Big Red’s Retirement…November 11, 1973

He pranced onto the track, copper coat gleaming in the sun that cold November day. At the sight of him,  33,000 fans burst into thunderous applause and cheers.  He was keyed up, ready to race and no doubt wondering where the other horses were.

But on November 6, 1973, there were no other horses, no starting gate, no finish line.  It was “Farewell to Secretariat Day” at Aqueduct racetrack in New York.  It was Big Red’s “last hurrah” before he and stablemate Riva Ridge would fly to Claiborne Farm near Lexington, Kentucky on November 11 to begin their new careers at stud.

Secretariat had to be content with Ron Turcotte jogging him up to the quarter pole and back in front of his adoring public thronging the stands. He wasn’t content. In fact, Lucien Laurin was quoted as saying that Secretariat was so mad he didn’t get to race, he ate the flowers in Penny’s bouquet when posing in the winner’s circle for the final time.

After his hero’s farewell at Aqueduct, Secretariat received a hero’s welcome  in Lexington, Kentucky. Over 300 fans gathered at the Blue Grass Airport to cheer the two Meadow Stable champions as their private plane touched down.  One person remarked that more people turned out to see Secretariat than they did to see their governor.

Fans waved signs that said, “Welcome Home, Secretariat!”  Penny recalled thinking, “He was not born in Kentucky.  Virginia was his home.” She, Lucien Laurin, Elizabeth Ham and Eddie Sweat, had accompanied their beloved horses to Claiborne,  capping off a journey that would have a lasting impact on their lives as well as the world of Thoroughbred racing.

The Claiborne team quickly loaded Secretariat and Riva into the horse van and, under police escort, headed for the farm.  It was not only a physical transition, but an emotional one as well,  for the horses and humans.  Secretariat did not seem to appreciate being handed over to Claiborne stud manager, Lawrence Robinson,  as his long-time groom Eddie Sweat stood on the sidelines.  Snorting and pulling away, he showed his displeasure by kicking his new handler on the way to the stallion barn.

The former stall of his great sire, Bold Ruler, was freshly bedded with straw and awaiting Secretariat. In the last act as his groom, Eddie helped take off Secretariat’s leg wraps.  Riva was settled into the adjoining stall.   Penny and Lucien came in to say their final goodbyes.  Penny remarked that leaving her two horses was like giving up a child for adoption. Eddie was in his own world of private grief at leaving his beloved “Red.”

Penny knew that Secretariat, “America’s Super Horse,” had  already transcended being her horse and had become the people’s horse. He would become the star attraction at the renowned farm,  bringing in 10,000 people a year. 

That may have surprised the short-sighted farm worker at Claiborne who reportedly said of Secretariat on that long-ago day of transition, “He’s just another horse,” until he proves himself at stud.

He did that too.  Here we are, 38 years later, and Secretariat’s “little children” as Eddie Sweat called them, are still carrying his flame into the winner’s circle. Our next post will look at how many of his descendants ran in the Breeders’ Cup races this year.

On the track, in the breeding shed and in the hearts of his legions of fans, Secretariat has indeed “gone the distance.”  On this date, November 11, we salute his lasting legacy!

A photo of Secretariat’s stall at Claiborne, 2010. Though others have occupied his stall, none have ever filled his shoes. 

Leeanne Meadows Ladin

co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend”

www.secretariatsmeadow.com

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2 Responses to Big Red’s Retirement…November 11, 1973

  1. lynn says:

    Nov 6, 1973 was my mother’s 51st Birthday and I caught all kinds of hell because I missed it. I went ot Aqueduct, I wanted to be there to say goodbye to Big Red, Riva and Eddie. Kentucky may as well have been a foreign country to me as it seemed so far away… I remember crying as Red and Riva were walking down the barn for the last time and Eddie punching me in the shoulder saying “bye Ms. Lynn”. I never went back to Aqueduct, haven’t been there since. I never saw Eddie or Secretariat or Riva in person again. In 1996 I was flown back to NY by a Japanese Film Crew doing a story on my horse, a son of Secretariat’s, Secretariat Dancer and they took me to Belmont. It was the first time I had been back to the track since 1973. I got to see Secretariat’s statue there and walk back thru Barn 5. I was in awe of the statue, my heart ached and I stood next to the maginificent replica with my hand on him for a very long time. I apologized for never making it to KY to see him and I told the Big Red statue how I’d kept my promise to someday own one of his offspring and I now owned one of his sons. I quietly told Red about all of our trail riding adventures in Colorado and how proud he would be of his son Dancer. When we got to Barn 5 and where Red’s stall use to be, I was overcome with all the emotions of being there 23 years ago. I could hear Eddie, smell the horses. I walked up to the stall door and the emptiness of the stall overwhelmed me and I started to cry. I must have been there some time because one of the film crew said they had run out of film. I don’t think they expected my reactions and they were trying to film it all. My mother never forgot or forgave me for missing her Birthday – she even told the film crew that. I will never forget watching those two magnificent animals walk down and out of the barn that day at Aqueduct.

  2. What a travesty to have put these two great Virginia horses at stud in Kentucky. Imagine what they could have done for the Virginia horse industry.

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