Secretariat

Memories, Big Red, and Two Kids from Brooklyn

When do memories become memorabilia? Just ask an Italian kid and Jewish kid from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, who entered a strange new world and came face to face with a legend. And then there is that legend’s late owner Penny Chenery, whose vast memorabilia collection has sold through the years and will continue to do so at Lelands through April 2. ~ Steve Haskin

Memories, Big Red, and Two Kids from Brooklyn

By Steve Haskin

 

I can smile at the old days…

Let the memory live again”

                   —     “Memory” from “Cats”

We can all agree that memories are a precious part of our lives that we cling to forever, whether to feel young or to remind us of the special moments we experience. A recollection is stored in the mind; a memory is stored in the heart.

A memory we can hold in our hands is called memorabilia. It can be an artifact that we keep or purchase that transports us back to a moment in time we hold dear or it can be a collectible that makes us feel part of history whether for sentimental or monetary reasons.

This is about a couple of street kids from Brooklyn, New York who stumbled upon Thoroughbred racing, made it their career, and soon after came eyeball to eyeball with the great Secretariat. At that moment each of them in their own way took away a piece of memorabilia from Big Red and a memory that they cherished for the next half a century.

For Ray DeStefano, a son of Italian immigrants, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to collect a memorabilia item that would become a part of racing history.

This wasn’t your typical horseshoe or halter or saddle towel or blanket or any piece of equipment worn by an all-time great horse. This was an actual living piece of an iconic legend who many believe to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time.

To give you a bit of background on DeStefano and how he got to that right place at the right time, his parents bought a house in Floral Park adjacent to the Belmont Park training track when he was 16. He couldn’t help but take in the smell of the backstretch and the sights and sounds of horses galloping. Soon he was hooked and had to find out more about this strange new world that was practically in his backyard. It was the 1950s and Thoroughbred racing was one of the three most popular sports in America, along with baseball and boxing, and New York was its hub.

So, one morning DeStefano jumped the fence and entered a world he would never leave. He stopped at the first barn he came to, which happened to be the barn of Frank “Pancho” Martin, and, despite his lack of experience, asked him for a summer job. As DeStefano said, “Not only did he give me a job he became known as my racetrack godfather…my mentor.”

DeStefano worked for Martin every summer during high school and later when he came home summers from Cornell University where he majored in Quantitative Genetics because of his fascination with Thoroughbred breeding. During his high school years he got to see legends such as Buckpasser and Dr. Fager on the backstretch. He graduated Cornell in 1973, the same year the great Secretariat would become the nemesis of Martin and his pride and joy Sham.

That summer, DeStefano met trainer Jim Picou in the parking lot of Liz’s Kitchen on the Belmont backstretch. Picou offered him a job as his assistant trainer, but DeStefano had no interest in the training side of racing. As they were talking, Robert Murty of Murty Brothers Horse Transportation just happened to walk by. Picou knew Murty well and introduced him to DeStefano.

“Jimmy mentioned that if I would like to fly with horses I should ask Mr. Murty if he needed anyone,” DeStefano recalled. “Mr. Murty said that he actually was looking for someone to fly a horse out to California that night, and that started a wonderful job with Murty Brothers where I had the chance, as a 23-year-old kid, to fly all over the country and the world and get paid for it.

“Obviously, 1973 was the spring of Secretariat’s Triple Crown and there was such a buzz around the track about this super horse who had just won the Preakness and might become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown. Murty Brothers Horse Transportation handled Secretariat’s shipping.“

Fast forward to Secretariat’s final race of his career, the Canadian International at Woodbine on Oct. 28, 1973. Already a legend, Big Red was scheduled to fly back to New York the next day for a few weeks before shipping to Claiborne Farm. DeStefano was sent by Murty to meet the plane and help van driver Ron Cirovalo unload Secretariat.

The ONA (Overseas National Airlines) plane pulled up to the Lufthansa cargo area. DeStefano walked up the ramp onto the plane and there was groom Eddie Sweat standing next to Secretariat. As they opened the stall door and prepared to lead Secretariat out, DeStefano went down to the van to wait for the horse. He couldn’t help notice how regal the magnificent chestnut looked as he walked down the ramp led by Sweat, with Cirovalo holding his tail. Once on the van Sweat went back on the plane to get his luggage while DeStefano backed Secretariat into the stall.

“Here I was, the son of immigrants from Italy, a 23 year-old from Brooklyn, alone with the most famous animal in the world and perhaps the greatest horse ever,” DeStefano recalled. “Besides his looks, what I really noticed about him was his overwhelming presence, his attitude, and his intelligence. I had worked with many horses before but he had this inexplicable quality about him.

“As I stood there face to face with greatness, for whatever reason I decided to pull some hair from his mane. That is not yanking hair out, but pulling the mane as grooms do all the time. It’s like peeling an artichoke; you use your thumb and middle fingers and layer it, taking a little bit at a time. I got a handful of hair and put it in my coat pocket. Had I known then what I know now, Secretariat may have arrived at Belmont totally bald. When I got home, I put the hair in an old English Leather Cologne box.”

Over the years, people would get strands of Secretariat’s hair during his days at Claiborne Farm, but this was an actual part of Secretariat the racehorse. This was the hair that just days before had blown through the cold, wet Canadian winds in isolated splendor, concluding the career of one of America’s all-time greatest athletes.

DeStefano showed the hair to his friend Dick Hamilton, who worked at The Jockey Club and was a big fan of Secretariat’s, and then took it home, where it remained in the English Leather box for 33 years.

Hamilton left The Jockey Club in 1975 to start working for the New York Racing Association as a racing official and then was named steward in 1989 before moving to Saratoga and becoming the communications officer for the National Museum of Racing.


“Dick knew of my closeness with Frank Martin and in 2006 he asked me to inquire about borrowing some of his trophies to exhibit in the museum,” DeStefano recalled. “I came up with the idea of loaning the Secretariat hair to the museum and he, knowing the full provenance of the hair, was delighted to accept my offer. All the details were worked out and the hair went on display there, not in the English Leather box, but in a clear hockey puck box, from May 2006 until the end of December 2009.

“I have seen snippets of Secretariat hair sell online auctions for considerable money. That hair was from an older Secretariat at Claiborne who had not been on the racetrack in years. Mine is special in that it is what I call ‘race-worn hair’ from his 3-year-old Triple Crown career. This hair was ‘along for the ride’ and is an actual part of this great horse. It is the only Secretariat race-worn hair that I have ever seen or heard of.”

DeStefano’s home is filled with racetrack collectables, mainly historic race programs, such as the 1967 Woodward dubbed “The Race of the Century,” and old cherished winner’s circle photographs of him and Frank Martin, all representing memories of a bygone era. But nothing will ever top that piece of memorabilia he collected on a horse van and its brief journey into history within the hallowed halls of the National Museum of Racing.

The other kid from Brooklyn is yours truly, whose greatest accomplishment before discovering racing was hitting a “Spaldeen” ball over the rooftops playing stickball. My memorabilia is of the mind, captured forever in photos. I never had any desire to save racing artifacts, such as horseshoes or halters or old programs. Even though I saved photos I took with my trusty Canon F-1 ad FTB cameras, they were never really special unless they were personal and brought back memories of a particular moment in time. And although I photographed many of the all-time great Thoroughbreds, the only ones I took that I considered true memorabilia were the up close and personal shots of Secretariat.

There had to be a story behind the photographs, one that I could show and talk about to future generations who never had the privilege to see Secretariat in person. The photos had to reflect either Big Red’s physical prowess, his personality, or capture an intimate moment frozen in time. They had to make this legend become real to those who had only read about him or seen old washed out videos and black and white photos. That was my memorabilia, as important to me as strands of hair from the great horse’s mane were to DeStefano.

How else could I describe the moment when I stood inches from Secretariat in the Preakness saddling area and photographed the horse standing majestically looking straight ahead. Then when Secretariat heard the clicking of the camera he turned and looked right at me through his familiar blue and white checkered blinkers and into my heart. It was a photo that remained in an album for over four decades before it found a home on Secretariat’s website and was able to be shared with his legion of fans through the volume of prints that were made up and color enhanced into something vibrant and alive.

The same can be said of those beautiful morning shots at Belmont Park, especially the ones of Secretariat going to the track with fellow Hall of Famer Riva Ridge at his side, both of them bathed in sunshine, or the ones of them on the walking ring in single file outside the barn as the morning sun outlined Big Red’s mane and powerful frame. What made these photos even more special was that there was no one else around, making this private moment with Secretariat and Riva Ridge one to cherish.

Then there was the shot from Secretariat’s farewell at Aqueduct when he arched his neck and broke into a show horse trot as if to leave one final indelible image burned in the memory.

And finally there was the playful Big Red at Claiborne Farm, picking up a large piece of branch in his paddock and bringing it over to the fence, with the branch protruding from his mouth like a lollipop, wanting to play tug o’ war. Despite numerous attempts to pull it out of his mouth he once again emerged victorious. One of the first prints that was produced from the original photo, which for years was nothing more than a keepsake tucked away in an album, eventually became the focal point of a spirited bidding war at a Secretariat Birthday Celebration silent auction in Virginia.

And so DeStefano and I cling to our memories of the mighty Secretariat, willing to share them with the public in any way. The strands of Big Red’s hair returned home with DeStefano after several years on display at the museum and are currently up for auction. My photos are in the capable hands of Leonard Lusky of Secretariat.com and for sale there with proceeds supporting the Secretariat Foundation and further preserving the memory of a horse who transcended sports and now lives on in the annals of history…and in the hearts of two kids from Brooklyn.

 

MARCH 27 – Meet Steve Haskin virtually and participate in his informative Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby Rankings Preview as part of the festivities during the 2021 Secretariat Birthday Celebration.

Leave a Reply

37 Responses to “Memories, Big Red, and Two Kids from Brooklyn”

  1. dance with fate says:

    Heartwarming tale of Secretariat’s ‘race-worn hair’ (feeling reverential about that) & your personal photos always amaze. Your collection is wonderful (I have ‘Making Friends’ & hope soon the charming ‘Tug o’ War’). Thankful for my thoroughbred memorabilia, with cherished locks of hair (mostly Old Friends retirees) including Tinner’s Way! Your words & images are a lasting treasure. Thank you!

  2. Blake says:

    Steve….I can listen to you and Bill Nack talk about Secretariat all day. The thing I will always remember is the way Laffit Pincay (Shams jockey) talked about Secretariat after the Preakness. I think he said something like..”I kept hitting my horse in the stretch but Turcotte was sitting still never moving his stick and my horse ran a powerful race but I just couldn’t gain any ground on the other horse”. And when asked about the Belmont he said…..”My horse can go any distance but I don’t know if he can beat the other horse”..LOL. That says it all right there.

  3. Jeff says:

    Wow!! As if it’s not incredible enough to have Big Red himself staring right at you in the Preakness saddling area, it appears you captured his human counterparts, Penny, Lucien and Eddie looking your way also, Steve. What an amazing photo!!!

    • Jeff says:

      Sorry for the terrible case of mistaken identity, Steve. Should have checked before I posted the comment. My only excuse is seeing the guy with the bad cap and confusing him with the crazily attired John Malkovich in the movie. LOL

  4. Mary Ellen says:

    Steve, love this story. You make me feel like I’M the one jumping over the fence and wandering into the barn and asking for a job at Belmont Park. And I had no idea you were such a gifted photographer! T(he photo of Riva Ridge, the handler, and the cat is really exceptional.) And you shot with a Canon F-1, which my husband, also a journalist, used in the 1970s. He actually had two: one he dropped in a river, and the other was lifted in a burglary. Those old cameras were so dependable and durable.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. Where did you see the photo of Riva and the cat, on my merchandise page on this website? Those old Canons were great. The FTB was unique because it threaded itself. You just put the film on top and close the camera.

  5. arlingtonfan says:

    Oh, Steve, this was a treat. Love those beautiful photos. In a time like now, when the present is frightening and the future is uncertain, those cherished memories matter more than ever.

  6. Darla Reeves says:

    Thank you, Steve! Your engaging stories transport me to present moment spaces of reliving memories and dreaming of those to come. I was a young Montana teen when Secretariat raced, and didn’t get to meet him. Yet he won my heart for life. Your column reminds me of treasured moments: visiting Claiborne Farm in 2012, and seeing Big Red’s pasture and his shiny gold stall name plate. And like you, I had a similar close up photo encounter on that 2012 Kentucky trip. Over 8 years later, I wrote about it:
    Love at first sight ~
    My heart can feel the connection… still. We met at Kentucky Horse Park. It was a soft brown eye to brown eye, warm heart meeting. One where you know that you know each other, and always have. A moment in time that changed little and yet awakened much… A deep personal connection between the great racehorse Cigar and his forever friend, Darla

    Think I’ll gather a few mountain wind blown locks from my little Paso Fino, Diamond this week.
    Thanks again for the inspiration, Steve!

    • Steve Haskin says:

      That was beautiful, Darla. Thank you. I was around Cigar many times at Bill’s barn, as was my daughter,who had numerous photos taken with him and there was something magnetic about him. It was a thrill to be at the first Dubai World Cup covering the race. The only time I have ever wept openly was being at his farewell at Madison Square Garden. When the lights came back after they played Auld Lang Syne with a lone spotlight on him everyone was crying it was so emotional.

      • dance with fate says:

        Having also met Cigar at Kentucky Horse Park & humbled in his close presence & incredibly insightful eyes, I’m grateful for yours & Darla’s beautiful expressions of the true emotions he evoked.

  7. Karole Northrup says:

    I love this article, Steve. I have both of these photos, autographed by you, hanging in my office in Charlotte.

  8. Jo Anne says:

    Steve,

    I had the honor of seeing Secretariat in the summer of ’77. I had graduated from high school and set out on a drive to see him. My 18yo self was nervous as heck and I was in awe when he was brought out. I still have those pictures, but the memories will live on forever.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      That’s great JoAnne. although he died too young, its great so many people who never saw him race live got a chance to visit him and see him close up

  9. Thank you for sharing all this, fantastic memories to share with us who love Secretariat ❤️ and remains in our hearts forever ❤️

  10. Marc Mink says:

    I absolutely loved this column.. i completely understand and agree that memorabilia is in the heart and memories of your personal experience.. just a wonderful column, Steve

  11. Davids says:

    Bookends, Allez France and Secretariat, that’s the frozen memories of 1973 for me. The world seemed on fire, political upheaval everywhere. Watching races at Moonee Valley and Rosehill today bring back happy memories.

    Beautifully written, Steve, and the photographs are just wonderful. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” –
    ‘Long ago, it must be
    I have a photograph
    Preserve your memories
    They’re all that’s left you’

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thanks David. I didnt know youre from in Australia.

      • Davids says:

        No, we traveled extensively when I was young, living in Europe, Australia, South America. The only constant for me was horse racing. Relatives in Europe, Australia, US would post me the racing magazines so I remained abreast with bloodlines/races around the world. Fortunately, I still managed to do well at schoolwork so all things worked well.

  12. Matthew W says:

    Newsweek and Time–which was a big thing—put Secretariat on their covers at the RIGHT time–between the Preakness and Belmont—COVER shot with “Superhorse” across the page—and then he ran his Belmont…..

  13. EddieF says:

    Wow! Bob Dylan wrote, “Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them.” Thanks for taking care of your Secretariat memories and sharing them with your readers.

  14. Laura Lanham says:

    The other thing is there are so many greats from the past out there. You can go all the way back to Man O War but still Big Red’s Belmont, the way he did it, Penny putting everything on the line, and that stretch run, nobody even close. No race horse has ever done that again. Not sure but think that track record may still stand. That was a very special day. He lost and he won again but never like that. When the time came he shined like a bright star in the night.

  15. Laura Lanham says:

    You not only have a gift for words but capturing photos as well. Thank you

  16. Stephanie W Morse says:

    Do people still have feelings like this? So many are at moments like this, and instead of drinking it in as it’s happening, they’re holding up their phones recording. I wonder if they are really in the moment at those times. I like to see it while it’s happening.

    Thanks for the columns, Steve.

  17. DES says:

    Does the hair smell like English Leather? WEAR IT OR NOTHING AT ALL!

  18. Tetrarch says:

    I never tire of your memories of Secretariat as they bring back my own, which are unfortunately only tv memories, not personal ones. Sharing memories like yours is as close as most of us can get. I also think it’s grand that you allow use of the photos to support the Foundation.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      TV memories can be special. If it affects us on a peraonal level, it is special, whether live or on TV. Cherish them.

  19. Tori Mendonca says:

    Once again, I have been transported back through your descriptive words to standing aside you at those moments and I have seen most of the photos you have described, albeit without the story of how those moments were captured. Living so far from where thoroughbred horses are, although I have recently moved and realize I am somewhat close to farms where they rehab or are bred in California, they are not able to be visited. My memorabilia collection allows me the chance to feel a closeness to them, feel I have a part of history in my home and to feel that I am reaching back in time to those moments when I watched some of these horses, whose memorabilia I have, achieved their iconic, historic, triumphant moments… but reading your words, I would rather have the photos in an album I took myself and the memories of being in the presence of greatness and beauty.

  20. I’ve been collecting racing memorbelia since I was a kid, over 50 years. My prized piece is hair from Secretariat. I’ve jokingly told my family if the house should catch on fire, save that hair! It is irreplaceable. It is a piece of history. My daughter has already claimed it when I pass!

  21. Sheila Lipschutz says:

    Never had anything personal like that from any of my favorites but had a very extensive collection of racing programs from races I attended in the 60s and 70s (including several wirh Secretariat). Being from the NYRA circuit they contained the names of some truly great horses and looking at them would bring back so many wonderful memories. Sadly, I also had an ex spouse who did not believe that storage locker bills needed to be paid so somebody else has them now (ironically he had a summer job at Belmont as a security guard outside Secretariats barn). But you can’t take away the memories.