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Secretariat’s legacy lives on, 50 years after Triple Crown

Secretariat's legacy lives on, 50 years after Triple Crown

The 1973 Triple Crown winner died more than 30 years ago. But in the minds of so many, he remains unusually alive.

A mural of Secretariat adorns a building in downtown Paris. (Michael Swensen for The Washington Post)

PARIS, Ky. — Consider this timeline of a Kentuckian and a horse: Walker Hancock joined us on Earth in mid-August 1989 and Secretariat left us Oct. 4, 1989, so they coexisted for all of 52 days. Hancock apparently slept through Secretariat’s funeral, according to a well-placed source (his mother). “I hopefully wasn’t crying,” he said, “or I would have been escorted out.”

Yet as a routine of Hancock’s presidency nowadays at Claiborne Farm, where he grew up and Secretariat lived the last 16 of his 19 years, humans of certain ages approach Hancock as if aching to share their stories of a nonhuman whose 33-year absence has burned with his abiding presence. “They saw him break his maiden,” Hancock said. “They saw him lose. Or they saw his last race. They all have a memory, and it’s so distinct, too. What the weather was …”

Or consider this timeline of a Kentuckian and a horse: Jaime Corum joined us in November 1973, a week and change after Secretariat’s 21st and final race and 16th and final win at Woodbine near Toronto. Even as she became a “total horse person” and an equine artist, she never did meet Secretariat, a youthful oversight she regrets.

Yet as a function of the fact she has painted him double-digit times upon various canvases, including on a Woodford Reserve bottle honoring the 50-year mark since Secretariat’s Triple Crown, Corum found herself on a hydraulic lift in pretty little downtown Paris, transforming the side of a building into a Secretariat mural that qualifies as striking, dwelling behind the day-to-day sights of a main street. With the bottle and the mural, she said: “I couldn’t believe how much my life was tied to Secretariat. I keep telling other people he’s taking me this year on this wonderful ride.” It has led her to brand Secretariat a unifier of people and say: “He’s one of those things that people always respond. He’s timely, I think — in the year 2023.”

How Secretariat does still romp through the human consciousness, 50 years after his Triple Crown win of 1973, and 33 years after his death from a hoof disease in 1989, and 13 years after the movie starring Diane Lane as owner Penny Chenery in 2010. All this time later, he’s prompting a mural, a fresh sculpture, a fresh city park and a parade, all coming to Paris by November to mark the 50-year mark of his relocation to Claiborne Farm, whose stallions have sired six of the 13 Triple Crown winners (including Secretariat).

Of all the people who might take a whack at how this could persist, no one deserves a chance more than Paris-based veterinarian Robert Copelan, who oversaw the healing of one of the more famous abscesses in mammal history, the harrowing one that fell off Secretariat’s upper lip days before the Derby 50 years ago right about now.

Copelan, 96, can retell for the umpteenth time the moment-to-moment that led to the eventual bursting of that painful devil that made a little noise as it fell to the straw, and only a boor would refrain from hearing again the gripping details. He also can remind you that seven horses beat Secretariat in four different races, all in the state of New York. He can remind that some people who know their racehorses go ahead and use the term “the greatest” for, among others, Flightline, the 2022 Breeders’ Cup dominator. Yet in pegging Secretariat’s deathless appeal, he said: “I’m not surprised at that. You know, he went to the Belmont and he won off by 23 lengths, 24 lengths” — eventually, 31 lengths — “and that froze in a lot of folks’ minds. They’d never seen anything like that.”

That might stand tallest amid the bouquet of reasons. It might even epitomize how memory works. Watching that day by television, Copelan thought, “Well, this is going to make a lot of racket.”

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About 12,000 people per year visit Claiborne Farm, and everyone agrees most do so foremost to see Secretariat’s gravestone among the 23 in the handsome and understated little cemetery. Some cry. Some place pennies atop in honor of Chenery, who died in 2017 at 95.

As a stallion manager and a maestro at the separate art of tour-guiding, Joe Peel explains the privacy fence, built soon after Secretariat’s arrival not by plan but by reaction to the gawkers and would-be patters who kept parking on the road out there. He recites Secretariat’s still-standing records in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. He spreads knowledge, from, “Horses once could climb trees,” to, “Always remember to approach a horse from the left side,” to, “A person can make a nice horse mean,” to, “They’ve got a lot of teeth in their heads.” He shows the barn and stall in which Secretariat lived, nowadays inhabited by Runhappy, whose owners, Hancock pointed out, bought the horse inspired in part by the movie, well, “Secretariat.”

“Routinely every year, this is part of their vacation trip,” Peel said of the tourists. “The come by and cry by at the headstone.” He paused. “They love him.” He paused again. “They love him. And you just step away and let them do their thing.”

A deeply green little drive away at Paris’s Chamber of Commerce, they’re steeped in the 50 years from the various and telling perspectives in one office lobby. Betty Ann Allen says, “Oh, my husband [Jerry] worked out there when Secretariat came, and he was his groom, and people are, like, ‘Oh, can we take a picture with you?’ ” Lauren Biddle, who hadn’t yet joined us when Secretariat raced or lived, says, “I just didn’t know that Secretariat affected people emotionally the way he did.” Allen, referring to Secretariat’s awareness of his stardom: “My husband said he was the pose-iest horse he’d ever seen.” Biddle: “My 4-year-old daughter, she is now a fangirl of Secretariat.” Allen: “The [donors] that touch your heart are the ones that send $6. … It brings tears to your eyes but also gives you goose bumps.”

Just down the way at the singular Lil’s Coffee House, where Copelan dines daily, the restaurant owner knows some things about Secretariat-mania, not just because it’s about to give her business another happy jolt. At her bed-and-breakfast on Rosecrest Farm, she and husband Charles have a Secretariat grandson, Tinner’s Storm.

“Oh, my gosh, there are so many Secretariat crazies,” Lyra Miller said. “In fact, I’ve got two staying at my bed-and-breakfast, checking in today. One’s from Illinois, one’s from North Carolina, and it’s because they met online talking about Secretariat.”

Two more were inbound from Rhode Island.

“I have people that come to my B&B from all over the country, just because they want to see a grandson of Secretariat,” Miller said. She lists a few reasons this could be true — the Triple Crown, the unbroken records, Chenery’s charm — and says: “So I think it’s like a Michael Jordan, whose tennis shoes just sold for $2 million. Every sport has that personality who epitomizes that sport.”

Then she says, “People talk about him like he’s still living, because in their mind he is a live presence.”

She has seen the generations convene at the breakfast table, those who lived during and those who hadn’t joined yet, and she notes how the latter group often relies on the movie, so if a younger moviegoer might note, “He wins every time,” she gently might correct, “Yeah, it’s a movie.”

That same convergence of people has decorated the insights of Tom Nieman, overseer of the design of the new park. He taught landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky for 39 years, remaining non-retired even as he doesn’t teach. He has helped numerous horse farms avoid the pratfall often stated as, “You can’t have a million-dollar horse in a ten-cent landscape.”

In one of those life stories that make life stories, a man who taught at Syracuse in 1973 and felt no meaning from seeing Secretariat on the news back then has wound up calling this Secretariat project “a riot that’s been one of the major highlights of my career,” all while something has struck him. “The people who are putting this together,” he said, “the original group putting this together, are not horse-farm owners, they’re not horse-farm people. They’re people who put up fences, and do landscape work, and live in town. … None of them, as far as I can tell, actually are in day-to-day horse-farm operations.”

So he said of people, in general: “They want to be close to or with someone who was the greatest. And I really think Muhammad Ali and Secretariat have a lot in common in that sense.” Corum, the mural painter, thinks it still matters that Secretariat’s “confirmation was perfect” as “this ideal horse,” as “this gorgeous, fiery-chestnut horse.” She thinks it matters that Chenery engaged with fans as “a perfect gentlewoman.” She thinks the records help him outshine future Triple Crown winners, but then it comes back to that old stretch: “And of course, that Belmont. That’s otherworldly. I cry every time I watch that race. I just find it tremendously moving. … Even in athletics, in sports, it’s rare to see something on that level.”

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So people did approach sometimes as she painted, with strokes of help from others such as Miller, who delighted in saying, “I got to paint part of one sock.” Corum said, “If they got to meet Secretariat or touch him or feed him a carrot, some little story, it was so impactful for them,” and she repeated a line attributed locally to photographer Bobby Shiflet at the Frames on Main shop: “He is kind of an Elvis.”

And so, “It never gets old having a stranger tell me their Secretariat stories,” said 33-year-old Walker Hancock, who lived 52 days on Earth with Secretariat. “It’s just awesome that they want to share that experience with me.” That’s before he says, as an aside and a telltale line: “Obviously, I wasn’t around.”

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