"Here, hold the horse," said the aging groom. "I'll be right back." And with that, he handed me the lead rope attached to the halter of Secretariat, perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time, winner of the Triple Crown in 1973. Who can forget his 31-length victory in the Belmont that year? But how did I, a sometimes racing fan, or more specifically, a fan of Secretariat, get to hold onto this great animal?
It happened this way.
On September 17, 1985, I was finishing a reporting assignment in Lexington, Kentucky. I knew that this was horse country -- breeding farms dot the area, and many past winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes live here, whiling away their time in retirement and hopefully breeding future winners. I knew that Secretariat was standing at stud in nearby Paris, Kentucky, at Claiborne Farms.
I had some time to spare, and I thought, "why not?" I'm here and when will I ever pass this way again and have a chance to meet him? So, on a whim, I called Claiborne Farms and asked if I could come out. The person on the other end of the phone said yes, but that I would have to get there before they closed in about an hour.
I jumped into my rental car and rocketed out of Lexington. It was about 18 miles to Paris. I drove through horse country -- miles and miles of rolling green pastures and white wooden fences, with thoroughbreds on either side. It was glorious.
I arrived at Claiborne with about 15 minutes to spare. The receptionist asked me to wait for a few minutes. Then, after making a phone call, pointed up a small hill and said, "Someone will meet you up there."
At the top of the hill was a barn, and inside the barn were some of the greatest racehorses ever -- Tom Rolfe, Nijinsky, Round Table and Riva Ridge, Secretariat's stablemate and winner of the Kentucky Derby the previous year. I waited patiently and then a very tall groom, Lawrence Robinson, walked out and said, "You're here to see Secretariat?" It was more of a statement than a question. "Wait here."
He turned around and a few minutes later, he walked back, leading Big Red by the halter. I was thrilled. Here he was, arguably the greatest thoroughbred of all time. I can still see his incredible victory in the Belmont. The television announcer went nuts, and the long shot of the finish showed only one horse -- Secretariat. The others were so far back they were practically out of sight.
They walked slowly toward me, and I was struck by how much smaller Secretariat seemed in real life. Maybe the legend made him bigger in all our minds. Or maybe it was because he was not in racing trim -- after all, it had been a dozen years since had last run. But it was unmistakably Secretariat -- the red coat and white markings on three of his four legs told me that.
After a few minutes of chitchat with Mr. Robinson, I asked if I could pet the horse. He knew from that, of course, that I was a real tenderfoot around horses, and with an amused grin, he said, "Sure go ahead."
I reached out to touch Secretariat's on his hindquarters, and just as I did, he wheeled his head around as if to bite me. I jumped back, and Mr. Robinson chuckled and said, "Don't worry, he won't hurt you." I remembered the stories about how Secretariat was a big ham, how his ears pricked up when he pranced out onto the track, that he had a pet cat in his stall and a favorite pony. Nevertheless, I decided not to try again.
We got to talking, and I told Mr. Robinson that my mother had exercised and ridden horses when she was growing up. I said that she would love to be standing where I was then, looking at Secretariat.
That's when he said, "Here, hold the horse. I'll be right back."
He handed me the halter and disappeared.
I was terrified. What if he decides to bolt? What if he gets loose from me and hurts himself? I'll be to blame. I can just see the headlines.
But Secretariat hardly moved a muscle, not even acknowledging that I was holding him with another attempt at a bite. Perhaps he was thinking of that green grass and all those nice fillies waiting for him in the pasture.
A few minutes later, Mr. Robinson came back with what looked like a big comb. He proceeded to comb out Secretariat's mane and then handed me a sheaf of his hair.
"Take this to your mother," he said.
After a few more pleasantries, and a last look at the great horse, he led Secretariat back to his stall and I walked back down the hill.
A few months later, I surprised my mother with the sheaf from Secretariat's mane. I told her that I would get it framed for her and it would be a belated birthday present. She was delighted.
But I never got the horse's hair framed. Part of it was that I didn't trust anyone to handle it. I was afraid that it could easily get lost or damaged in the framing process or, worse, stolen by some racing fan who saw it for the treasure that it was. So I continued carrying it around with me in an envelope in my briefcase, which is where it is today.
My mother died in 2006. Secretariat died in 1989. But I still have a little piece of racing history with me, and every once in a while I take the sheaf of his hair out and look at it. I usually do it this time of year, after the Kentucky Derby, when another Triple Crown winner seems possible.