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Archive for September, 2017

Penny Chenery, the owner of The Meadow and of thoroughbred champions, Riva Ridge and Secretariat, died on September 16, 2017 at the age of 95. And for many, Penny’s death was like losing a part of their own personal history.

 

Penny gives Ronnie a hug in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, as Lucien, Eddie and Secretariat look on. Their big red horse had just won the Kentucky Derby.

When I lived my personal Secretariat story, live television was an extension of what was really happening in the “now.” We watched intently — whether The Beatles on Ed Sullivan or the Triple Crown races — and committed each and every detail to memory. Because, as in life, the only way to re-visit those moments was through significant images, sounds and words stored in the mind. It was in this world that Penny Chenery Tweedy opened her arms to welcome a nation of sports people and racing fans into the life and times of her Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, and the Meadow Stable Team.

Without the social media platforms we can access today, helping strangers to feel close to a champion who happened to be a horse was quite an accomplishment. But Penny did it by overcoming the distance, in both literal and figurative terms — talking with fans as she signed autographs, composing descriptions that jumped off a page, opening up before the cameras that followed her everywhere she went, and reaching out with a repertoire of expressions and gestures that signaled personal contact.

Every fan of Secretariat and of Penny’s beloved Riva Ridge has their own personal narrative of how and when and why they found their way into Penny’s embrace. This is mine.

Penny with RIVA RIDGE and her team following RIVA’s Belmont Stakes win. She would later say, “Secretariat belonged to the world, but Riva belonged to me.” Photo and copyright, Tony Leonard.

Like so many, Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes was so powerful as to become a life memory for me. Even without the replays I can access today, I could close my eyes and see my family and I in front of the television screen, hear Chick Anderson’s call, see again the tears my mother and I shed as the big red colt in the checkered blinkers came down the final stretch. If you were a Canadian, it was doubly powerful. Because the tiny figure astride Secretariat was Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte, and somewhere up there in the stands was Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin. During a lull in the post-race coverage, my mother fiercely declared what all five of us were thinking, “Well, that’ll show everyone what Canadians can do!”

 

Every Canadian horse racing fan knew Ronnie Turcotte. Born in Drummond, New Brunswick, Turcotte was a French-Canadian who grew up in a family where the spoken language was French. There is a large francophone community in New Brunswick, some of whom have their roots in Quebec, as does Ronnie, who was born there. In the pre-social media world, Turcotte first came to prominence via his association with Northern Dancer, whom he had ridden in his maiden win and again at Woodbine when The Dancer was retired. In fact, it was with E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm that the 18 year-old was first taken on as a stable boy and hot walker. Turcotte rose to apprentice jockey and eventually started working for fellow Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin, at his stable in Maryland.

Ronnie on NORTHERN DANCER following the colt’s maiden win. At this time, Ronnie was an apprentice jockey. When The Dancer was retired, it was Ronnie who rode him out for the final time.

Laurin’s career in horse racing began in 1929, as a jockey at Blue Bonnets in Montreal. After riding 161 race winners and battling with constant weight problems, Laurin began working as a trainer in New England in 1962, a job that would span 45 years and take him to the pinnacle of horse racing success. While working for two different stables, Laurin enjoyed a long and successful association with owner Reginald K. Webster, for whom he trained many good horses, including Quill, the 1958 American Champion 2 Year-Old Filly, and Amberoid, winner of the 1966 Wood Memorial and Belmont Stakes. However, for the majority of Canadians, Lucien Laurin’s name will always be associated with memories of Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

Penny and trainer, Lucien Laurin.

Penny and her Triple Crown colt were a distinctly Canadian affair for many of us who lived north of the forty-ninth parallel, and the pride this engendered was almost as huge as Secretariat’s fame. (Canadians are always proud when they garner attention from the USA, chiefly because, despite its geographical size, Canada has a much smaller population. In 1973, there were about twenty-two and a half million of us, in comparison to a little more than two hundred and eleven million in the USA.) So it was that when it was announced that Secretariat would run his last race in Canada, I was overwhelmed at Penny Chenery’s generosity. It was a great honour for Canadian racing fans and for Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte, Penny’s decision would never be forgotten.

Sports commentators were quick to remind the Canadian public that Man O’ War had also run his last race in Canada in 1920, when he took on (American) Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, to win The Kenilworth Park Gold Cup. The comparison was not lost on me. I often imagined that the big red horse of 1973 was a reincarnation of Man O’ War, to whom he seemed to bear an unmistakable resemblance. These imaginings were prompted by an awareness that, in witnessing the Secretariat narrative, I was in fact participating in a living history as great as those who saw Man O’ War run.

 

Ronnie’s last ride on SECRETARIAT came in an early morning workout over the Woodbine turf course. Photo and copyright, Ken Burns.

In October, when the Canadian International is run at Woodbine in Toronto, Canada,  I was training to be a teacher at McGill University. But this didn’t stop me ripping into newspapers from Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere, looking to see if there was any new “Secretariat coverage.” By today’s standards, the press was less than scanty: very few photos, some short reports. It was a cold, bleak month in Eastern Canada and it suddenly became even darker when I learned that Ronnie Turcotte would not get to ride Secretariat in his final race. In my eyes, Secretariat and Ronnie were one. It was finally my chance to celebrate Ronnie and the great Secretariat right here, on Canadian soil, and some dude in New York City had taken that opportunity away from me. And from Ronnie.

It was a cruel, heartless decision.

 

Penny and Lucien had to work fast to replace Ronnie and their choice, a personal friend of Penny’s, was the accomplished Eddie Maple. In 2009, when he was inducted into the American Racing Hall of Fame, Eddie was asked which race made him the most proud. He answered, “Secretariat, in the Canadian International.” But at the time, Maple was overwhelmed by the responsibility of pilotting a thoroughbred legend in his final race and the expectations of Secretariat’s team, his fans and everyone else who counted themselves citizens of Secretariat Nation that he would, of course, win. In the days following his suspension, Ronnie and Maple formed a bond, with the former teaching the latter everything he needed to know about Secretariat.

 

In the meantime, Woodbine was getting ready for a moment in thoroughbred history. Programs were being printed and, breaking with tradition, special tickets were printed featuring “Big red” on their face:

 

 

 

October 28, 1973 was circled in bright blue on my student agenda. Cameras, crew and sports journalists were crowding into Woodbine and the bistros and hotels of Toronto. The atmosphere crackled, even among the usually laid-back residents at the track.

Secretariat and Eddie Maple had their work cut out for them, as some very good colts were running against them, chief among them Kennedy Road, a five year-old son of Victoria Park who had won the Hollywood Gold Cup and was trained by the brilliant HOF Charlie Whittingham. Whittingham had not accompanied the horse to Woodbine; instead, it was trainer Jim Bentley who handled the colt when he came home to Canada. Kennedy Road had won the Queen’s Plate in 1971 and, although irrascible in temperament, he was a champion and a champion would ride him in the International: Avelino Gomez. The legendary Sandy Hawley was pilotting Presidial, another very solid runner. Big Spruce (out of grass sire, Herbager) who had won the Marlboro Cup and Fabe Count, winner of the Jockey Club Cup, were two other horses given a chance against Secretariat. Robyn Smith, then a rising star among female jockeys and much later, the wife of Fred Astaire, was a fan favourite and booked to partner Triangular, a grandson of Princequillo who was not considered a threat.

 

Jockey Robyn Smith rode TRIANGULAR in the International. She would later become the wife of Fred Astaire, whom she met when riding for Alfred Vanderbilt. The two were inseparable until Astaire’s death.

 

The weather continued to be an issue, particularly the rain, and it was not a certainty that Secretariat would start at all, although that information got lost in the build-up to October 28th. The International wasn’t Secretariat’s first run over turf; he had won the Man O’ War at Belmont impressively — and beaten Big Spruce and Triangular, as well as a very gutsy Tentam:

 

“Some people may not believe me,” jockey Ron Turcotte reflected, a few years after Secretariat’s retirement,”but I always thought he was an even better horse on grass than dirt.” Lucien Laurin was of the same opinion and was confident the colt would manage a wet surface. The decision was made to run.

On race day, it was cold and damp. Dark clouds formed ominously over Woodbine, turning its lush landscape into something that evoked gloom rather than glory. It might not have been the toughest test of her champion’s abilities, but as Penny would point out, “The easiest race on paper is the one I find we lose…so I have to worry.”

As Secretariat appeared in the tunnel and stepped onto the track, I held my breath and tried to staunch the pain of saying goodbye. In 1973, when a thoroughbred retired, he or she seemed to disappear: this was an ending, not just a final race in a brilliant campaign. (Of course, thanks to social media, I didn’t entirely lose the connection. But in 1973, there was no way to predict the internet.)

“There he goes! There he GOES!” stands in my memory alongside “he is moving like a tremendous machine…” Three little words — the tears that flowed when I heard them the first time — and the way my heart pounded when a Canadian flag of carnations was draped over Secretariat’s withers, just as though the whole of Canada enveloped him.

Secretariat is my big red colt and it was Penny who made it possible for me to feel this way.

“THERE HE GOES! THERE HE GOES!” Secretariat winning the Canadian International, October 28, 1973.

 

Out of the gloom on that grey day he came, rolling like a bright red thundercloud.

 

Wearing our flag: Eddie Sweat leads his champion into the winner’s circle and hearts burst open from Halifax to the Northwest Territories to Victoria. Photo and copyright: Michael Burns

 

Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, has observed that a life is a creation composed of the fabric of our daily selves and the improvisation necessary to keep on going, no matter what. In an early book, Composing A Life, Bateson studied the lives of five different women and summed up her findings in the following way: “…Today, the materials and skills from which a life is composed are no longer clear. It is no longer possible to follow the paths of previous generations…We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.”

The quilt Penny Chenery wove was a masterpiece.

Thank you, Penny, for reaching out to me and taking me on the ride of your life.

 

Penny and her big red colt.

 

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

Tom Durkin interviews Penny (2014):

 

Penny on the 40th Anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown:

 

Penny, Ronnie & Lucien talk SECRETARIAT:

 

Q&A with EDDIE MAPLE:

 

 

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Big Red’s Last Race,” produced by the Ontario Jockey Club. (It’s my favourite portrait of Secretariat, Penny, Ronnie, Lucien, Eddie, Charlie {misnamed in the preceding clip as “George Davis”} and pony, Billy Silver. It’s real and filled with warmth and appreciation, a faithful Canadian rendition of the meaning Secretariat’s last race held for me. AA)

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame: Kennedy Road, Eddie Maple

 

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