Eddie Sweat had the touch with Secretariat
During Secretariat’s first season, as a two-year-old in 1972, trainer Lucien Laurin switched Sweat from stable star Riva Ridge – who had just won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes – to grooming Secretariat, a horse Laurin was beginning to envision as perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime champion. The trainer wanted his best man on his best horse, and Sweat was tabbed for the job.
Of course, all the hands in Lucien Laurin’s racing stable were skilled at their jobs. But the trainer felt Sweat had something extra – that certain something you might call “touch.” The groom had a “way” with horses, and proved to have a special way with Secretariat. The partnership that ensued lasted through Secretariat’s career.
Exercise rider Charlie Davis says Sweat treated Secretariat like the horse was family – and the horse seemed to feel the same about his caretaker. “Eddie would be coming up the shed row and Secretariat would be looking at him every step, like, ‘Here comes daddy.’ ” recalls Davis. “When Eddie would come in the stall door with that currycomb, he’d say, ‘Right there, Eddie. Oh, oh. Scratch it right there.’ ”
As physically strong as Secretariat was, he could have been a very tough horse to handle, but Davis says Secretariat was a “pussycat” for Eddie Sweat. The son of Bold Ruler had “horse sense” and allowed Sweat to be in his stall for all his necessary duties – not just the fun things like being scratched with a currycomb. And all the while, Sweat would talk to his horse. Talk and talk. Horse Talk, an outsider might think. Groom Talk was probably the way Secretariat heard it.
Eddie Sweat got his first glimpses of thoroughbred racehorses in his hometown of Holly Hill, S.C., where he was born in 1938. There were horse farms nearby and Sweat grew up mesmerized by the grace and beauty of the swift horses he saw bounding across pastures and honing their speed over training tracks. As a teenager he picked up work where he could, and finally landed a good job digging postholes and mending fences at Laurin’s thoroughbred training farm in Holly Hill. Laurin noticed the hard-working teenager, and soon offered Sweat a chance to come inside the fences of the racing game to work with the horses. The trainer noticed the lad had a natural feel for the high-strung and sensitive animals – the “touch” top trainers are always seeking.
When Laurin’s stable headed north to New York, Sweat went with it, and within a few years Sweat was “rubbing” some of the top horses in America, including the champion filly Quill, and Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid. When Laurin took on the Meadow Stable string in 1971, Sweat was assigned to the most talented colts, including 1972 Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge, and then the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Later, when Laurin retired, Sweat went to work with Laurin’s son, Roger Laurin, also a top conditioner on the New York circuit. There Sweat rubbed more fine horses, including Breeders’ Cup Juvenile sensation Chief’s Crown.
During the time he was Secretariat’s groom, the limelight naturally fell Eddie Sweat’s way, and he became possibly the best-known groom of all time. Sweat was seen with his horse on national television, and mentioned in news stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. Today he is immortalized in bronze in a life-sized statue at the Kentucky Horse Park – leading Secretariat and rider Ron Turcotte into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs after Secretariat’s victory in the 99th Run for the Roses.
Despite his newfound fame, Sweat took his role to be just who he was. If big-time writers like Bill Nack, from Sports Illustrated, wanted to hang around the barn and write about Secretariat – and Sweat made it into their stories – well, that was fine. But he never paid that much attention beyond that. As long as Secretariat didn’t bite the writers – and they didn’t bite the horse – that was all right. Eddie Sweat’s business was Secretariat.
Sweat arrived on the job before dawn and was at the barn through most of the day – then often back at night, to look in on his champion. Sweat was also the stable’s van driver. He and Charlie Davis were always dispatched as a team to haul top horses from the barn in New York to run in stakes races at other tracks – Monmouth, Pimlico, Arlington, Woodbine, in Canada. Once arrived, Sweat and Davis would manage the horse through the stay, and then return – the trust of the trainer and the horses’ owners riding with them.
During the weeks leading up the Kentucky Derby, when Secretariat began to capture unprecedented worldwide attention, Sweat and Davis spent every minute of every day with Secretariat. “One of us would only leave to go out to bring back sandwiches,” recalls Davis. “But one of us would always be there.” The pair was especially vigilant in the days before the Derby, forming a protective human shield around the horse that everyone wanted to be near. Some, perhaps, not with the best of intentions.
Most days were not so pressure packed, of course. Horse racing is an agrarian sport and racehorses are, essentially, pasture animals. The backside stable area is more a world of straw and dirt, liniment and night air. Barn swallows singing in the morning. Maybe an occasional goat around to keep a nervous horse company. It’s a routine. Every day, Sweat washed Secretariat’s red coat, then brushed it to a gleam. He might run a hose of cold water across tender shins, or slather liniment on long legs – with heat seeping into tight muscles and the sharp smell of wintergreen wafting through the air. A day with Secretariat was hands on horsehide, fingers on hooves. Sweat would heft manure from his horse’s stall, and toss in fresh straw to fluff out a soft bed. Then he’d rake up around the front of Secretariat’s stall – the real-world castle of a Triple Crown champion.
Work done in the morning, Sweat would scoop out four quarts of oats for “Sexy’s” next meal. Maybe some sweet mash, with molasses. The groom would also hang up a bundle of sweet alfalfa hay for the horse to munch on throughout the day. One time someone asked Sweat for an insider’s bit of secret knowledge about Secretariat, and Eddie said, “He eats too much.”
Of course, Sweat was kidding. Grooms love to report to the trainer that the Big Horse “ate up.” It means he’s “doing good.” And a big horse like Secretariat needed his oats, and plenty of them. Maybe if the horse was lazy, it might not be good if he ate too much. But Secretariat trained fast and broke track records.
Sweat wasn’t a tall man, but he was strong. “He was about 5-feet-6, but he was dynamite built,” says Davis. “Big chest and big arms. He could do a man’s work.”
And was a good man to work with, Davis fondly remembers.
“One time we were at Keeneland with Riva Ridge, and Ronnie Turcotte had come in to ride Riva in the Blue Grass,” says Davis. “Me and Eddie had planned to have us a big pot of pinto beans, with ham hocks and some spices. We liked to cook up something special so we didn’t always have to go to the track kitchen.” Sweat and Davis made a trip into Lexington to purchase a hot plate and a pot and all the beans and ingredients for their feast. They started the beans simmering that night before going to bed.
The next morning the guys were thinking about their upcoming big meal while attending to a full morning of chores around the barn.
“All of a sudden, Eddie says, where’s Ronnie?” recalls Davis. “I said, ‘uh-oh – the beans!’ ”
Sweat and Davis raced into the tack room to find Turcotte polishing off the last of the pot of beans and grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, these were awfully good beans, fellas,” Turcotte said, as the stable hands looked on in utter dismay.
Of course, Turcotte wasn’t about to let his pals down. He knew the lads didn’t have a lot of money and had put a great deal of effort into their pot of beans. The jockey was just having fun, and immediately treated the guys to a big dinner in a restaurant. Everyone around the barn told the beans story for years afterward. There was a great deal of camaraderie amongst the Secretariat team.
Eddie Sweat died of Leukemia in 1998. He was a plain, hard-working man who fitted naturally into the life of one of the greatest horses in history. Because everyone around Secretariat became a celebrity, Eddie Sweat was a celebrity, too, in a way. But he always left the horse to be the star. In the Walt Disney Studios movie “Secretariat,” director Randall Wallace and his staff spent hours with the living members of the old Secretariat team trying to get Eddie Sweat’s character just right. Actor Nelsan Ellis portrays Sweat in the movie, and has received critical acclaim for his remarkable performance .
Through all the years, one thing Secretariat’s fans have especially liked is Eddie’s surname: Sweat. Then and now, that name sounds just right for a guy who did a sweaty job with a superstar athlete – in there with the dirt and straw and a live racehorse: Eddie Sweat and Secretariat.
By Bill Doolittle