To some, he simply was known as Big Red. To most, he’s the greatest racehorse in history.
This Friday, Secretariat, the movie, is released nationwide, introducing a new generation of kids to thoroughbred racing.
The film has garnered national attention, but locally, a large group of race fans, including yours truly, can’t wait for its opening weekend.
Secretariat, bred in Kentucky, but born in Virginia, was the champion 2-year old, the champion 3-year old and two-time Horse of the Year. For a sport so desperately longing for heroes, Secretariat delivered the goods during the mid-1970s, winning the Triple Crown in 1973, before retiring to stud in Paris.
Seth Hancock, then, a 23-year-old trying to continue his family’s legacy at Claiborne Farm, brought Secretariat to Kentucky. The horse’s owner, Penny Tweedy Chenery, had just lost her father and needed to pay off his estate taxes.
Chenery, a friend of the Hancock family, asked young Seth if Claiborne would be interested in syndicating Secretariat, in an effort to raise money.
“Naturally, we’d be interested,” Hancock said, during an interview with WKYT. “
Just before Secretariat’s 3-year-old campaign, Tweedy and Hancock agreed upon a meeting, to draw up a game plan.
“We met with lawyers at the Coach House,“ Hancock recalled. “I remember writing the details on a cocktail napkin,”
In what then was a world record, Chenery and Hancock agreed to sell 32 shares of Secretariat, for $190,000 each.
“We thought he had the chance to be something special,” Hancock said.
Their hunch was correct.
After becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, capped off by his incredible 31-length win in the Belmont, Secretariat was retired from racing. He shipped to Lexington’s Blue Grass Field and received a hero’s welcome: a police escort from the airport to Claiborne Farm.
There, Secretariat quickly became a celebrity, a national treasure, a horse of the people.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Hancock said. “Obviously, with the crowds at the racetracks, being on the front of Newsweek, on the front of Time and on the front of Sports Illustrated.”
The fans flocked to Claiborne Farm to see the great horse. Hancock said there was such demand that the farm had to set up times for people to get a look at Secretariat.
“We had viewings. We had one at 10:00. We had one at 1:00. We had a roped off area and we’d bring him out.”
Hancock said the horse knew he was a star.
“They’d have their cameras out. As soon as he heard that first camera flash he’d just pose and those ears would go up. He knew who he was and he loved it.”
“He wasn't’t mean,” Hancock added. “He was a man’s man, so to speak. He didn't’t have a mean bone in his body and he truly was a showoff.”
According to Hancock, Secretariat couldn't’t possibly be as good in the breeding barn as some people had hoped.
“That was totally impossible. But he was a solid sire, a good sire of broodmares.”
Secretariat died at Claiborne Farm in 1989. He’s buried in a small yard near the Claiborne Farm offices, alongside some of the farm’s greatest stallions. Secretariat’s father, Bold Ruler, is buried just across the way.
“I saw him run and I knew what all that was about,” Hancock said. “But I really didn't’t get it until he showed up here. You’d say to yourself, ‘I see what it’s all about now. You really are special and you know you’re special.’”
But what made Secretariat the greatest racehorse ever?
Hancock said the horse had a great mind.
“Nothing ever bothered him,” Hancock said.
“He would sit there and let somebody else go out to the front and then, when he got ready, he’d just mow ‘em down. If they didn't’t want to take the lead, he’d take the lead, like he did in the Belmont, and say, ‘See you later.’”
Plus, Hancock said, Secretariat had a built-in advantage.
“When they did the autopsy, his heart was about a time and half bigger than the normal thoroughbred. It weighed 26 pounds and the normal thoroughbred heart would weigh around 18 pounds.”
Friends who attended the movie premiere in Lexington last Sunday were very complimentary, Hancock said.
“It’ll introduce another generation to the sport,” he said. “Maybe they’ll go to Keeneland this fall, have a good time, and maybe, they’ll become fans of the sport.”
Hancock said Secretariat made Claiborne Farm a household name and confirmed Hancock was a good horseman.
“He’s the greatest racehorse I’ve ever seen,” Hancock said. “He was a real pleasure to be around.”