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RECOGNIZING SECRETARIAT

I used to live and ride near a place called Middleburg in Virginia. It's a small, pre-Civil War town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Its name comes from the fact that it's located mid-way between Washington, D.C. and Winchester, Virginia and was, in fact, the stop off for horse drawn coaches on that route. Now cars from D.C. reach the town in 30 to 45 minutes.

The area surrounding Middleburg is comprised of large estates, farms and an occasional vineyard. They're situated on gently rolling land, dotted with rich grassy fields and woods. It's the perfect physical location for its main product -- horse sports.

Many top competitive show horses, three-day event horses, dressage horses and race horses stable around Middleburg.

Because it is a small town, most people know or are aware of each other. When a local farm enters a special horse like Hoist The Flag in the Kentucky Derby, the entire area cheers in support. When Hoist The Flag got seriously injured before the race, everyone felt the sad loss.

The story of Genuine Risk's selection at the yearling sales by the Firestone's young son was well known. Her win at the Kentucky Derby as only the second filly ever to do so, made for local pride.

So when Secretariat, owned by Penny Chenery of Virginia, came on the scene, everyone followed his brilliant career. We cheered as he won all three races of the Triple Crown. Even The Coach Stop, a favorite local restaurant, hung pictures of him around the dining room.

Years later, I was working for a film company in Los Angeles on Sepulveda Boulevard. I was given an office to work in down the hall from the file room I needed to access.

As I returned, loaded with files, I noticed an office with its door open. Inside, on the far wall, was a large picture of the head and shoulders of a chestnut horse thickly covered in mud. The picture made me stop and smile.

I caught the attention of the man in the room, seated at the desk.

"Excuse me," I said. "Is that Secretariat?"

He was quite surprised by my question.

"Yes," he replied. "You're the first person to recognize him."

I explained I was from Virginia, and had horses.

"That's a great picture of him," I continued.

"He's my wife's horse."

I didn't realize until then that I was speaking to Penny Chenery's husband.

I loved that mud caked picture. There was joy in it. Secretariat looked totally happy. If you know horses, there's nothing they like better than rolling in mud.

When I returned to my office, I was impressed. Out of all the pictures of Secretariat that his owners must have of him winning and being awarded trophies, the one he hung in his office was the one of a blissful Secretariat covered in mud.

That's the way I'll always remember him.

- Nancy Raven Smith

Author's Note

The story above about my meeting with Penny Chenery's husband took place in the early 1990's. Recently a friend suggested I read Lawrence Scanlon's "THE HORSE THAT GOD BUILT (copyright 2007)." In that book, I was surprised to come across the following section.

Christine Picavet, a French-born artist now living in New Mexico, saw Secretariat often at Claiborne. "Most of the time when they turned him out," she told Esquire Images magazine, apparently laughing as she told the story, "he would run around the paddock and then come back by the fence and roll in the mud puddle. So if you wanted to see him clean, you had about five minutes." He was like a little kid playing in the mud, she said.

Someone once sent Penny Chenery a photograph of the horse covered in mud, an image that delighted her. She called the photograph "a gloriously human picture of a champion."

I will always wonder if that was the same wonderful photograph I saw in Penny Chenery's husband's office.

 
 
Banner Horse Photo by George Lynn

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