Red Horse, Black Angel
Eight in the morning north of Lexington under a bright summer sun, and this corner of the sprawling theme park in Kentucky already has the feel of a lively small-town fair. A long row of white domed tents—spires on top, blue pennants flying—offers shade to the peddlers setting up their wares. Strange to say, given the breakfast hour, but the smell of grilled burgers and hot dogs is in the air, the sno-cone sellers are doing a brisk business, and it seems like every hawker of Secretariat memorabilia in America has booked kiosk space here under that hot Confederate sun. It’s Secretariat Day at Kentucky Horse Park.
Kentucky Horse Park is a twelve-hundred-acre working horse farm and theme park, with more than fifty breeds on display and all manner of horse shows running from February to December. The big Rolex eventing competition takes place here, along with dressage and rodeo and hunter/jumper shows and Pony Club rallies. The park is a mecca for the horsey set and will be the site of the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
Earlier, a volunteer at the entryway dropped into my hand a keepsake—a Secretariat button. Inside a white circle is the head of a red horse wearing blue-and-white blinkers, red for the horse’s chestnut coat, blue and white the colors of Meadow Stable. From trees inside the park hang oversized blue pennants with the same image at the top and, below, these words:
July 17, 2004
Browsers are cruising the tents and filling up their shopping bags, apparently undeterred by the lofty prices of almost everything. The only free thing here is Big Red gum, with packets going to anyone who can answer this skill-testing question. (Warning: If you didn’t get “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” you may not get this one, either.) “What was Secretariat’s nickname?” a cheery woman in a red T-shirt asks me while offering a pack of Big Red gum. A huge poster at her kiosk announces the 2004 Secretariatfest and the prospect of “officially licensed merchandise”—Secretariat teddy bears and key chains, little plastic Secretariat snow globes, Big Red pens. I pass the test, get the gum, and try some. It’s awful. Awful pricey describes some of the art here, and I am reminded of this fact: Many are drawn to the memory of a great horse and many are trying to capitalize—sometimes artfully, sometimes in a tacky way.
I, too, am drawn to the memory of a great horse. My mission—to paint a fresh portrait in words of the great Secretariat—has brought me to this unveiling thousands of miles from home. I’ve caught wind, you see, of a curious fact: The bronze we are about to see will feature not just the horse, with his jockey up, but the groom. Think of all the bronzes, paintings, even photographs of legendary horses. In most, the horse alone is captured for posterity, and in some works of art, the jockey has a place on the great runner’s back. The groom, the lowly groom, is almost never depicted.
I have hardly begun my journey, but already there’s a theme for the book cooking in my brain. The theme is connectedness between a human and an animal, and day by day I’m realizing that the exquisite horse whose story I would tell had forged a profound connection with the man who cared for him—cared for him in every sense of the phrase. And it seems that Secretariat’s sculptor and I are of the same mind. We want to honor the one rarely honored: the groom.
Ron Turcotte has arrived at the park in his wheelchair. He has driven all the way from New Brunswick, Canada, in his van and hooked up in Lexington with his brother, Aurele, who has flown down from his home in Quebec. Air travel, Ron Turcotte tells me, is a nightmare for those who use wheels to get around. He gave up on it a long time ago. He’s wearing a blue blazer with a round decal over his heart that shows a stylized horse and jockey in a Stars and Stripes motif. The jacket is the one they gave him when he was inducted into Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga in 1979. On Turcotte’s right lapel is a pin that depicts the Secretariat postage stamp issued in 1999.
The memorabilia buyers soon suss him out and line up to have him sign their framed photos of Secretariat, bobble-head dolls, posters, framed art, T-shirts, and ball caps. Turcotte is wearing a sea blue cap of his own. breed more secretariats, it reads.
A vendor is trying to persuade Turcotte to sign a ceramic jockey’s boot—a replica of the one he wore during his Triple Crown rides, black, with wide brown trim at the top. Vendor and jockey seem to be negotiating. This is what baseball, football, and hockey players complain about: merchandisers who use an athlete’s signature to jack up the price of their wares. I am astonished by the range and the sentimentality of some of these wares, and I wonder, Who buys these trinkets? And do china-shop rules apply? If Turcotte drops the ceramic boot, is it, de facto, his?
An old jock like Turcotte is used to autograph hounds and he doesn’t mind keeping them waiting while he poses for photos with some track cronies. One is another ex-jockey, Bobby Ussery, who rode against Turcotte umpteen times and Secretariat a few times. He is wearing a U.S.A. ball cap and a blue shirt with the top three buttons undone to reveal a hairy, fleshy chest and about a pound of gold jewelery at his neck. The two old jocks are laughing, with Turcotte telling some tale from decades ago—something about wrestling in the tack room with another jockey for possession of a wallet.
The old jocks reminisce in the way that war veterans do: They never talk of actual fighting, only of the jolly stuff before and after battle. Jockey Jerry Bailey (he rode Cigar and retired in 2006) once said that his work is so dangerous that jockeys count themselves lucky if they come through a race unscathed. Imagine what it’s like to be a jockey. Imagine bending your knees as if you were sitting in a chair (without the support of an actual chair), and maintaining that crouch for minutes, your calves and thighs straining while a great deal happens all around you. Other riders and their horses advance and recede; they may jostle and bump your horse, and there is the ever-present risk that your horse will catch the heels of the one in front—with catastrophic results. Your saddle is tiny, the perch precarious, and you’d better have fine balance. You need soft hands to feel the horse through the reins, you need great strength to hold him, and you need dexterity to switch the crop from one hand to the other. You need, above all, guts. Did I mention that your “chair” is five feet in the air and moving along at forty miles an hour?
“It’s not really if you’re going to get hurt when you become a jockey,” Bailey said, “it’s how many times, how severe, and you hope that you don’t take the big hit, which is being paralyzed.”
In his official biography, The Will to Win, Ron Turcotte concedes that it was not death he feared on the racetrack, but paralysis. His worst nightmare unfolded in the eighth race at Belmont, July 13, 1978, when he was aboard a filly named Flag of Leyte Gulf. The filly clipped the heels of another and down he went—slung like a stone from a shot, as he later drew the picture. It was the jockey’s last race, number 20,281.
Ron and Aurele Turcotte take time to pose for a five-minute-sketch artist who—for nine dollars—will capture your likeness and set it on a cartoon horse. “Put a little wrinkle in my forehead,” Ron tells the artist. “It was always there.” Or was it? He seems playful with his brother and his old pals, somewhat wary and bored with strangers. He was a gifted and much-honored jockey, whose fortune, and misfortune, was to ride a perfect horse. When that horse lost the odd race, the second-guessers came out of the woodwork. Turcotte’s face is puffy and pale, and I’m told he battles chronic pain, heart trouble, and all manner of infection, yet there is mischief in those eyes, too.
Early in his career, Ron Turcotte learned that a young groom was helping himself to the jock’s supply of Chiclets. On another occasion, a groom was nicking his doughnuts. Turcotte’s cure, in the first instance, was to fill a Chiclets box with Feen-a-mint, a laxative, and, in the second instance, to bait a jelly doughnut in the same manner. In the tack room or on the track, Turcotte played for keeps.
Down the way, the still-youthful Eddie Maple, in black wraparound sunglasses, blue jeans, and a blazer the color of racetrack turf, has similarly been circled by fans clutching shopping bags teeming with Secretariat trinkets. Maple was the last man to ride Secretariat in a race, at Woodbine, in Toronto, more than three decades ago.
“Why do we still care about Secretariat?” I ask him as he signs.
“The fact,” he replies, as if reading off a shopping list, “that he was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in twenty-five years, the way he won the Belmont, the fact that he was a beautiful horse.”
“Was he smooth?” a young girl asks him before handing him her eight-by-eleven poster to sign. Maple asks, and receives, permission to borrow the back of another girl as he affixes his signature. “One of the smoothest horses I ever rode,” he replies while signing, an answer that seems to please both girls immensely. The girls are wide-eyed, and I would bet the house they are Pony Clubbers. In the ample paddocks behind them, dozens of sleek horses and elegantly attired riders are trotting and cantering through their warm-ups. All those horses and riders act as if they are the thing and we are the backdrop, but from the vantage point of the tents, it is the other way around.
Inside the largest of the white tents, with the Secretariat bronze hidden behind a tall white curtain, several hundred people have gathered to witness the moment of unveiling. Some have lined up in the sun for an hour or more to get choice spots near the bronze.
Donna Brothers—an ex-jockey whose face and voice would be familiar to anyone who takes in globally televised broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont (mounted on a track pony, she interviews the winning jockey right after each race)—acts as master of ceremonies and introduces speakers as they approach the lectern. The lineup is impressive: Secretariat’s owner, two jockeys and an exercise rider, and one of the horse’s biographers.
Jimmy Gaffney, one of the big chestnut’s old exercise riders, says, “Secretariat was the greatest racehorse that ever lived.” Gaffney started galloping horses when he was sixteen years old and rode horses at tracks all over the country. Age and emphysema and, more recently, throat cancer have put a halt to all that. Until just a few years ago, he worked at the track as a pari-mutuel clerk. If, for example, you put five dollars on Woebegone to win the fourth, a clerk such as Gaffney will punch in the data and give you your ticket—which you will crumple in your fist when Woebegone comes in last.
Gaffney tells the throng what they want to hear, but I take from the emotion in his voice that he means what he says when he declares, “Secretariat changed my life forever. Every time I had the privilege to get on his back, I felt the incredible, awesome sense of power. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.” His voice breaks as he declares that while we may yet again see another Triple Crown winner, “We will never ever see another Secretariat.”
Jimmy Gaffney was among the first to realize that Secretariat would be a great one. He used to brag about the horse on shed row—to fellow riders, to writers like Bill Nack, to his own wife and his mother. His mother sent him a pommel pad (sometimes inserted under the saddle for extra comfort) with secretariat knitted in blue letters on a white backing. Then Gaffney himself bought two blue saddle pads (the quilted cloth on which the saddle sits) and had secretariat stitched onto them, as well. Finally, he took home the exercise saddle he normally used with Secretariat and, with his leatherwork kit, hammered Secretariat into its side. All this naming and heralding long before the horse had won his maiden race.
Up next is Eddie Maple, who talks about the pressure he faced going into that last race at Woodbine for the Canadian International Championship on October 28, 1973. “I figured,” he says, “this would have been the end of my life if something happened.” He means that had Secretariat lost, a black cloud would have hung over the name of Eddie Maple until his dying day.
The rider gives way to the sculptor, Ed Bogucki (pronounced Bo-gook-ee), who describes a brush with death while working on the bronze. He was outside when a gust of wind blew down a heavy ladder, which would have crowned him had it not crashed onto Eddie Sweat’s bronze head instead. The sculptor thanks his “black angel,” but strangely, no one from Sweat’s family is here. In fact, I do not see a single black face amid the hundreds here.
Ron Turcotte gets laughter and applause when he thanks Penny Chenery for holding the event on his birthday—his thirty-first. (He is, in fact, five days away from his sixty-third birthday.) He thanks the owner for putting him up on “the greatest horse who ever lived. I could talk about him all day long,” he says. “He was a charming horse, a lovely horse, and we used to fight over who was going to get up on him.”
Turcotte makes an interesting point about the blinkers that Secretariat wore. The horse did not actually need them, but he came to associate them with work, and this was a horse who loved to work. The blue-and-white blinkers, like the number 1A on the saddle pad he wore in the Kentucky Derby, would come to identify him. Today, reveals Turcotte, he is getting more mail about Secretariat than he did in 1973.
Last to speak is Penny Chenery, who remembers the exhilaration of the Belmont. “I would love to know what he was thinking that day,” she says. “Why did he keep on running when he’d passed everybody by almost an eighth of a mile? My gut feeling is that it was his home track and he was ready for that race. I just think he got out there and put away Sham early and just felt ‘Okay, I feel good, I’m just going to show them how I can run.’ He was in the zone. There was no acceleration, no deceleration. It was the same stride. You had the feeling that he could just keep on going.”
Chenery thanks the horse’s trainer, Lucien Laurin, who, she says, “made all of us. He made Ronnie, he made Jimmy, he made me.” She observes, as she has many times before, that perhaps only a “tough-minded” trainer like Laurin could have brought out the greatness in a horse like Secretariat.
“The other, really important part of his life,” says Chenery, “was Eddie Sweat.” She explains that either Eddie or exercise rider Charlie Davis (“they were great buddies,” she notes) would sleep outside the horse’s stall when Secretariat was shipped from track to track. “I’m sure,” Chenery says, “they were a very important part of his sense of well-being.” It seems a great pity that Charlie Davis is not here, either.
Finally, to fanfare, the tall white curtain falls away from the thirty-foot-high scaffolding and there are gasps and applause from the audience. Ed Bogucki’s fifteen-hundred-pound creation is life-size and up on a pedestal, so the horse we would have looked up to at least figuratively now looms over us literally. A battery of strategically placed floodlights on the scaffolding illuminates the upper portion of the bronze, but everything below is cast in shadow. The effect, strangely, is to make the horse seem more real, a step closer to flaming into being. The most striking aspect of the piece are Secretariat’s eyes. Eddie Sweat’s eyes are cast in shadow, and Ron Turcotte looks to be squinting. The horse’s eyes, on the other hand, are wide and blazing.
The bronze jockey has a tight grip on the reins, and Eddie Sweat has his right hand on the horse’s side and a firm grip on the chain at the horse’s mouth. But Secretariat appears so muscled, so taut and ready to explode, that even frozen in this bronze pose he looks like he could carry us all into the next life.
Copyright © 2007 by Lawrence Scanlan. All rights reserved.