Sweat Legacy Etched in Stone

Our inaugural and very special installment of Askin’ Haskin on What better way to begin this new adventure than to write a much-needed story about how a group of people took it upon themselves to get Big Red’s groom, Eddie Sweat, a proper headstone. Future blogs will be about all aspects of racing, especially the human side, and nostalgic behind-the-scenes pieces about the greats of the past.

“Sweat’s Legacy Now Etched in Stone”

By Steve Haskin

On a barren-looking tract of land in Rock Hill AME Church Cemetery in Vance, South Carolina, laid a withered slab of unknown material surrounded by dead grass and a tangle of weeds. At its head was a small vase of plastic blue and white flowers that had toppled over. Atop the slab was a plastic miniature horse and a plastic or ceramic miniature cardinal, along with a small faded blue sign attached with two screws with the simple words: “Edward Sweat 1939-1998.”

At the foot of the slab was what appeared to be an added piece of concrete with the words “Edward S. Sweat 1939-1998,” which looked as if it had been hand-inscribed with a nail or another sharp object by a good-willed person who thought highly of Sweat.

It was hardly a fitting tribute to a gifted horseman who was well known in Thoroughbred racing as the groom of the legendary Secretariat, as well as the horse who helped save Meadow Stud, Riva Ridge, and champion Chief’s Crown. Grooms, who devote their lives to these noble steeds while toiling in relative anonymity, can only dream of taking care of and being responsible for three such magnificent athletes and titans of the Turf, including one many believe to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time.

In 2019, Pam Shushkowski, a member of the Facebook group, “THE Secretariat Group – dedicated to the Horse that God Built,” visited Sweat’s grave and was saddened by what she saw. Shushkowski decided then and there to rectify this great injustice. Sweat needed to have a proper headstone and memorial befitting a man of his stature and accomplishments. After all, this was a person who was part of history and helped make Secretariat arguably the most iconic equine athlete in the history of the sport, right up there with Man o’ War.

She contacted her friends, Buddy Hassell and Elaine Kreil, and all three began their quest to give Sweat the headstone and memorial he richly deserved. Hassell reached out to potential donors, while Kreil contacted Sweat’s family, tracked all the funds collected, and worked with the monument company. Kathy Wood, creator of “THE Secretariat Group,” organized and ran the auctions that would help pay for the endeavor.

Thanks to their diligent work and the generosity of all those who donated, Eddie Sweat now has more than an appropriate headstone; he has a magnificent memorial, shimmering in polished black granite, on which is etched a tender photo of him and his beloved Secretariat inside a horseshoe. Engraved on the headstone in white lettering are the words: “Edward ‘Shorty’ Sweat, August 29, 1939, April 17, 1998, Beloved groom to Chief’s Crown, Riva Ridge, and Secretariat.” Below that are the profound words of Sweat himself: “I think they’ll take me to my grave with a pitchfork in my hand and a rub rag in my back pocket.” In many ways, those words salute all grooms throughout history who devoted their lives to the horses they loved and cared for.

The headstone now is surrounded by lush carpet of green grass and is a treasured shrine, not only to Sweat, but Secretariat.

Sweat, who died of leukemia 25 years after Big Red captured the hearts of a nation with his historic Triple Crown sweep, now has the headstone and epitaph he deserves. You can bet his gravesite will now be visited by scores of people who want to feel part of one of the greatest legacies of the Turf.

“What a difference a year makes,” Shushkowski said. “One year ago I was standing over Eddie Sweat’s grave, feeling so sad. I dreamed of him having a headstone, one I believe he deserved. I mentioned it to a couple of members who said it could be done. Then other members started believing, too. To anyone who generously contributed, no matter the amount, we did this. We accomplished it much sooner than I expected. For me this has been a way to celebrate Secretariat’s 50th birthday by helping honor his best friend.”

Kate Tweedy, daughter of Penny Chenery and also a contributor, said of the new headstone, “I am very impressed. It is beautiful, and I’m so grateful for all the effort that was put into it.”

Although the racing industry knew him as Eddie, he was never called that in the barn. He was either Edward, Mr. Sweat, or Shorty. And to some he was much more than a groom.

Steve Jordan, who hotwalked Secretariat and Riva Ridge and then went on to a career as a trainer and eventually working for the New York Racing Association as head of the holding barn, said of Sweat, “Throughout our more than 15 years together, Mr. Sweat was not only a mentor professionally, but an inspiration as an honorable and gentle family man. After the (Lucien) Laurin years, Edward was at my side as I began my training career in Delaware. It was his friendship, however, that was treasured most of all.”

From Humble Beginnings to Famous Groom

Eddie Sweat was born in Holly Hill, South Carolina, in 1939 to David and Mary Sweat, the sixth of nine children. He grew up poor. His father was an African American, Cherokee sharecropper who knew how to make poultices out of plants. He used this folk knowledge to heal his plow mule’s sore legs, passing this knowledge onto his son Eddie. Education of her children was important to Mary. It was a means to escape the poverty and hard life. Even in grade school, Eddie helped the family by working on nearby farms plowing fields and harvesting crops after class.

On his way to school, Eddie would look longingly out the bus window at the Thoroughbred horses on a farm. That farm belonged to trainer Lucien Laurin, the man who would later train both Riva Ridge and Secretariat and entrust both horses to Sweat. On a number of occasions Sweat would skip his studies to get closer to the horses and observe them, which displeased his mother. But the bond had already been created. Although just a youngster, Sweat asked Laurin for a job and began by digging post holes and erecting fences in the afternoons and on weekends. It wasn’t long after that Sweat quit school. His work ethic on the farm soon earned him a job driving the horse van as well as increased responsibilities as a hotwalker and groom.

Physically, Sweat had all the attributes. He was short, but powerfully built, especially in his forearms, which helped him handle all kinds of horses and enabled him to succeed in a physically demanding career. But it was not brute force that helped him communicate with his horses. It was the way he talked to them and looked at them, and more importantly, the way he understood them. He and Secretariat had that kind of understanding. Although Sweat would let him be playful, they had a mutual respect for each other, and Big Red always knew when it was time for business. Sweat admitted he was closer to Red than his own family during those years.

Sweat was, without question, Secretariat’s best friend, spending long days and even some nights with him. He believed in treating his horses more like humans and they responded to him. When he spoke to them, some would say he almost sang to them. Sweat was using Gullah, a language the South Carolina and Georgia African slaves created in order to be able to communicate with one another. It is part West African, part English. Its melodic sounds, combined with the rhythmic brush and rub rag strokes, calmed and soothed the horses, all the while building trust.

Although Secretariat was the star of the stable and a national hero, Sweat always made Riva Ridge, the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner and world-record holder at 4, feel like a champion as well. After all, he was as a 2-year-old in 1971, ushering in the Meadow Stable glory years. Both Sweat and owner Penny Tweedy had soft spots in their heart for the amiable, lop-eared Riva. When Lucien Lauren retired, Sweat went to work for his son Roger, where he groomed the classy 2-year-old champion and Travers Stakes winner Chief’s Crown.

One of the hardest days for Sweat was when he had to accompany Secretariat and Riva Ridge on their flight to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, following their retirement. Having to say goodbye to both of them at the same time made it twice as tough. During the flight, Secretariat would gently clench his teeth on Sweat’s jacket, as if knowing he would never be this close to him again.

After Big Red and Riva were safely tucked away in their new home and it was time for Sweat to depart, he stood alone in the parking lot with his suitcase resting atop a small brick wall, and appeared to be wiping away a tear. The image was captured by Daily Racing Form photographer Ray Woolfe Jr., who shot it from behind Sweat as he gazed at an empty paddock, depicting the solitude and loneliness he must have been feeling.

Remembered Near and Far

Sweat had already been memorialized in 2004 with a statue at the Kentucky Horse Park, which shows him leading Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte to the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle. A humble and quiet man, Sweat would have been thrilled, yet embarrassed, to know that 16 years later a group of strangers cared enough about him to give him such a magnificent tribute.

But no one was more thrilled and grateful than Sweat’s youngest sister, Geraldine Holman, who lives in Florida.

“Oh my God, you just don’t know,” she said. “I was so stunned I just bust out crying when I saw it on Facebook. It is just so beautiful. Kathy Wood sent me a picture of the group who helped her raise the money and I wrote to every one of them. They were going to go to South Carolina and have a ceremony, but because of the COVID they decided to do it another time and said that they wanted to meet me. I told her, ‘If the Good Master allows it I want to come and meet each and every one of you.’ I just wish he and my mom and my dad were here to see this. I miss him a whole lot, but I know he’s looking down and smiling.”

As she spoke, the memories came flooding back. “Elwood (that’s what they called him) left home when he was 11, and my mom used to talk about him and I would say, ‘Mama, I don’t have another brother,’ and she would say, ‘Yes you do,’ and I would ask, ‘Where is he?’ That’s when she told me what happened. She said, ‘One day he went to school and he never came home, so I went looking for him and I couldn’t find him.’ He was hiding out at the track, which wasn’t too far from where we lived.

“Mama cried like a baby day and night, because she didn’t know where her child was. I was just a little girl and she told me the story later. He wound up going to New York on the van hiding behind the horses. When they opened the van and saw him they asked him what he doing back there, and all he said was, ‘I’m with the horses.’ But he was only 11 years old and he was too young to work with the horses. He continued to work for Mr. Lucien, who raised him.”

Geraldine was 12 years old when her big brother finally came home to visit. “He came off the truck and I said, ‘Mama, who is that?’ She said, ‘My God, Lord, I’m so happy to see my child.’ I said ‘Your child?’ Mama, that’s not your child,’ and she said, ‘Yes it is, just you wait.’ He walked off that truck and he looked exactly like my mom. He walked like my mom and he acted like my mom. He walked up to me and he said, ‘Hey sis. Look at my baby sister, she done all grown up. You don’t remember me, do you? You don’t remember when you was little and I used to give you a bottle?’ And I said, ‘No, I ain’t your sister. I was just tiny and I don’t even know you.’ And when he and my mom said I was his sister, I asked him, ‘Where have you been?’

“We all got to talking and my mom said to him, ‘Lord, I prayed day and night for this day,” and then she started crying. And Elwood said, ‘Mom, don’t cry, I’m here now.’ But then he told us he was only staying for a couple of days, and he asked my mom if he could take me out to the track with him. And my mom went, ‘No, no no, I don’t want my baby around them horses.’”

But Eddie convinced his mom she would be in good hands and he wanted to spend time with her and get to know her. The first thing he did was teach Geraldine how to drive the van. “But I’m too little,” she told him. “He sat me in his lap and showed me how to switch the gears and everything, and I was so thrilled.”

What really amazed Geraldine was watching her brother take the horses off the van. “Mr. Lucien asked, ‘Who is this little girl?’ He said, ‘This is my baby sister. I haven’t seen her since I left home.’ I stood there and I watched him with those horses. He was just talking to them and they obeyed him. I couldn’t believe it, it was like they were listening to every word he said.”

Geraldine followed Eddie’s career closely and celebrated all his great victories. But then in 1998, Eddie was stricken with leukemia at the same time Geraldine was battling cancer. Because his sister was ill, Eddie wouldn’t tell her what was wrong with him when she flew up to New York to see him. But she knew he was sick by the amount of weight he had lost. When Eddie went down to Florida to visit his sister he told her, “Sis, I want you to fight, because I’m not coming back. This is my last trip. If anything happens to me I want you to bury me in a blue casket with blue interior, and I want to be dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, blue shirt, blue socks, and a blue and white necktie. All Geraldine said when he left was, “Please Lord, take care of him.” He gave her a hug and a kiss and said, “This is goodbye, but I will be watching over you.” Geraldine never saw her brother again.

But when the day comes that she goes to South Carolina and meets the Facebook group, she will see her brother once again in all his glory, adorned in shiny black granite. A fitting way to see a man who was made of granite and who left a legacy that will live on as long as people remember the name Secretariat. And that will be forever.

Claiborne and Barn photos by Ray Woolfe


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