Originally posted on 3/12/2023 on Richmond.com, Written by Bill Lohmann
Fifty years ago in May, Secretariat began his incomparable run into horse-racing history and American lore.
The legendary horse’s dominating sweep of the Triple Crown in 1973 — he still holds the records for fastest time in all three races — ensured he would be remembered as a horse for all time. His name has grown to be synonymous with greatness, his achievements mythic.
And, for those who might not recall, Secretariat was a Virginian.
Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970, at what was then The Meadow, a horse farm in Caroline County, that is now The Meadow Event Park, where the State Fair of Virginia is held each fall.
Nearby Ashland also lays claim to Secretariat’s heritage and, to celebrate its native son, is hosting a series of events on Saturday, April 1, most notably the official unveiling at the Ashland Town Hall of a visiting monument to the horse known as “Big Red.”
The “Secretariat Racing Into History” bronze monument is 21 feet long, 11 1/2 feet tall and weighs 3,500 pounds, and will arrive in Ashland in late March following a 1,300-mile journey on a flatbed trailer from the Oklahoma foundry where it came to life. It is scheduled to leave later in April when it will be loaded on the back of the truck again and will continue its Triple Crown anniversary tour to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
The monument could return for good to Ashland later in the year if a local group, Secretariat for Virginia, raises sufficient funds — about $600,000 — to purchase it. The town and Randolph-Macon College have agreed to provide a permanent site for the statue in the middle of town at the intersection of England Street and Railroad Avenue, just down the tracks from the town’s train station.
Spearheading the effort is Kate Chenery Tweedy, granddaughter of Chris Chenery, who in the 1930s purchased The Meadow and founded Meadow Stud, the breeding operation, and Meadow Stable, the racing operation, and daughter of Penny Chenery, who took charge of The Meadow when her father fell ill in 1968. Penny Chenery was running the place when Secretariat came along.
Tweedy said it just seems right for the statue to have its permanent home in Virginia in general and in Ashland in particular, and not only because she relocated there in 2018. Her grandfather grew up in Ashland, and several members of her family, including her grandfather, attended Randolph-Macon.
Tweedy grew up in Colorado, but visited The Meadow as a child and became familiar with Ashland. She started visiting the area again about 15 years ago when she was co-writing the book “Secretariat’s Meadow” with Leeanne Meadows Ladin and fell in love with the place.
“When it’s time for me to retire,” she decided back then about Ashland, “that’s where I’m going to retire.”
While working on the book, she also fell in love with the Virginia part of Secretariat’s story, she said.
“Since others have amply covered his achievements at the track and his retirement in Kentucky, I felt it was important to highlight his home state and our great history with horses.”
Her mother always said that “Secretariat couldn’t talk so she wanted to do it for him, and she worked really hard to keep his legacy alive. I traveled with her and helped her at her events meeting fans. I saw how much they loved him and her as well. Now that Mom is gone, I am the main one of our siblings to carry on Mom’s mission and to add my own.”
The monument is the work of Jocelyn Russell, a wildlife and equine artist living in the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. It is the second of two almost identical statues of Secretariat that Russell has created; the first was commissioned by a Kentucky group and installed in 2019 at a traffic circle in Lexington, Kentucky.
The one coming to Ashland is slightly different in that the Lexington version features “1A” on the saddle cloth and jockey arm number, which was Secretariat’s number at the 1973 Kentucky Derby. The second casting bears a “2” — the number Secretariat wore for his record-breaking run at the Belmont Stakes, perhaps his most famous race as he galloped across the finish line an astounding 31 lengths ahead of the second-place horse.
Russell says it was an honor to memorialize Secretariat in bronze because he was “not just a racehorse. He’s the racehorse of all time.”
She deeply researched Secretariat before creating the monument, including traveling to Canada to visit with jockey Ron Turcotte, who was aboard Secretariat on his Triple Crown run. The finished product depicts Secretariat in full stride.
The first monument was delivered via flatbed trailer to Lexington, amid considerable fanfare, Russell said, with even a helicopter following it into Lexington. On the trip to Ashland, she will be driving behind the trailer, and she expects the same sort of attention for a statue roughly 1 1/2 times the actual size of the horse, uncovered and visible, racing along the interstate.
At its Feb. 21 meeting, the Ashland Town Council unanimously approved a plan to lease the proposed site for the monument at the intersection of England Street and Railroad Avenue from Randolph-Macon — at $10 per year — “when and if funds are raised by the Secretariat for Virginia” committee to purchase and install the statue.
Having the site conditionally approved allowed the fundraising to commence, said Wayne Dementi, with the Secretariat for Virginia committee. Dementi and Tweedy, among others, are confident they will raise the necessary money.
No town funds would be used to acquire the statue. If the purchase comes to pass and the monument is placed permanently in Ashland, the town would own the statue, while Randolph-Macon would maintain ownership of the land.
The monument would be “in the center of things,” said Ann Martin, chairman of the board of the Ashland Museum, which is serving as the sponsoring nonprofit organization for the fundraising effort.
“It will be seen by lots of people who travel on England Street, as well as those who go up and down Railroad Avenue. People will see it from the train.”
The monument would be “another boost for the town in terms of bringing outsiders into our community,” she said. “Anytime you have people visiting the town, it helps the entire town economically. We have a healthy downtown, but it would certainly make it thrive more.”
The museum features a Secretariat exhibit — Tweedy is on the museum board and provided much of the memorabilia — and Martin said the town is proud of its connection to the horse.
“It will just be raising the funds to make it happen, so we need everybody who loved Secretariat or has any interest in horses to support us in whatever way they can,” she said.
Besides the unveiling of the statue on April 1 at 2 p.m. at the Ashland Town Hall Pavilion, other events that day include a free showing of the Disney film “Secretariat” at Ashland Theatre. Tweedy will be on hand to talk about her behind-the-scenes experience on the movie set.
From 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., there will be a number of displays and children’s activities at the Town Hall and lawn area, including a presentation by Russell on sculpting the monument.
In an interview for a 2010 story on the 40th anniversary of Secretariat’s birth, Tweedy talked about the “magical memories” she had from her visits to The Meadow when she was young. Among them was the first time she saw Secretariat. The big chestnut colt was barely a year old, but even as a teen she could tell there was something exceptional about him.
“He was striking … both in size and personality,” Tweedy said in the 2010 interview. “He had something in the eye that really made you say, ‘Whoa, who’s this character?’”
When reminded recently of those comments, Tweedy said Secretariat was “bigger and so beautiful, always” and further described him as “very smart and inquisitive and kind of mischievous — not bad or mean, but just a smart and lively foal.”
“He had this regal presence,” Tweedy said. “Mom would always say that his mother was the queen of that herd, kind of the alpha mare. Just by virtue of that, he inherited this mantle of, ‘Hey, I’m something special.’
“And he was.”