Originally Posted on Richmond.com on 4/1/23, Written by Michael Martz
ASHLAND — The Second Mount Zion Baptist Church choir sang “Oh Happy Day” for the public unveiling on Saturday of a massive monument to a big horse — Big Red, better known as Secretariat, on the 50th anniversary year of his unsurpassed dash to the Triple Crown of horse racing.
Larry Tillman, one of three groomsmen for Secretariat who attended the celebration, was the lead singer in a trio of gospel songs to celebrate the fabled horse, born 53 years ago on Thursday at nearby Meadow Farm in Caroline County.
“Talking about Big Red, I always get excited,” said Tillman, who had watched the Disney film “Secretariat” with “tears in my eyes” earlier in the day at the Ashland Theatre during a daylong celebration.
It also was a happy day for Kate Chenery Tweedy, whose mother, Penny, was a driving force behind Secretariat’s string of victories in 1973 for the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century.
Tweedy, who moved to Ashland from her native Colorado in 2018, is chair of the Secretariat for Virginia Committee, which is launching a campaign to raise more than half a million dollars to purchase the 3,500-pound bronze statue unveiled on Saturday and install it across from the Ashland train station, so Amtrak travelers will get an eyeful of Big Red in full stride as they arrive in the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe.”
“He certainly went the distance, and Mom went the distance, too,” she told a large crowd gathered in the Ashland Town Hall Pavilion. “We’re hoping to go the distance here.”
But Tweedy said the event is much more than a fundraiser, as the community — including the Town of Ashland and Randolph-Macon College — unite behind an effort to attract tourists and bring recognition to Virginia’s role in horse racing.
“I think it’s a way to honor the industry and revive it,” she said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday. “It’s also a point of pride for Virginia.”
The statue itself is a dramatic statement about a horse that Virginia Commissioner Joseph Guthrie proclaimed, without doubt, as “the greatest racehorse in history.”
Standing 12 feet tall and 21 feet long, the statue arrived in Virginia on Thursday — Secretariat’s birthday — for a brief visit to Ragged Branch Distillery in Charlottesville, which is releasing a new Secretariat Reserve bourbon made in part with corn grown by Hanover County farmer Ken Engel on the Meadow Farm. Engel drove to Oklahoma to bring the statue to Virginia from the foundry of sculptor Jocelyn Russell.
“I think this is going to be my pinnacle project for my career,” Russell said Saturday before helping Tweedy and other supporters pull off the blue-and-white checked tarp that represented Secretariat’s racing colors. “I don’t know how it could be any bigger than this.”
The statue is one of two cast by Russell. The first was installed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2019. It shows “1A” as the post position that Secretariat carried in winning the Kentucky Derby in 1973 with a record pace. The second edition unveiled here carries “2” as the post position for Secretariat in winning the Belmont Stakes, also at record pace, by an astonishing 31 lengths in what many consider the greatest racing performance in history.
It will travel to Kentucky, for the 149th running of the Derby next month. Tweedy, who was 15 years old when her mother took over Meadow Stable from her incapacitated father in 1968, will ride a horse in the Derby parade, along with her sister, Sarah Manning.
From there, Secretariat will travel to Maryland for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, and New York for the Belmont Stakes. After visiting the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the statue will return to Virginia, first visiting Colonial Downs racetrack in New Kent County before coming back to Ashland in early fall in a return to what supporters hope will be its permanent home.
“The tour kicks off here and ends here,” Tweedy said.
The ending will depend on the success of the fundraising campaign. Alvin Mines — one of the three Secretariat groomsmen at the celebration, along with Larry and Mason Tillman — promised the crowd a personal story about Big Red, but only if they help raise the money first to bring the statue home.
“We so look forward to installing this wonderful, majestic monument in Ashland permanently,” said Bob Lindgren, president of Randolph-Macon, which is donating the land for the proposed monument.
Secretariat already is honored by two statues each in Kentucky and New York, as well as one in Canada, Tweedy said. “We’re a little late to the party.”
But she made clear that she wants the monument here, in her adopted home, where her grandparents are buried, and her mother’s ashes were interred in 2018 after her death the previous year at age 95.
“We have so many connections and so much affection for this town,” Tweedy said.
The affection is returned, especially from those who worked with her grandfather, Chris Chenery, a former New York financier who bought Meadow Farm and Stable in 1936 to pursue his love of horse training and breeding. Chenery had grown up in the community and attended Randolph-Macon.
“Mr. Chenery was a great man, a good man,” said Larry Tillman, recalling how the stable owner would send cards each Christmas to the children of employees as recognition of them staying in school. “He loved his horses, and he loved his employees.”
“It is a blessing to be here.”