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Secretariat’s jockey, exerciser describe horse’s personality

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Secretariat’s last jockey and the horse’s exercise rider, along with Kate Chenery Tweedy, autographed books and photographs of the famous horse on March 29 in Caroline County.

Ron Turcotte, who was Secretariat’s regular jockey, was supposed to be at Saturday’s birthday celebration in honor of Secretariat but was unable to make the drive to Virginia due to a winter storm in Canada where he lives.

Eddie Maple, the jockey who rode Secretariat during his last race, was at Saturday’s event. He estimated that the $6 million horse was running close to 45 mph during the race. “And that was without a seatbelt or airbags or a windshield,” Maple said while autographing 11- by 14-inch color photos of the horse. Maple, 65, a National Hall of Fame inductee, was one of the top jockeys in the United States.

He joined Kate and Secretariat’s exercise rider, Charlie Davis, at the Meadow Event Park last Saturday. The great American racehorse was born to Somethingroyal on March 30, 1970 at 12:10 a.m. where the park is now located. The three sat and signed autographs for scores of fans. Wesley Tillman, a groom for many champion racehorses, also was on hand.

A nearly life-size photo of the horse in the form of a banner hung on the wall and some visitors had their photos made with the picture. Bracelets and other jewelry items in honor of the horse were available for purchase.

Secretariat’s 19-year-old grandson, Covert Action, was in the barn at Meadow Event Park for visitors to see and pet. Secretariat’s grandson never achieved a fraction of the success of his grandfather. In fact, he won only three of his 26 races and won only $22,000, according to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, James River Chapter, which was at Saturday’s event. But the retired racehorse, along with others, is used at a Virginia prison where inmates learn to groom and shoe horses. One inmate started his own farrier business after his release from prison.

In 1973, Secretariat became the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years by winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. He set records in all three events that still stand today. While other horses would tire during the final quarter-mile of a race, Secretariat actually accelerated during the final quarter. Based on his time and the distance he traveled, it is estimated that he reached 55 mph during the stretch at Belmont. At the finish, he won by 31 lengths (equal to 31 horses from nose to tail) and that beat the old record of 25 lengths, set in 1943 by Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.

In 1999, ESPN ranked Secretariat as the 35th best athlete of the 20th century, the highest ranking racehorse on the list.

So what was it like to ride Secretariat? “It was just like driving your car,” said Davis, 74, who was the exercise rider for Secretariat in South Florida. “Just punch the button and he would take off.” During exercise, Secretariat “knew what he needed to do. I was just the co-pilot.”

Secretariat “was just a big kid,” Davis said. “He loved people. He loved kids. He loved to eat, especially a couple of carrots.” Davis thought a minute and added, “I thank the good Lord I was the guy that rode Secretariat” for his exercise.

Maple spoke about being the jockey who rode Secretariat to victory in his last race, the Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack. “It was just a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful experience, especially for me when I was 24 years old. I was a little bit nervous.” It had been raining at the track.

At the time, Maple weighed 112 and he rode on a 5-pound saddle during Secretariat’s final race. He still remembers going around the turns on Secretariat and how Secretariat would avoid clashing with other horses.

“After the race, they took Secretariat to the barn and gave him a bath. He was a professional guy. The next day, he showed lots of life. Of course, he couldn’t have raced the next day.”

Maple noted that Secretariat’s last race was a mile and 5/8ths, which was the horse’s longest race ever.

Maple won two Belmonts (1980 and 1985) and competed in 33,000 races, including races in Europe and Japan. He was the jockey for Hall of Famer Riva Ridge in 1973 during the Marlboro Cup in which Turcotte rode Secretariat to victory. Maple retired in 1998 with 4,398 wins.

Secretariat and Riva Ridge were stable mates at the Meadow and were both owned by Christopher Chenery and his daughter, Penny Chenery.

Kate Chenery, daughter of Penny Chenery, said being at the Secretariat celebration “is really a treat—just being with the other people who loved the horse and remember him. People thank us for keeping his legacy alive. He brought so many people such joy.”

As for Secretariat’s success, “everybody knew at the time he was phenomenal,” Kate said. “But his legacy just keeps going on forever. It’s a thrill to be a part of it.”

Penny Chenery, 92, doesn’t travel much out of her home state of Colorado now, Kate said. “Mom wanted to be here. But it’s two flights to get to Richmond, and it’s hard for her to sit and sign books.” But she will autograph books sent to her through

Kate is co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – the Land, The Family, The Legend” and “Riva Ridge – Penny’s First Champion.” Leeanne Meadows Ladin, Secretariat tourism manager at Meadow Event Park, is the other co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow.”

Secretariat won seven out of nine races in 1972 and nine out of 12 races in 1973. His earnings over the two years totaled $1,316,808. After retiring from racing, Secretariat sired as many as 600 foals. Among his first crop of foals was Canadian Bound, the first Thoroughbred yearling racehorse to sell for more than $1 million. Ironically, Canadian Bound was a failure as a racehorse. But Secretariat eventually sired a number of major stakes winners.

At age 19, Secretariat became afflicted with laminitis, a painful and often incurable hoof condition. After a month of treatment, his condition failed to improve and he was euthanized on Oct. 4, 1989. He was buried at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. Usually only the head, heart and hooves of a winning race horse are buried and the rest of the body is cremated. But Secretariat was given the rare honor of being buried whole.

The Museum of the Virginia Horse, located inside the Meadow Hall mansion at Meadow Event Park, was open for tours on Saturday. It traces the history of the horse in Virginia from Colonial times to the present, highlighting various breeds, riding disciplines and famous equines. Complementing the exhibit are the new Meadow Champions Galleries. They showcase the famous horses of Meadow Stable, from great broodmares such as Somethingroyal, mother of Secretariat, to the farm’s champion racehorses of the 1950s and 1960s. the paintings of famous Virginia Thoroughbreds by acclaimed painter and horseman Newton Mayo.  His paintings of the colorful “silks” or jackets worn by the jockeys of the great racing stables are also on display.