Secretariat

From Camera to Canvas, Big Red Photo Lives On

This is the story of the birth, resurrection, and odd journey of a single photograph and how it came to tie in to this year’s Saratoga meet and the Secretariat art exhibits on the 50th anniversary of Big Red’s iconic 3-year-old campaign. ~ Steve Haskin

From Camera to Canvas, Big Red Photo Lives On

By Steve Haskin

 

On March 17, 1973 at the Bay Shore Stakes I took my first of many photographs of Secretariat, who was making his first start of the year and, most important, his first since being syndicated for a record $6,050,000. For reasons I can’t recall I took only one photograph that day and that was from the rail following the post parade. Because Ron Turcotte had him gallop closer to the rail than I thought I wasn’t able to get my focus set quick enough to compensate for it. I took one shot as he galloped by and actually caught him just as I wanted, with his neck arched, mane blowing, and showing off his powerful shoulders and hindquarters. But because the photo was not sharp, which was no surprise considering the circumstances, I put my 4 x 6 print away knowing I could never enlarge it and pretty much forgot about it…for almost 50 years.

When we moved from New Jersey to Connecticut in April, 2022 after 40 years in our Hamilton Square home we were cleaning out our basement and I found that photograph, which had been long forgotten. Although I was still disappointed after all that time that the focus was a bit off I did admire the photo itself, as I felt it captured so many aspects of the sheer magnificence of Secretariat, and I had never seen a photo like it of Big Red. But so what? It seemed such a waste. There was nothing I could do with the photo, so on a whim I posted it on Facebook just to see what kind of reaction it got if any.

I was blown away when it got 62 comments, 40 shares, and 618 likes, with comments such as, “Magnificent! Shows the essence of Secretariat…Just breathtaking…Look at all that power…An equine Adonis…Wow! What an amazing capture, you can see the strength emanate through the lens…Oh, this is poetry in motion.” Not a single mention of it not being that sharp.

Now what do I do? I still can’t enlarge it. So I sent it to the Secretariat merchandising magician, Leonard Lusky, for whom I write and contribute on Secretariat.com and who has worked wonders with my other Secretariat photos. In March of this year, Leonard and his photograph gurus remastered the negative and released it in the 5″ x 7″ size, titling it “Bay Shore Buff,” adding it to my “Secretariat Collection” on the website where it is currently offered.

Let’s fast forward to Thursday, August 3 at Saratoga. My wife and I and our friends Avi and Rhoda were attending the private reception for Lisa Palombo’s new exhibit of Secretariat paintings at the Saratoga Fine Arts gallery on Broadway. It was a magnificent exhibit and I had my photo taken with Lisa and Kate Chenery. After almost an hour it was time to leave for dinner at a nearby restaurant. A few doors down from the gallery was our favorite shop in Saratoga, Impressions, where we always stop to buy gifts for our grandchildren.

As I we walked past the store I looked over and had to do a double take. What I saw took a while to register in my brain. “That’s my photo!” I bellowed. In front of the store in full display was a T-shirt with a painting of my Secretariat Bay Shore photo on the front. To say I was shocked would be a gross understatement. I thought this could only be the work of Leonard, who manages the licensing of everything Secretariat. But how would I not know about it? What struck me the most, however, was how great the painting looked. There was my little photo after all these decades all big and vibrant and full of life, and on a shirt. I was bewildered, yet thrilled, and texted Leonard: “A funny thing just happened as we were passing Impressions…”

But Leonard was still busy back at the gallery and I didn’t hear back from him that night. Did Leonard decide to market this? Does he even know about it? Who painted it? When did all this happen?

The next morning Joan and I went to Broadway and of course stopped first at Impressions to buy the grandkids their gifts. I was all prepared to buy the shirt, still not knowing what it was all about. We walked in the store and the first thing we saw was the shirt again. Not only was it being displayed prominently outside and inside the store, right next to it were packs of note cards with the painting on it. These were even more vibrant and striking than the shirt.

I tried texting Leonard again and told him I was in Impressions and was going to buy the note pads, ignoring Joan’s insistence that I should wait and get them for free from Leonard. But I still had no idea what his involvement was. When I told the sales clerks that was my photo, they were so impressed they asked to take my photo next to the shirt. The clerk texted me the photo, which I promptly sent to Leonard.

The whole situation became even more wild when Joan looked at the shirt and saw it was done by Celeste Susany, who sells her paintings at Saratoga every year at the booth located just inside the main gate. She was our favorite artist and just last year Joan bought a painting from her that we have hanging in our living room. I felt like I had entered some bizarre universe. But it was about to get even more bizarre and surreal.

The following morning, Whitney day, we went to the National Museum of Racing for a special 50th anniversary event at the Secretariat exhibit that will be there through the end of the year. While Joan was in the gift shop I walked over to the Peter McBean Gallery where the exhibit was held and there outside the entrance hanging on the wall was the full-sized framed original painting of my photo. The National Museum of Racing? Seriously? It was now one shock after another that had reached the comical stage. But we weren’t done yet.

Original Celeste Susany painting on display at the National Museum of Racing. Contact information@secretariat.com for print information.

Joan then dropped me off at the track because I was signing photographs and meeting people at the Secretariat merchandising area at 11:30. As I entered the track I immediately passed Celeste Susany’s booth. I looked over and there was the T-shirt; there were numerous prints in all sizes; there was a smaller original study. It seemed as if my little photo, dead and buried for half a century, had become the most ubiquitous presence in Saratoga.

Rather than keep you in suspense any longer, I will let Celeste tell you the entire story.

“When I started in the sport I missed Secretariat by a year and always wanted to do a painting of him,” she said. “I know everyone remembers the Belmont, and watching the film of the Preakness was amazing. But when doing a painting, what do you paint to really capture him?  I looked for inspiration in books, watching videos, going online, but I saw nothing that inspired me. Then a little over a year ago with the 50th anniversary coming up I was doing research for the painting and went on Google images and there it was. It stopped me dead. Nothing I had seen moved me like this. I needed something that embodied Secretariat and after all these years I had found it. It was the feeling you get when you meet your future companion.  You just know it.

“The photo was the perfect combination of strength and elegance. Nothing compared over the years. Just the artistic tilt of the head excited me. I searched for the photo credit. There was none. I could have researched further, but the race meet was just beginning, so I put off the project. I eventually decided to do a small study of it and when Leonard saw it he recognized it from the photo. He told me he knew the photographer

“In April I called Leonard and told him I really wanted to do something with the painting’s image for Secretariat’s 50th Anniversary celebration and asked about doing reproductions after I completed it. He said that we would work something out. I honestly did not finish it until two weeks before the meet started this year. It just took me some time to get it exactly the way I wanted.

“I changed Secretariat’s saddlecloth number to reflect the Belmont Stakes, had someone work on Ron Turcotte’s face to bring out his features, and worked on the mane a little,” Celeste said. “It gives me great joy to know that this lovely photo is yours…and how you got it. I have to tell you there was one day recently a woman stopped by the tent, saw the large painting and started to cry.”

Leonard further explained “Celeste’s initial study and original painting were both simply spectacular. The Secretariat team was already familiar with her work and we had previously collaborated with her nearly 20 years ago on a Secretariat print now long sold-out. There was no question Steve would be flattered that his photo provided the inspiration for the painting and that the new piece would prove to be popular with admirers of both Secretariat and Celeste’s work. We started discussing the business details just days before our trip to Saratoga, but we were not sure if Celeste would have enough time to create any product for release during the current summer meet, let alone in time for the Aug. 4 Hall of Fame weekend festivities. To all our pleasant surprise, it came together quickly and she knocked it out of the park with the new offerings!”

As if this entire story wasn’t implausible enough I just learned that Celeste sold the small study for $2,800 and the large painting for $15,000. I am now convinced I was dreaming the whole thing. It was as if I had found a rock, tossed it away somewhere, and 50 years later I found it laying around. Then someone came along and chipped away at it and discovered a shimmering emerald inside.

And so ends the story of the photo that wouldn’t die. Let’s just say that innocuous little photo was Lazarus and although I don’t want to embarrass Celeste by comparing her to Jesus, to me she is a miracle worker. She might not be quite up to the standards of Rembrandt, who painted the resurrection of Lazarus, but if you’re in Saratoga stop by her retail tent and see all her magnificent work. When you come to one painting in particular you can marvel at what she did to bring a once long forgotten photograph to life. And while you’re at it think of a then 26-year-old amateur photographer who was blessed to be in the presence of the great Secretariat for the first time that day… and got lucky.

Secretariat and Saratoga Shine in 2023

Jocelyn Russell’s magnificent 21-foot statue of Secretariat that has attracted thousands of Saratoga visitors since the beginning of the meet has come and gone and is now in Virginia where it will permanently reside, but the Spa remains alive with the presence of Big Red. Whether you are on Broadway, at the National Museum of Racing, or at the racetrack you can find an explosion of images and colors, mainly through the artwork of some of the sport’s most noted artists.

For a Big Red bonanza you can start your day at the Spa Fine Art gallery on Broadway where the walls are covered with the stunning new collection of paintings from Lisa Palombo that depicts Secretariat in all his magnificence, as only Palombo can with her kaleidoscope of colors.

When you leave, walk a few yards up the block and stop in Impressions. I hear they have some real nifty T-shirts and note cards of Secretariat painted by Celeste Susany.

You can then head to the National Museum of Racing and visit the special Secretariat “Tremendous Machine” exhibit that will be there through the end of the meet. Before entering, look to the right of the gallery entrance and gaze in wonder at the painting of Secretariat hanging on the wall by Celeste Susany. Perhaps you read about it somewhere.

Finally it’s on to the racetrack where you can sample the mineral water at the Big Red Spring, and see the various artists’ tents inside the main gate featuring a wide variety of Secretariat artwork. The first one on the left will be the aforementioned Celeste Susany with her now iconic painting and T-shirt of Secretariat. If you go there just mention my name and I’m sure she’ll give you a dollar off anything over a thousand dollars. If not, just send me your name and address on a Secretariat note card and I will send you the dollar out of my own pocket.

If you are unable to get to Saratoga this year, save the money you were going to spend on overpriced hotels and restaurants and on your losing wagers at the track and use it to get to Kentucky for the Secretariat 50th anniversary Festival on the weekend of November 11, where you will be inundated with more Secretariat statues, merchandising items, and artwork, including the debut of Jocelyn’s newest bronze of Secretariat and Jamie Corum’s spectacular three-story mural of Big Red painted on a century’s old brick wall in downtown Paris, which will be the central location of this year’s Festival. Here is a tip. If you Google hotels in “Paris” you will notice that you can get a room at the Ritz for under $2,000 a night. Don’t jump to any conclusions, not the same Paris. You can do a little better closer to Lexington!

I will leave you on a personal note. Of all my photos of Secretariat only two were taken on the racetrack (I got too wrapped up in watching races back then)—the shot that is the main subject of this column and a black and white workout photo taken before the Wood Memorial that I am proud to say was used by Jocelyn Russell as a model for her magnificent statue that has been touring the country and its twin located in Lexington. I am starting to think that perhaps I knew what I was doing. Thank you Jocelyn and Celeste for breathing life into two photos that lay dormant for so many years. But to be honest, you didn’t need to be a great photographer to get super photos of Secretariat. You just aimed the camera, pressed the shutter button, and he did the rest.

So, hope to see you in November in Kentucky. If you ask, I will be glad to take your picture. You never know where it might show up.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to Secretariat.com since 2020.

 


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