when he won the Belmont Stakes and racing’s prestigious Triple Crown, a feat not equaled since 1978. While horse enthusiasts around the world rejoiced over the bay colt’s success, Virginian’s will always have a special love for American Pharoah’s great-great-great-grandsire, himself a Triple Crown winner.
Secretariat, bred and raised in Virginia, is one of racing’s most beloved figures. He was born at the Meadow Farm, in Doswell, just past midnight of March 30th, 1970, and was impressive from the start. Howard Gentry, the farm manager, remembered that his first thought of Secretariat was of a “big, strong-made foal,” while Penny Chenery Tweedy, daughter of the Meadow’s founder, was more concise. Her entry in the farm’s logbook, during a routine inspection of the farm’s foals read simply, “Wow!”
Christopher T. Chenery founded the Meadow in 1936 and set about building a superb group of broodmares. His daughter, Penny, rode as a child in the show ring and the hunt field. She served with the Red Cross in France and Germany during World War II and later attended the Columbia Graduate School of Business. By the time of Secretariat’s birth, Christopher’s health was failing and Penny found herself making more and more of the decisions for the Meadow.
A bright chestnut, maturing to a height of 16.2 hands, Secretariat boasted near-perfect conformation. He was the product of generations of selective breeding, but his own birth was actually a matter of luck. Somethingroyal, Secretariat’s dam, had already produced the great Sir Gaylord, himself an impressive stakes winner. She produced eighteen foals for the Meadow, three of which were by the noted Bold Ruler. Bold Ruler’s owner (Ogden Phipps) had established a coin toss stud fee system; two mares from the Meadow were to be sent to Bold Ruler, and the winner of the coin toss got first pick of the resulting foals in 1969, and second pick for 1970. Somethingroyal and Hasty Matilda were bred to Bold Ruler in 1968, and as the winner of the coin toss Phipps chose Hasty Matilda’s 1969 foal. Somethingroyal was sent back to Bold Ruler in 1969, along with another mare named Cicada. When Cicada failed to conceive, Somethingroyal’s 1970 foal automatically went to the Meadow. That foal, the result of a lost coin toss, was Secretariat.
Bold Ruler had a reputation as being flighty and tough to handle, but Somethingroyal was known to be gentle and affectionate with her foals. Secretariat spent his early days romping through the Meadow’s pastures with other foals, learning to run and strengthening his bones on the good Virginia soil. He was weaned in early October and turned out with the other weanlings for the winter. The following August, he was fitted with his first set of shoes and sent to the Meadow’s training center. There, under the guidance of R.M. “Bob” Bailes, he was backed and taught the rudiments of being a racehorse. He learned to work on the training track in close contact with other young horses and slowly built up his fitness with long, slow jogs.
On January 20, 1972 the big chestnut colt was shipped to trainer Lucien Laurin in Florida, never to reside in Virginia again. He was officially a two year old, although his actual birthday was still weeks away, and his career as a racehorse was about to begin. Although a barn favorite in Florida due to his friendly and playful demeanor, Secretariat wasn’t setting any records on the training track. He was big and clumsy, and more interested in trying to dump his riders than running. Laurin was patient though, and the colt eventually began to produce faster times.
Secretariat’s first race was at Aqueduct in July and he finished fourth after being bumped badly right out of the starting gate. He still ran well though, and came out of the race in good condition and with a healthy appetite. Laurin and Penny Tweedy were both optimistic and they were rewarded two weeks later when Secretariat won his second race easily, six lengths ahead of the rest of the field. After this victory, he went north to Saratoga Springs with the rest of Laurin’s string. There he quickly won an allowance race with Ron Turcotte aboard for the first time. After that he seemed unstoppable, winning the Sanford Stakes by five lengths and then the Hopeful Stakes, finishing only 3/5ths of a second off the track record. Trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin said of Secretariat: “I’ve never seen a more perfectly balanced colt, so large and with such a perfect way of going. He could become one of the truly great ones.” Martin would go on to train Sham, Secretariat’s main rival as a three year old.
Secretariat continued his spectacular year by winning the Belmont Futurity, the Laurel Futurity, and the Garden State Stakes. He finished first in the Champagne Stakes but due to a ruling of interference he was bumped down to second place. By this time he had established his dramatic come-from-behind style of running, a habit that thrilled racing fans. Secretariat was voted 1972’s top two year old and was one of only three two year olds ever to be Horse of the Year. Because of Secretariat’s success, along with that of his barn mate Riva Ridge, Laurin was awarded Trainer of the Year.
Amidst the celebration was sadness however, as Christopher Chenery died in January of 1973. Penny had thrown herself into learning the business as her father’s health became increasingly poor, and she was well-equipped to take over the reins of the Meadow. Financially though, the farm’s situation was precarious. Penny turned to Seth Hancock of the famous Claiborne Farm for help in syndicating Secretariat. Secretariat’s future career at stud was divided into 28 shares at $190,000 per share, with each share entitling the owner to send one mare to Secretariat per year for his entire breeding career. The shares were bought by breeders from America, England, Ireland, France, and Japan. The Meadow kept four shares, and another four were given to Claiborne as commission. Laurin also received a share. Secretariat was syndicated for a total of $6,080,000, a record at that time. It was a huge risk for the investors; despite Secretariat’s success as a two year old, no one knew if he would do well the following year against the longer distances of the three year old classic races.
After a well-deserved winter break in Florida, Secretariat headed back north to Belmont Park to begin training for his three year old campaign. He quickly proved that his success as a two year old was no fluke by winning the Bay Shore Stakes and the Gotham, both at Aqueduct. The Wood Memorial was a crushing defeat however, as he finished third to Angle Light and Sham, respectively. The morning after the Wood Memorial, an abscess was discovered in his mouth which probably explained his lackluster performance, but the loss worried Penny and Laurin.
The atmosphere surrounding Secretariat in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby was electric. Security had to be increased, and Secretariat’s long-time groom, Eddie Sweat, pulled double-duty as night watchman. The extra vigilance paid off on Derby day, as Secretariat streaked to victory, setting a still-standing track record and clocking successively faster times for each quarter. He was still accelerating at the finish line.
Two weeks later, Secretariat repeated his performance in the Preakness Stakes. Running late due to a minor car accident in a restaurant parking lot, Penny and her husband Jack Tweedy were forced to pay admission to watch their own horse run. Although several independent timers clocked him as setting another track record, the official timer malfunctioned. Secretariat’s recorded time, based on the hand-held time of Pimlico Race Course clocker E.T. Mclean, Jr was 2/5th of a second slower than the track record. That time stood until June of 2012, when Penny Chenery requested a forensic review of the race video by the Maryland Racing Commission. The commission voted to change Secretariat’s time to 1:53, which was indeed a new record.
For the Belmont Stakes, the longest race of the Triple Crown, only four other horses came out to race Secretariat. Locked in a dual with Sham almost from the start, Secretariat ran in blisteringly fast early fractions, and finished the race with an astonishing 31 length lead. He smashed the track record, and set a world record for the fastest 1 ½ mile on a dirt track that still stands today.
Although there was some pressure to retire the colt immediately following the Belmont, Penny and Laurin decided to let him finish his three year old year. Less than a month later, he easily won the Arlington Invitational. Facing older horses for the first time in the Whitney Handicap, he finished second, then bounced back to win the Marlboro Cup Invitational. Another second place finish in the Woodward Stakes was quickly followed up by a victory in the Man O’War Stakes. On October 28th, 1973, Secretariat won his last race, the Canadian International Stakes, run on turf at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack. Secretariat’s 6 ½ length lead at the finish is still the race’s widest winning margin ever.
Almost 33,000 fans went to Farewell to Secretariat Day, held on November 6th, 1973 at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack. A few days later, Secretariat left the stables at Belmont Park for the last time and was vanned to Claiborne Farm to begin his career at stud. He retired as the fourth richest horse in history at that time, with earnings of just over $1.3 million.
Secretariat left an indelible mark on the racing world, both at the track and in the breeding shed. Although some have criticized the stallion for not producing offspring of his own caliber, it was as a broodmare sire that Secretariat’s influence is really felt. He is the broodmare sire of some of the greatest sires in racing history, including Gone West, A.P. Indy, and Storm Cat. Storm Cat (out of the Secretariat daughter Terlingua) is the grandsire of American Pharoah’s dam.
Secretariat died on October 4th, 1989. He is buried at Claiborne Farm.
The 330 acre Meadow is now known as the Meadow Event Park. The 2016 Virginia Horse Festival will be held at the park April 1st-3rd in honor of Secretariat’s 46th birthday celebration and the 80th Anniversary of the founding of the Meadow Farm. Groundshaker, a descendent of Secretariat and the last horse bred and raced by Penny Chenery, will also be in attendance. Read more details here or go to www.Meadoweventpark.com and www.secretariatsmeadow.com/
Like American Pharoah for this generation, Secretariat’s greatest gift was that he brought racing (and equestrian sports in general) into the consciousness of a nation that had become increasingly distanced from horses. Americans who may have never seen a horse in person know the names of these two great stallions. It seems only appropriate that one is the descendent of the other.