Have you ever fallen in love with a very special horse, a horse who spoke to your heart? Dedicated to all those who have had this experience — at least once! — and particularly to the community of Zenyatta.com, this is a story of just how magical the spirit of one horse can be…..
The culture of the 1960’s was such that I was persuaded (like most of my girlfriends) to give up childhood passions as part of the ritual of becoming a young woman. It was as though we each had to make a personal sacrifice in order to be considered an adult, a person who had left the interests and impulses of our “former selves” behind. For me, that meant divesting myself of horses, “Classic” comic books and Barbie. So I put my C.W. Anderson, Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books away, along with my Breyer horses, horse scrapbooks and a handful of horse stories that I had written and illustrated myself when I was a girl of twelve.
Having boxed up the treasures of childhood, Secretariat came along and took me completely by surprise. Even though I was now a young woman, I was so moved by his victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes that I actually made a scrapbook of news clippings of Big Red’s Triple Crown, which I placed on my bookcase with my more “adult” pursuits. The scrapbook was joined, 2 years later, by Raymond Woolfe’s book, “Secretariat.” Through university, teaching, marriage and motherhood, these two mementos were my “guilty little pleasures,” snuck off the shelf when the house was quiet or when I had a few rare moments to myself. It just made me truly, deeply happy to spend time with Secretariat.
At 11:45 a.m. on October 4, 1989 Secretariat was humanely destroyed, a victim of laminitis, an incurable, painful and degenerative disease of the hoof. As there had been no forewarning of his illness, his death was registered as a kind of thunderbolt that pierced the heart. And even though I had never visited him at Claiborne, or been present at the tracks when he raced, I grieved like a woman who had known him my whole life.
As I grieved, I began a search for additional Secretariat memorabilia. And somewhere along the way, I read that Penny Chenery had observed that of all Secretariat’s offspring it was the filly, Terlingua (1976), who most reminded her of him. My curiosity peaked, I set off in search of Terlingua.
Locating even a scrap of information about her turned out to be an arduous task. The web was young in the 1990’s and lacked depth in many areas: horse racing was one. But very gradually, over months and years of dogged research, a path to Terlingua opened up. My first “sighting” of her was on a pedigree site where I saw a photograph of Terlingua as a broodmare, at her home, Overbrook Farm. Even though she was in foal in the photo, her resemblance to Secretariat was unmistakeable. She had his head, though not his ears, as well as his powerful hindquarters. I determined that I wanted a copy of this elegant photograph of the chestnut-red Terlingua against a background of fall foliage, her beautiful face turned toward the camera.
Emboldened, I varied my search vocabulary, until I came across equine photographer Audrey Crosby’s site. She had been to visit Terlingua at Overbrook and had taken a few photos which she had posted on her website. I contacted Audrey and she very kindly gave me some insight into Terlingua’s personality. She described the 17 year-old as either shy or indifferent to people — or both — but went on to talk about her pasture pal, Island Kitty (1976) the dam of champions Shy Tom (1986) and Hennesy (1992). It seemed that the two mares were devoted friends. And although my very first photos of Terlingua came from Audrey, she had not taken the much sought after picture that I had found on the pedigree website. There was, however, something about actually seeing Terlingua that pulled at my heart strings. It was suddenly hugely important to read everything that I could get my hands on about her.
I located old issues of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Times on Ebay and began to collect the ones that recorded Terlingua’s personal history. This collection would take another 3 or 4 years to complete, during which time I made some quite wonderful “virtual” friendships with people who would actually notify me if “anything Terlingua” came up. Deb Strother became my “eyes on the ground,” locating back issues about Terlingua for me; without her help and guidance, I would never have learned much about Secretariat’s talented daughter, other than what seemed her only claim to fame: she was the dam of Storm Cat, foaled in 1983.
In fact, her story was far more compelling than her broodmare record. I learned that Terlingua had been the darling of the California racing world as a 2 year-old — according to Barbara Livingston, in her wonderful book, “More Old Friends,” the filly had been regarded as another Ruffian, so brilliant was her early career. Terlingua was purchased as a yearling at Keeneland for owners, Beal and French, by a young Wayne Lukas, whose background was in training quarter horses. Lukas described how he had a picture in his head of just what “the Secretariat filly” would look like. Lukas’ father had trained Terlingua’s dam, Crimson Saint (1969) and Secretariat was Lucas’ all-time favourite thoroughbred. The young trainer pictured a yearling who would be a perfect blending of these two great thoroughbreds.
And Terlingua did not disappoint him. She was definitely Secretariat’s daughter, with a few touches from her dam in conformation and racing ability. Named after the town in Texas famous for its hot chilli, Terlingua was a feisty youngster. Lukas decided to train her with his quarter horses, an approach that somewhat quelled her high-strung temperament while toughening her for the rigours of thoroughbred racing. The pretty youngster was racing royalty and that’s exactly how she was treated. When she was bathed, for example, Breck shampoo was in the bucket and she was frequently pictured being hand-walked by Lukas. One story tells of how Lukas was unable to complete a round of golf with a friend because he was so nervous about leaving his filly on the eve of her first start.
He needn’t have fretted. Terlingua broke her maiden and set a track record in the Hollywood Nursery Stakes in 1978, in her racing debut. A month later, she won the Hollywood Lassie and set another track record of 1:08 and four-fifths, the fastest ever recorded at Hollywood by a 2 year-old filly, winning by three-and-a-half lengths. A delighted Wayne Lukas exclaimed after the victory, “ Can you believe that she ran from the half-mile pole to the five-eighth pole in :11 and four-fifths, and then went the final eighth in :12 flat?” The jockey who rode the runner-up added, “ That filly said it all on the track. She could beat the colts right now. She’s something else. She’s going to make her daddy proud.”
To adapt a line from Tom Smith in the movie version of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend, “…a good thoroughbred wins races but a great thoroughbred is measured by who she defeats.” On Saturday, July 22, only a week after her victory in the Lassie, Terlingua won the Hollywood Juvenile Stakes by 2 and a quarter lengths, defeating colts that included Exuberant (1976), Roman Oblisk (1976) and Flying Paster (1976), the latter also the reigning Kentucky Derby choice in the West that year. Terlingua blazed an opening quarter mile in :21 and three-fifths seconds and in the stretch, when asked for more speed, drew away easily, having gotten the six furlongs in 1:08 and four-fifths.
(There are precious few video records of Terlingua on the track. In this one she is shown racing — although the tape ends rather abruptly! )
Her next victory, in the Del Mar Debutante on September 3, 1978, gave her a record of 4 wins in as many starts. In an article headlined, “The West’s Filly Still Unbeaten,” Robert Hebert of The Blood-Horse began:
“Normally, the outstanding feature of the Labor Day weekend at Del Mar is the traditional Del Mar Handicap (gr. II) but this summer it was overshadowed by the 28th running of the $122,440 Del Mar Debutante (gr. II). The reason was the presence in the field of the brilliant, exciting, undefeated filly, Terlingua, who has become a great favourite with California fans. Secretariat’s muscular daughter attracted a crowd of 22,122 and when she appeared in the picture-postcard walking ring, the crowd lined up five and six deep at the rail. Many believe, as does this reporter, that Terlingua is the finest 2 year-old filly ever to race in the West.”
Terlingua was all business in what had been her longest race to date. Although she did toy somewhat with the field, resulting in some few anxious moments, when she turned for home she was to win by nine lengths, galloping to victory under the bit. A satisfied Wayne Lukas reported that his filly was in a growth spurt and had lost her “downhill look” for a gain in height at the withers to match her big, strong hindquarters, “…whence comes her tremendous power.” And although a compact 15.2 hands, Lukas also observed that Terlingua’s confirmation was perfect and her feet, knees and joints were all “clean.” Future plans involved a choice between staying in the West and bringing the undefeated two year-old East for the Matron, the Frizette or the Alcibiades.
The decision was made to bring Terlingua to the East, in order to clinch the Eclipse Award for 1978. However, it was here that the filly tasted defeat for the first time in her career, finishing second in the Alcibiades and third in the Frizette. After the losses, Lukas commented, “With a filly this good, you can convince yourself that they can adjust to anything, even though they might be trying to tell you something.” Before the Alcibiades, Terlingua faced the strangeness of a wet track during the days that led up to the race. On race day, there was a downpour. The filly’s struggle to overtake the winner, Angel Island (1976), was viewed favourably by her trainer, even though she fell back to be beaten by six lengths. However her jockey, Darryl McHargue, was deeply disappointed, “I’m just sorry that the people in New York and here at Keeneland didn’t get to see Terlingua run the way I know she can. She caught a cuppy track at Belmont, then this track today. She gave a game effort, but running on heart doesn’t win races all the time.”
At the end of 1978, Terlingua was runner-up to co-champions Candy Éclair (1976) and It’s In The Air (1976) in the Eclipse balloting. However, as Edward L. Bowen, writing in The Blood- Horse’s “Thoroughbreds of 1978” concluded, “Her unbeaten status has been shattered, but she remains the most exciting of the juvenile fillies of her season.”
These words were to prove prophetic: in her first race of 1979, the Santa Ynez Stakes (gr III), Terlingua defeated It’s In The Air. Reeling off seven furlongs in 1:21 and one-fifth, “the West’s sweetheart” chipped a fifth of a second off the track record, set by Tallahto in 1973. A description of the victory includes the lines, “…Terlingua, moving smoothly and beautifully, turned for home just coasting in front…” She went on to win the La Brea Stakes and the Las Flores Handicap and finished second in the Santa Susanna, Starlet and Sierre Madre Stakes at three and four. In the Las Flores, she defeated a field that included the future dams of Lady’s Secret (1982), Toussaud (1989) and Sunday Silence (1986). On May 10, 1980, Terlingua sustained a slab fracture to her right knee, following a workout at Hollywood Park. In the news of her retirement, Terlingua was acknowledged as the “brilliant daughter of Secretariat – Crimson Saint.”
As I followed the “Terlingua trail” my passion for thoroughbreds made itself known — and this time, as a lady in her 40’s, I was no longer apologetic.
(HRTV’s Inside Information did a piece on Terlingua shortly before her death, on April 29, 2008, at the age of 32.)
Intense research or all-consuming interests have a way of opening up new and unexpected avenues and the search for Terlingua was no different. The need to learn more about her bloodlines led into pedigree research and learning a new vocabulary. I began to build a modest library of books about thoroughbreds which led, in turn, to discovering the stories of other thoroughbreds who had become legendary in North America, England, Ireland and Australia. As I read about Man O’ War or Count Fleet, I also reflected on my grandfather’s stories of great thoroughbreds and just how incredibly interesting — and accurate! — they actually were. And the little girl within whispered of her love for The Black Stallion, Misty the pony, Fury, A Filly For Joan and My Friend Flicka.
In my desire to find photographs of Terlingua, I ended up chasing down some quite extraordinary photographers — Lydia A. Williams (LAW), Patricia McQueen (who turned out to be the photographer who had taken the very first photo that I ever found of Terlingua), Anne Eberhardt and Barbara Livingston, to name but a few. Kind, helpful and understanding of a woman “bitten by the bug,” we still exchange emails periodically. Too, the horses portrayed by these gifted women spirited me away to the sagas of thoroughbreds like John Henry or Raja Baba or Kingston Rule or Genuine Risk or Personal Ensign. The research and study felt “just right” and an intense interest in photography burgeoned that opened into the worlds of great equine photographers of the past, including C. C. Cook, James Soames and “Skeets” Meadors.
Throughout the cultural history of humankind, the horse is associated with inner journeys …. with travel between the worlds of mortality and immortality, typified by Pegasus. In a similar vein, the Jungian psychologist and storyteller, Clarissa Pinkola Estes (“Women Who Run With The Wolves”) talks about how following one’s inner spirit results in a kind of personal journey that eventually leads us to our spiritual home, a place where we find others who are like ourselves and in whose company we restore and refresh our souls. Secretariat was the first to call to me, shining his light into the darkness where I had excised my passion for horses. But it was Terlingua who acted as my companion and guide.
She led me on a merry chase, but once I agreed to follow, Terlingua brought me home. Home to a community of friends, professionals and other “horsey types” who happily weave horses into their lives, one way or another, every single day. Home to sharing in the joys of campaigns by great thoroughbreds like Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Home to finding the courage to write a note to Steve Haskin that brought me right here, to THE VAULT.
Of course, I didn’t really notice a community sprouting up all around me — I was just concentrating on nurturing my love for Terlingua. But in trusting myself to follow her, Terlingua carried me into a new world — into a landscape of hope and promise and delight, where the girl and the woman walk hand-in-hand.