“Secretariat” is a name often spoken as a sacred word.
After spending years marveling over Secretariat’s spectacular racing achievements, I became curious about his lifestyle once he retired from racing.
Upon making several calls to find someone with first-hand experience with the legendary horse, everyone pointed to one man: John Sosby.
As we walked along the paths of Claiborne Farm, Sosby, whose father was a groom for broodmares and foals, explained that he lived at Claiborne since he was a three-year-old child.
Through observing his father’s work, Sosby learned to be gentle with horses, while exercising patience and control.
The lessons from his childhood eventually led to his own career at Claiborne Farm. In 1964, Sosby became supervisor of the yearlings at the farm.
In regard to Secretariat’s initial arrival at Claiborne, Sosby remarked, “I was still in charge of breaking yearlings, which I thought was the best job here.”
However, Sosby soon earned a promotion to General Manager in 1975. In the years to follow, his daily life became interwoven with the legendary presence of Secretariat.
As with his career, Secretariat’s arrival to Claiborne Farm was no small event.
When he retired from racing, Secretariat made a farewell appearance for roughly 30,000 fans at Aqueduct race track. At the time, the date had been set for him to be shipped to Kentucky, but it remained a secret to the public. Sosby explained:
After the parade for the general public, a plane flew him and Riva Ridge to Bluegrass Field, across from Keeneland. Two vans were waiting, along with an escort from the Paris and Lexington Police.
It was one of those situations where you knew he was coming to Claiborne, but the general public didn’t know exactly what time, so that we could keep the crowd down.
[At Claiborne,] we had security. When they backed down into the loading chute here, we were waiting. Seth [Hancock] did not want a bunch of fan fare. He just put the guard at the gate. If you weren’t on the list of whomever Seth had invited in, you weren’t coming in.
Sosby then recalled the moment that Secretariat first set foot on the grounds of Claiborne Farm.
When they unloaded him, they turned him around. As they led him out, I can remember him looking at the barn and his new surroundings.
He was a beautiful animal. He walked with pride. He had something about him. And, somehow or another, he knew it.
Sosby reflected, “He was The Man.”
Perhaps, they both knew it.
As we walked down the trail to the stables at Claiborne Farm, Sosby directed me to Secretariat’s former stall. As he stood beside Secretariat’s golden name plate, Sosby talked about the fans that visited Claiborne to meet the legendary horse.
Between 8,500 and 10,000 people a year came to Bourbon County to visit Secretariat.
Some of them would go in the stall and lay in the hay. They would say, ‘If it’s good enough for Secretariat, it’s good enough for me.’
Every now and then, fans would bring Secretariat an apple or peppermint candy during their visit. His groom was in charge of giving those gifts to Secretariat.
In an interesting note, Sosby recalled that the horse particularly enjoyed two items – cameras and shiny objects.
As we arrived at Secretariat’s paddock, Sosby recounted Secretariat’s “Trademark Greeting” to his visitors. Pointing to the top of the hill, he explained that when a person walked up to Secretariat’s paddock, the horse would run up to the gate and stop.
Sosby then elaborated, “With a camera, he’d pose. He was a showman, but he was kind. You could walk right up and get your picture taken with him.”
I began to wonder about Sosby’s earlier comment about how Secretariat enjoyed “shiny things.” Was it a simple flash on a camera or did it go beyond that?
It was then that Sosby recounted the tale of “Secretariat and The Golden Earring.” He explained:
One day, I had gone to lunch in town. I got a call from the farm saying ‘You need to come out here. Secretariat just bit a woman.’
I was a mile and a half away from the farm. My first thought was a million-dollar lawsuit.
Well, I get there and they called a doctor out to try to stop the bleeding on her earlobe.
She had taken a picture and turned away. He reached to get her earring and just pulled it through her ear.
Sosby laughed when I asked if the woman was upset.
No. She was happy. She’d been bit by Secretariat!
As he smiled, he clarified, “He was not mean. It wasn’t his character. The earring was there – and it was shiny. He just reached and grabbed it.”
In 1989, Secretariat lost his battle with lamanitis and was buried at Claiborne Farm. As Sosby stood next to Secretariat’s grave, he briefly discussed the private service that was held.
He was put in the ground late in the afternoon. It was Claiborne family [present]. Nobody in the gate.
We didn’t want a circus or festival atmostphere.
We had just laid a good one to rest.
Sosby recounted that after Secretariat’s burial, “Over a hundred flower arrangements were on his grave by the next morning.”
In over two decades since his death, Secretariat still leaves his mark at Claiborne Farm. Sosby explained, “On his birthday, there will be twelve red roses on his grave [from an] unknown source. It’s been [going on for] twenty-one years.”
In his closing remarks, Sosby marveled, “I don’t know who his critics would be. He was perfect.”