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 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.


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