As if the ghost of Barbaro wasn't strong enough, I'll have the ghost of Secretariat lingering in my mind on Saturday, when the 133rd Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs.
Secretariat's ghost will be larger than life thanks to the recent publication of a new book on the great horse. The Horse God Built by Lawrence Scanlan is the latest to go on an almost-full bookshelf on the big red horse.
I recommend this book with some reservations. The book claims to be the story of the relationship between Secretariat and his longtime groom, Eddie Sweat. Scanlan makes a noble attempt to recreate Eddie, who is now dead, but because of the time that has passed, Eddie cannot be separated from the bigger story of African Americans in racing. The author makes a few nods to the fact that racism and class discrimination existed on the racetrack in the 1970s, but he doesn't go there with conviction. Racist statements by trainers just hang in the air. Scanlan seems distracted, evidenced by musings throughout the book about his own horse and imagining what things were like for Eddie Sweat.
Most African Americans are gone from the backstretches of American tracks. Most are also gone from the horse farms where the horses are bred and raised. If that is so, why is it so? And who is Eddie's counterpart today? To me, that's the bigger story of this book, and Scanlan doesn't go there.
You might want to buy this book for the final chapter, called "Eulogy for a Horse." It describes the death and funeral of Secretariat, and has anecdotes about his autopsy, his gravesite, etc. I thought I had read everything about Secretariat, but I did not know how he died or where. I assumed that he had been euthanized in his stall when he suffered a relapse of laminitis. If Scanlan's report is correct--which he attributes to the farm manager and owner Penny Chenery--then I had been missing a big part of the story. In this case, ignorance was bliss.
The final chapter also tells the story of how Man 'o War died and his body laid in state in an open casket...thanks to the fact that he was embalmed. A human apparently requires two pints of embalming fluid; Man 'o War required 23. His funeral and all the speeches were broadcast live, by radio, across the country.
When Will Harbut, Man 'o War's longtime groom, died, the Blood-Horse obituary listed his survivors as "a wife, six sons, three daughters--and Man 'o War." The horse died a month after his groom.
From Will Harbut to Eddie Sweat to whoever snaps the leadline onto the bridle of Saturday's winner...what did these grooms have in common? If Circular Quay or Scat Daddy wins the Derby on Saturday, it may well be Todd Pletcher's groom Isabel who is there with the leadline. The media will love her but more importantly, they will see her, because she is a woman in a man's world, unlike Will and Eddie, who were nameless and faceless in their roles with superstar horses.
I'd like to thank Lawrence Scanlan for trying to piece together Eddie Sweat's story. It's a tall order. Most of all, I'd like to thank Eddie Sweat for having nurtured Secretariat into the horse we all will remember.
The Horse God Built is sold in bookstores everywhere but please try to purchase it from an independently-owned bookstore. You can also order it from Robin Bledsoe's horse bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts: 617 576 3634 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Secretariat in full stride, winning the Gotham Stakes for three-year-olds in New York. Bob Congianese photo from the cover of The Horse God Built.