We are sad to announce that Straight Flush passed away on September 3rd, 2007. “Daddy”, as he was affectionately called by those around him, died peacefully in his sleep in his favorite spot beneath the canopy of a large eucalyptus tree. Straight Flush’s rescue will forever warm our hearts and remind us of all the efforts of those who not only care, but also act, to make a difference in the welfare of these beautiful animals. We will miss the old guy but can find solace in the fact that he lived a full life and was happy right to the very end. Our thanks to Stephanie Diaz, April Ward, Neal Arave, Bill Doolittle, and equineline.com for their help in sharing his amazing story as shown in its original form from February of 2007 below.
Counting His Carrot Cakes
Rescued brother of Secretariat is alive and well at age 32
by Bill Doolittle
A few years ago an old horse, down on his luck and likely down to his last days, got the proverbial “phone call from the governor.”
Horse enthusiast and racing writer Stephanie Diaz ponied up $200 to save the life of Straight Flush, a former racehorse and stallion who was long past any utilitarian horse-use. Down almost to hide and bones, Straight Flush stood stoically in a muddy Texas cattle feed lot, awaiting a final ride to a horsemeat slaughterhouse.
Instead, Diaz saw to it that the old horse was saved – retired to a California ranch where he could canter along his paddock fence, keep an eye out for the occasional carrot from a friend, and live out his days in sunshine.
That was in 1999, when Straight Flush was merely 24 years old. On Jan. 1 – the universal birthday for all thoroughbreds registered in North America – Straight Flush turned 32, making him one of the oldest horses you will ever meet. Alive and well, and just doing great.
Best of all: he’s Secretariat’s brother. Well, technically he is a half-brother, but more on that later.
That’s right. Straight Flush, the 32-year-old, is a brother of the most famous racehorse in the world and a living reminder, for some, of the Camelot days of Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable of three decades ago. Back when the 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat and company ruled the racing world.
Straight Flush, himself, didn’t do much ruling. Despite his regal pedigree and top-of-the game connections, the brother of Secretariat proved not to be a classic-winning racehorse. Nor was he prepotent stallion when retired to stud. And over the years his worth gradually diminished until he had no worth at all. From highest hopes, Straight Flush slowly drifted into oblivion. Lost, and almost forgotten.
The story begins with an urgent e-mail message …
“Someone sent me an e-mail saying there was a brother of Secretariat who was in trouble,” recalled Diaz. “They’d seen a note on clipclop.com that he was for sale. He was on a feed lot in Texas and surely at the end of the line. His owner didn’t have any potential buyers nearby and just thought that as a brother of Secretariat, he should see if someone wanted him.”
The softhearted Texas feed lot owner was right. Someone did want a brother of Secretariat – even if he was 24-years old at the time. Diaz registered a bid of $200 and pretty much forgot about it, thinking she’d gotten the bidding going and someone would end up with the horse. A few days later a message arrived saying ‘Congratulations, you won the auction.’
“I contacted the owner and he told me that watching him, knowing where he was headed, he just felt terrible, but he wasn’t able to afford to keep him,” said Diaz. Diaz found that Straight Flush had been a stallion for a number of years in the Southwest, bopping around from one farm to another. Despite limited success, there was always somebody new willing to take a chance on a stallion with his pedigree, a brother of Secretariat. He was bred to both thoroughbred and quarter horse mares. But he never got lucky with a real runner.
This time, however, Straight Flush had been dealt a winning hand.
Over the years, Diaz has cooridinated for the rescue and retirement of scores of racehorses, including the top stakes gelding Letthebighossroll. By phone, Diaz arranged for a special box to be constructed to help stabilize Straight Flush for a long van trip to a new home in California.
When Diaz finally laid eyes on her purchase, she wasn’t dismayed that the old guy was skinny and a little down in health. With proper feeding and care, horses can often rally to good health. What surprised her was the horse was such a looker.
“Just the longest legs you’ve ever seen,” Diaz marveled. “And that big, beautiful, massive neck. He must have gotten that from his sire, Riva Ridge. And he’s a sweet horse, too, with a big, soft eye. Plain bay, wide face, with a kind expression.”
For original owner Penny Chenery, the description was almost as certain as his lip tattoo. Diaz’s observations matched Chenery’s memories of long ago days when Straight Flush was born into her barn – the son of Secretariat’s stablemate Riva Ridge, who had won the 1972 Derby.
“He certainly did resemble Riva Ridge,” said Chenery, remembering the stablemate of Secretariat who won the 1972 Kentucky Derby. “He had that head and neck like Riva. And he was always a nice, quiet, serene horse.”
Diaz arranged for Straight Flush to make his new home at a training ranch in Hemet, Calif., near Riverside, owned by veteran horseman Neal Arave.
Where Straight Flush has blossomed.
“He’s got the prettiest coat you’ve ever seen on a horse,” said Arave, who started with horses as a boy in Idaho. “He looks like about 14 years-old. Oh, he’s a little down in the back, but he runs and plays and has a good, old time.”
Hemet seems to be a haven for famous old trainers and famous old horses. Quarter horse Hall-of-Famer Blane Schvaneveldt and California thoroughbred training legend Farrell Jones have ranches nearby, and the neighborhood includes the retirement homes of such racing luminaries as Music Merci, Fortyninerdays, Cardmania and the aforementioned Letthebighossroll. “A bunch of retired millionaire horses, is what it is,” quipped Diaz. “You figure they stand around all day and talk about their investments.”
A nice life for a horse, agreed Arave.
“I have seven or eight of them old horses, and they all have nice pastures where they can be turned out,” he said. “I like horses, but you like the good ones a little better than the ones that have never done nothing. They’ve kind of earned the right to retire.”
Photographer April Ward recently visited Straight Flush and found the horse happily enjoying his days in the desert sunshine.
“There’s a little water course that runs through his corral, and he was dancing around in it, tapping his toes and splashing the water with his hooves,” said Ward. “He’s an awesome horse for his age. I was following him around for photos and he was loving the attention – just playing it up for all it was worth.”
And the old stallion hasn’t forgotten his working days.
“He started strutting down the fence line, showing his stuff for the mares in the next pen,” Ward said. “Then he’d stop and stick his nose over the fence, like he was saying to them: ‘Yeah, I’ve still got it.’ ”
Probably does, too.
Of course, at 32, Straight Flush has a few worn out parts. He might be “long in the tooth,” but he’s not long on teeth.
“But we just had the horse dentist out to look at him again, and he’s doing fine with no teeth,” said Arave. “Well, he’s got a couple teeth on the bottom of his mouth, but none on the top.”
Nutrition, of course, is a paramount consideration in the care of retired horses – especially racehorses who have always been fed by caretakers, rather than making do for themselves by foraging in a field. The loss of teeth is an additional concern. But Arave has developed a special soft diet for older horses that he feeds Straight Flush. “And he can munch on hay,” added the trainer. “That gives him something to do.”
Chenery is thrilled with Straight Flush’s rescue.
“You’re always delighted when they have a happy ending,” said Chenery, who has long been a leading force in horse retirement.
Through her official website Secretariat.com, Chenery supports the efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and its Secretariat Center in Lexington, Kentucky, which is instrumental in finding new homes for former racehorses.
“I’m not so naive as to think we can rescue every horse,” said Chenery. “But we can rescue the ones who are in danger – like on their way to that … place, New Holland.”
That “place” would be a slaughterhouse in New Holland, Pennsylvania, one of four sites in the United States where horses of all breeds are slaughtered for meat. The doomed horses bring about 50 cents a pound.
Many sports fans were shocked when 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was slaughtered for meat in Japan in 2002. A stud career there proved unsuccessful, and he was simply slaughtered.
Activists are especially appalled by the conditions leading to the slaughterhouse.
“Just think of hauling forty horses in a trailer – double-decked, packed in there,” lamented Chenery. “They can’t even raise their heads.”
Chenery notes that retirement isn’t the only option for avoiding the slaughterhouse. Sound thoroughbred racehorses make excellent “hunter-jumpers” for amateur equine competition, or just plain riding horses. “Ideally,” she said, “when they are done racing, they can be trained for another career.”
What makes Straight Flush’s rescue particularly remarkable is that he was still around to be rescued.
Thirty-two is a Methuselah-like age for a horse. Many horses live to be 20, some even 25. But that’s about it. Count Fleet, the Triple Crown champion of 1943, lived to be 33. Secretariat died at age 19. Seattle Slew made it to 28. The oldest living Kentucky Derby winner is the filly Genuine Risk, now 30, and turned out in Virginia.
No one knows exactly who is the oldest living horse, but Straight Flush is one of them. A mixed Morgan breed horse named Copper, living in Missouri, is said be 51.
Among thoroughbreds, whose births are carefully registered and who carry lip tattoos that certify their identity, Straight Flush is the same age as fellow geriatric turf titan John Henry, who raced until he was nine and retired as the world’s leading money winner. The old guys actually met once in a stakes race in Atlantic City in 1979 with John Henry finishing second and Straight Flush fifth.
There are no “official” records of the oldest thoroughbred who ever lived. It is generally acknowledged that the longest-lived thoroughbred was Merrick, who died in 1941 at the age of 38.
So at 32, Straight Flush is way out ahead of the age curve – and hasn’t been nearly as pampered as some of those Derby winners.
Which is exactly what Straight Flush was bred to be.
Kinship is different in horses than humans.
The great thoroughbred stallion sires (the fathers of horses) are an elite few. A top stallion may be bred to as many as 100 mares (mothers) each year, producing, ideally, 100 foals. In other words, very few fathers spread around lots of mothers. And the matings change. Many mares are sent to a new stallion each season as breeders search for that miracle mating that will produce a champion racehorse.
With all that “sleeping around,” the kinship of horses is logically based on female families. Straight Flush and Secretariat are both sons of the famous broodmare Somethingroyal, and thus brothers in her female family line. Technically, they are half-brothers since their fathers were different. Bold Ruler sired Secretariat, while Straight Flush was sired by Riva Ridge. Somethingroyal produced 18 offspring by 12 different stallions, so Straight Flush had 17 brothers and sisters.
The important thing about all this is Somethingroyal the mom was a key part of the famous Meadow Stable family. The horses she foaled at Meadow Stud, in Virginia, all started out in Chenery’s family’s Meadow Stable. That included, besides Secretariat, such famous runners as Syrian Sea, First Family and Sir Gaylord. The latter had been the favorite for the 1962 Kentucky Derby, but was injured the day before the Derby and did not get to “Run for the Roses.” Sir Gaylord was sent to stud, where he became one of the sport’s top stallions. It was just that kind of family – all coming from the wonder mom Somethingroyal.
So when Straight Flush came along – taking his name from mom Somethingroyal — and being a brother to one Derby winner, and sired by another, the colt naturally carried the highest hopes.
“Oh, I remember him well,” said Chenery. ” He was right in there in the mix. He was a strong, pretty horse. But unfortunately he wasn’t as precocious as Secretariat. That shouldn’t damn him, he just didn’t have Secretariat’s high speed. He could run with better horses, but didn’t have that blaze to beat them.”
Straight Flush was foaled in 1975 and came to the races in 1977. Winless that fall of his two-year-old year, he was sent to California for the winter meet at Santa Anita.
“We were riding high in those days,” Chenery recalled. “I had a string on the East Coast and the West Coast, and I actually spent much of my time in California then. Steve DiMauro trained the California group.”
Straight Flush notched his first victory Feb. 12 at Santa Anita, with jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard. Chenery ran him back in the Santa Catalina Stakes, a prep race for the Santa Anita Derby. But the best he could do was sixth. To set that in context, a week later at the same track a 3-year-old named Affirmed won another prep for the Santa Anita Derby on his way to the 1978 Triple Crown.
With hopes for the biggest of racing dreams dashed, Straight Flush was sold to another barn. He ran through 1978 and ’79, winning twice. Probably the most interesting fact of his racing career was that he was ridden by a veritable who’s who of jockeys, including Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruguet, Sandy Hawley, Cash Asmussen, Laffit Pincay, Eddie Maple, Angel Cordero, Steve Cauthen and Bill Shoemaker. But he just never broke out of the “allowance” level ranks.
In the fall of 1979 Straight Flush was retired from racing to become a stallion. Records show that he stood at a farm in Vivian, Louisiana, and then later at Paradise Farms in Longview, Texas. It is believed Straight Flush may have served as a stallion as far west as Colorado, siring 176 foals. The best of his sons and daughters was probably Texas Echo, who won 18 races in a long career. But there were no real stars. Winding down in value over the years, he probably came back to Texas as part of a stock dispersal, an old throw-in horse arriving finally on that feed lot where his only future was no future at all.
Until, that is, he got a little help from his friends – the compassionate feed lot owner, the horse lover who noticed an Internet posting about a horse in trouble, and then Diaz and Arave.
And of course, the friends of Straight Flush knew how to celebrate his Jan. 1 birthday:
“We had carrot cake for him!” said Diaz. “And he ate it, too. He loves carrots any way he can get them.”
“Is it just a bunch of soft-hearted women?” he asked. “Well, you’ve got to give them more credit than that.”
Straight Flush, too. You’ve got to give Secretariat’s brother credit for hanging in there all these years- 32 and still prancing!
And maybe thinking about breaking Merrick’s old-age record of 38. Just seven more carrot cakes to go!
Copyright 2007: Secretariat.com and Bill Doolittle. Images courtesy of April Ward and Caught in the Act Photography