Two weeks ago, Risen Star, a dark bay colt, thundered past the Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors and Brian’s Time to take the Preakness Stakes by 1¼ lengths. The 3-year-old’s upset victory delighted many racing fans—particularly those who had bet No. 5 to win—and set the stage for a return match at this week’s Belmont Stakes. Risen Star’s victory also, no doubt, made his father very, very proud—although Dad, typically, said nothing.
Dad, of course, is Secretariat, considered by many to be the greatest Thoroughbred of this century, perhaps of all time. In 1973 he won the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont-along the way setting a Derby record of 1:59 2/5 (no other horse has bettered two minutes) and beating Twice a Prince by 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. Instantly recognizable for his glistening chestnut coat, three white socks and regal bearing, Secretariat today, though slowing some at the age Paris, Ky., where he reigns as a potent draw for mares (55 last breeding season) and fans (10,000 a year).
“The first thing visitors say when they get here is ‘Where is Secretariat?’ ” says Claiborne manager John Sosby. “They’re not interested in the others. They come to see the legend.”
Lawrence Robinson was there in the fall of 1973, when Secretariat retired from the track to live the good life, munching hay and oats and—most importantly—romancing mares. Robinson, 73, suffered a stroke eight years ago that forced him to retire to his home on a hill above the stables where he worked for 40 years. “The stroke made me forget some things,” he says, sitting on a lawn chair and gazing toward Claiborne. “But I’ll never forget the day that beautiful horse stepped out of that trailer.”
Robinson, a groom and stud man, had cared for Secretariat’s daddy, Bold Ruler, and his granddaddies, Princequillo and Nasrullah, when they were put out to stud. He has worked with hundreds of horses during his career but fell in love with only one. “I sit up here every day and think about that horse,” Robinson says. “I miss him.”
Even before racing as a 3-year-old, Secretariat was syndicated for $6.8 million to 32 investors. He came to Claiborne’s rolling 3,200 acres to stand at stud, where owners pay $70,000 for him to cover their mares. Robinson was the stud man, leading the horse known as Big Red into the breeding shed up to 10 times a week during the February-through-June mating season. Secretariat never resisted, never fussed. “Perfect,” says Robinson, proud as a parent. “He covered the mare first time up.”
Despite his performances, the results were disappointing, at least in the first year. None of the 453 foals Secretariat sired has come close to matching his track record, and only two, Risen Star and General Assembly, have run in the Derby (they finished third and second, respectively). “A lot of misinformed people thought he could reproduce himself,” explains Sosby. “But it just doesn’t work that way. There’s only one Secretariat.”
He knows it. “You watch him. He knows he’s something special,” says stud man Bobby Anderson. Along with Clay Arnold, Anderson takes care of Secretariat now. But even the mighty slow down, and Anderson concedes that the powerful stallion’s passion has cooled a bit. “Used to be he’d walk in, do his business in 30 seconds and be done,” brags Anderson. “Now he might stand for a second or two and look around. He’s a little tired, but he’s a pro.”
When his services aren’t required in the breeding shed, Secretariat leads a life of solitary luxury. Every morning at 6 a.m., Arnold or Anderson buckles a leather halter, with a gold Secretariat nameplate, over Big Red’s head and leads him to a paddock. Turned loose on 1.7 emerald-green acres, he gallops alone. “They kill each other if you put ’em together,” says Arnold of the high-strung stallions.
But today, Secretariat, 16.1 hands and 1,385 lbs. of muscle (about 285 lbs. over his racing weight), trots over to the fence. In the neighhhhhhboring pasture is the 1979 Derby winner, Spectacular Bid. The two aging Thoroughbreds snort and paw the ground, tossing their heads up and down. Spurred by memory or nature, both horses bolt, racing each other along the fence line, nostrils flared, hooves churning, manes flying. It is a beautiful sight by the light of an early Kentucky morning.
Lawrence Robinson has seen it happen hundreds of times, but not often enough. “No horse running today could’ve stayed with Secretariat,” he says. “It makes me feel special that he was handed to me.” The adoration was mutual. “That horse loved me,” says Lawrence. “I could see it in his eyes.” His own eyes tear up a bit as he gazes toward the valley. “Secretariat’s the greatest horse that ever walked these hills,” he says. “I hope he outlives me.”
—By Susan Toepfer, with Bill Shaw in Paris, Ky.