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Secretariat’s legacy lives on in Doswell

Rachel Wessell’s service dog, Dawson, checks out Godiva, a horse from the Caroline Hunt Club, as Wessell’s sister Nicole looks on during the Secretariat Birthday Celebration at The Meadow Event Park Saturday in Doswell. / Photos by Peter Cihelka

Rachel Wessell’s service dog, Dawson, checks out Godiva, a horse from the Caroline Hunt Club, as Wessell’s sister Nicole looks on during the Secretariat Birthday Celebration at The Meadow Event Park Saturday in Doswell. / Photos by Peter Cihelka

The tall, dark bay gelding took carrots happily from passersby, utterly unaware that the crowds at The Meadow Event Park weren’t there for him.

Covert Action, the 19-year-old grandson of Secretariat, was just one of the many birthday visitors to the famous racehorse’s birthplace on Saturday.

The event is held annually at The Meadow in Doswell, a location known for holding the state fair each year, but also for being the birthplace of the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

Kate Chenery Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, signs autographs for fans during the annual birthday fete for the storied racehorse.

Kate Chenery Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, signs autographs for fans during the annual birthday fete for the storied racehorse.

Secretariat, born on March 30, 1970, was the first racehorse in 25 years to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. Secretariat still holds the records for each race.

Only 11 horses have claimed a Triple Crown title, a feat that has not been achieved since 1978.

This year’s birthday event marked almost 41 years since Secretariat’s winning streak, and featured the reunion of three of his former riders: Hall of Fame jockeys Ron Turcotte and Eddie Maple, and exercise rider Charlie Davis.

Turcotte jockeyed Secretariat during the 1973 Triple Crown in addition to riding fellow Meadows champion Riva Ridge during the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

“I actually saw Secretariat win the Preakness Stakes in 1973,” said Elizabeth Bath, a Richmond native. “This is the first time I’ve attended his birthday celebration, and it’s thrilling to see Turcotte here.”

Bath and her daughters were among the many visitors who waited for the chance to receive autographs from Turcotte, Maple and Davis.

Despite rain, most of the celebration-goers braved the showers to pay Covert Action a visit.

Housed in the yearling shed in a stall that once held both Secretariat and Riva Ridge, the horse was in fine spirits.

“All he cares about are those carrots,” Anne Tucker told a pair of girls who attempted to pet him.

Tucker is the president of the Virginia chapter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which owns Covert Action and 20 other former race horses.

In addition to providing a safe haven and second chance to horses, TRF also pairs with Virginia inmates. The foundation offers a program that teaches inmates about horse care and horse management, and pays them for their work.

“It’s giving the horses and the men a second chance,” Tucker said.

Despite his famous lineage, Covert Action was not cut out for racing. After winning only three of his 26 races, he made the most headlines during his retirement, due to his relationship with former inmate Tamio Holmes.

Holmes was part of the rehabilitation program and worked closely with Covert Action. After serving his sentence, Holmes went on to become a farrier, and often returns to the program to teach inmates and visit his old friend.

According to Tucker, the thoroughbred makes an appearance at many state fairs, and is at The Meadow every year to honor his grandfather’s birthday.

In addition to meeting Secretariat’s offspring, visitors were able to learn about equine history and Virginia racehorses at the brand new Museum of the Virginia Horse.

Housed in the Meadow Hall mansion, the museum aims to preserve and celebrate the history of the Virginia horse.

The exhibits trace the history of horses in Virginia from the Colonial period to present day, and highlights famous horses and jockeys. In addition, the museum has a special exhibit focused on Secretariat, The Meadow and the other famous horses that lived there.

While the museum is currently only available during special events at The Meadow, museum director Beryl Herzog hopes to expand and make it open year-round.

“We want to give it a permanent home where we can showcase things like saddles and tack, and other pieces that visitors don’t get to see otherwise,” Herzog said.

Though the event was focused on remembering one of Virginia’s greatest horses and celebrating the state’s rich equine history, some of the guests were more interested in the future of horse racing.

Abbey Gordon attended the event at the suggestion of her riding instructor so she could learn more about Secretariat and jockeying.

Gordon, who has been riding for three years, said her favorite part of the event was meeting the horses and learning about horse racing.

“When I grow up, I want to be a jockey,” Gordon said. “Though actually, I might be too tall.”

Hope Racine 540/374-5403

hracine@freelancestar.com 

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