What does Secretariat mean to you?

Video of the Secretariat movie’s director Randall Wallace talking about Mrs. Chenery’s reaction upon seeing the film

My husband works for ESPN/Disney, the studio producing and distributing this movie. In the interest of very full disclosure, I used to work there, too, but so long ago that Disney wasn’t even in the picture. Regular readers of this blog know that I’d be writing about this movie anyway, all over it like Calvin Borel is the rail at Churchill, even without my family connections with the company.

Way back in the days of disco, I was fresh out of college and beating the streets of Lexington, KY, for a job, any job, related to my Mass Communications degree. That’s how I ended up applying for a job in advertising sales for a local radio station.

The sales manager, perhaps only a couple of years older than I was and very athletic-looking, led me back into his office. As I write about this, I remember him referring to his office as “a boys club.” That should have been a hint.

No matter. I needed the job. The economy even then was tough for inexperienced job-seekers.

When I saw his wall art, I worked to contain my excitement. Hanging over his desk was the newest limited edition photographic print from local equine photographer Tony Leonard, “Secretariat at the Belmont.” So, could this sales manager really be a kindred spirit?

Happy to find an icebreaker, the first thing I did was compliment him on his good taste and remark how, someday, that same print would hang over my desk, too.

I hoped that my pronouncement showed ambition and initiative. I had a rather bookish resume to overcome if I wanted to, gulp, sell ads for a hard rock station.

Have you ever had a painting or a photograph reach inside your heart?

Tony Leonard’s “Secretariat at the Belmont” did mine, the first time I saw it in a Lexington shopping mall months before that interview.

The photograph had been taken in the paddock at Belmont Park. Secretariat is wearing his bridle and is oddly alone. A blur to his left shows that his handler, probably his groom Eddie Sweat, had been airbrushed out.

From a journalistic standpoint, the airbrushing is alarming. Eddie Sweat is as much a part of the 1973 Triple Crown history as Mrs. Chenery and trainer Lucien Laurin. But Leonard the photographer probably wasn’t thinking about historical documentation.

If you’ve seen any of Tony Leonard’s horse photos, you can tell that his photographs frame his subjects as heroes. All we see in the photo of Secretariat is the majesty that was Big Red striding over what appear to be the sands of time. Mythic.

I used to stand in the Lexington Mall gallery, gaze up at the photo and dream about how successful I’d be. I could take that precious $50 – what the unframed print cost then but unthinkable with my  student loans and the recession  — and buy that print. Someday.

So, when I saw that photo displayed in the station manager’s office, my mind clung to the idea that its presence was a sign.

With straight-backed bravado and a resume suggesting I possessed other skills, I insisted that, yes, I could sell ads for radio. Just hire me and let me show you.

I didn’t get the job. Thank God.

Because I soon got a job in TV.

Dreams of success then

Frankly, when I savored those early dreams with that print of Secretariat nearby, I’d imagined a desk setup like that radio station sales manager’s – only bigger.

My future would play out in a corner office overlooking a big city skyline. My office would be where people like job applicants came in to make requests. I’d glance up at my picture of Big Red who would inspire me with his excellence and grace …

The way I loved that picture, you’d never know that I hadn’t followed his journey to seize the Triple Crown.

Say, what?

When I was younger, I prided myself on my practicality. Horses made my widowed mother nervous. I gave them up for pursuits that could lead to scholarships. I made myself a relatively horse-free existence, in which I denied that I needed horses in my life.

I didn’t see Secretariat race on TV. Even though college students flocked to party in the Derby infield, I wasn’t part of that “spring break” crowd. So I never saw him run, except after-the-fact. I never felt part of “the moment,” of the excitement that Secretariat’s conquest of the Triple Crown.

I do remember feeling a vague pride when he and his blue-and-white stable colors showed up on three magazine covers – Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated.  Far out!

I even missed opportunities to visit him when he stood at stud at Claiborne Farm – and when I worked and lived less than half an hour away.

My husband and I left Kentucky in late 1979 to join a new cable TV network that had offered us jobs. (See above.) Secretariat lived ten years more. Even in my visits back to Kentucky during that period, going to see him at the farm never occurred to me.

So, in some respects, Secretariat reminds me to seize opportunities as they come along.  I didn’t know it then, or even for a long time after that. But I know it now.

He is in my office – but it’s very different

My office is in my comfy home in southern New England among a grove of oak trees on a hillside.

I do have a corner office. Instead of overlooking a city skyline, I glance out the window to see the oak trees that surround our house and an open field across the street. If I crane my neck just right, I can see the town commercial strip down in the valley below.

Instead of a sophisticated desk, I have a rather messy one. A lived-in one. Sometimes, there’s barely room for the cat insisting he or she sleep on it next to my elbow.

At my back and supervising the chaos of my office is the Tony Leonard print of "Secretariat at the Belmont"/Photo by Rhonda Lane

Secretariat is not exactly over my desk, but he’s on the wall behind me. In a sense, he has my back.

When I bought him at one of my first trips back to the Kentucky Horse Park after I’d moved away, a college friend who did not share my love of horses laughed at me.

“He’s not even your horse,” she’s still prone to hoot.  “Why would you hang a picture of him up on your wall?!?”

She may not understand fully, but when I told her that I had a horse blog, she suggested I write a blog post about the picture.

And here it is.

Something to eat with that whine?

When I wrote most of this post, I didn’t have a focus. I suspected how whiny it sounded, I didn’t follow my heart because I wanted to make other people happy. Boo hoo.

Watching the video of Secretariat director Randall Wallace talking about mental focus reminded me that maybe we let opportunities slip because we don’t trust our own strengths?

Or that we pursue unsuitable opportunities, like, selling ads for a radio station out of a grab for security? Or we submerge ourselves into responsibilities because we are afraid of the power of That One True Thing?

We’re afraid of what it takes. The price. The cost. The pain along the way. The aftermath. And we worry if we have to make the journey alone?’

Even if we have an encouraging family and a supportive team, it’s still us and that core that makes us who we are.

As with Secretariat’s legendary big heart, the drive must come from within.

About the photographer Tony Leonard

As if this post weren’t long enough, I wanted to add a post-script about the photographer Tony Leonard. He’s in his late-80s and just came out of an unfortunate financial situation in which he and his wife had been wards-of-the-state-of-Kentucky.

If you were ever moved by any of Leonard’s photographs – or his singing – feel free to join the Facebook group supporting the Leonards and his legacy.

This article tells how he feels about their release from custody. When you click on this story, scroll down to see the photo over his chair.

It’s the same photograph that hangs behind me. Except it’s certainly a different number, probably print number 1.

What does Secretariat mean to you?

8 Comments
  • Susie Blackmon
    October 5, 2010

    So I’m not the only one who didn’t follow my heart? Better late than never I say. 😉 Enjoyed reading your story, and it was nice to have more information about Leonard. I’d love to have one of his prints.

    Thanks so much…

    • rhond7
      October 5, 2010

      Hear, hear! 🙂 I used to feel bitter, but maybe we have been given the gift of not taking our passions for granted? Anyway, who know? That’s one way to look at it. Thanks for saying “hello,” Susie.

  • Susan Schreyer
    October 7, 2010

    Beautifully written and very touching, Rhonda. I think very few of us ever have the chance to purely follow our hearts. Life has demands. Mrs. Chenery had life-demands that caused her to be in Secretariat’s life. Sometimes, it seems, life has plans for you and the outcome can be surprising.

  • Rhond7
    October 9, 2010

    Thank you, Susan. And one of the crazier things is that sometimes life just plain works itself out. Of course, that can only be seen in hindsight.

    Also, if I may say this, I don’t have dependable access to my blog’s control panel for a few more days. so if you’ve been kind enough to comment, please be patient about seeing your comment appear here. Thanks!

  • Bea
    November 1, 2010

    Loved the story! For me Secretariat is and always will be the greatest racehorse of all time. You see I fell in love with him and with thoroughbred racing the first moment I saw him at the Kentucky Derby on Tv when I was young. I remember sitting on the floor and grabing my tape recorder with a little microphone and recording it and listening to it many times during my life. I remember hearing comments on how he would never win this race never mind the triple crown. I knew he was great from the start and will never forget the excitement of that moment for the remainder of my life. He is my Hero.

    • rhond7
      November 1, 2010

      Thank you for stopping by, Bea. So smart and prescient of you to record the call back in the day, when few recorded stuff off TV. You knew, you believed.

  • grey horse matters
    November 2, 2010

    You’ve written a great story. During our lives I guess we all have to leave things by the wayside that we’d rather do than things that we have to do. I’m afraid that life is full of if only if would have…

    As for Secretariat he was one of the great ones. I remember watching him win his races on TV when I was young. There hasn’t been a horse like him in a long time. He was thrilling to watch, I still get goosebumps watching his videos. My mom was a big fan of racing until the day she died. We always knew who was running and what the odds were.

  • rhond7
    November 6, 2010

    So true, grey horse matters. Wondering about “the road not taken” is part of the human condition. Lucky is the person who can look back and realize that the road “taken” was full of wonders and blessings itself. I think I’ve reached the point. 🙂

    Due to an eventful – to say the least – week, I’m replying to your post on Breeders Cup Saturday, hours before another eagerly anticipated horse race – Zenyatta’s try for 20 wins and no losses. (I’m a bit whacked out on percoset after a recent root canal, so forgive me if I become overly flowery.)

    Whether or not Zenyatta should be mentioned along with the two “Big Reds” is subject to debate, but I’m grateful to her for re-awakening interest in horse racing on a day other than the first Saturday in May.

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