The year was 1979; the Pirates had won the World Series and the Steelers were well on their way to another Super Bowl, it was a great time to live in the Burgh. However, a promotion and transfer were hard to say no to, and although it wasn't easy to persuade me to leave, before I knew it we were selling our house, saying good bye to our families and taking one long last look over our shoulders as home vanished into the darkness of the Fort Pitt Tunnels.
But there was one thing I loved almost as much as my hometown, and that was horse racing. This was the era of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, so the only thing that got me to even consider leaving the Burgh was the fact that Lexington, Kentucky, was to be my new home. My very first thought was actually of Secretariat…he lived the life of a retired thoroughbred there and, without knowing if it was even possible, I decided that meeting him would be a dream come true. So off we went to a town that I immediately fell madly in love with.
Lexington had the feeling of a cozy college town and was everything I hoped it would be. Everywhere I looked there was a horse farm, gentle bluegrass hills divided by measured white fences. The Kentucky Horse Park was brand new, and it became our go-to place when friends and family came to visit.
During the time I lived there, I was fortunate enough to see and touch every Triple Crown winner of the 1970s.
There was the timeless elegance and charm of Keeneland Racecourse, with spring and fall racing sessions. The track also allowed anyone interested the opportunity to casually catch a chilly morning workout followed by a stroll through the paddocks and a visit with the horses while enjoying the smells that only a horse barn can offer and only a horse lover can appreciate.
Just about everyone you came in contact with in Lexington had something to do with horses, and I remember the thrill of seeing a newborn colt enter the world and find his legs on the farm of a friend. I gladly found out that many private horse farms welcomed visitors and during the time I lived there I was fortunate enough to see and touch every Triple Crown winner of the 1970s.
Finally my dream came true on a visit to Claiborne Farm in Paris, a short drive from Lexington. Claiborne has a long history of producing world-famous thoroughbred horses worth mind-boggling amounts of money when retired to stud. But there was only one horse that mattered to me: the powerful Secretariat.
When we arrived he was in his stall relaxing after a nice afternoon bath, his reddish coat gleaming. Clay, his handler, brought him out so we could be properly introduced and there on a sunny cool day in March I met the reason I agreed to leave home… and he was worth every tear and hug I left behind.
He had an amazing presence and he knew immediately that I was in love with him. I fawned over him, cooed to him and rubbed his soft nose while he patiently put up with my hero worship. All the while I was trying to comprehend that I was holding onto the greatest thoroughbred to ever run on a racetrack. I left that day more in love than when I arrived, clutching a hank of red mane that Clay had yanked from Secretariat…a souvenir that I treasure to this day and one that Big Red was none too pleased about giving up.
Over the course of our time in Lexington I made a habit of visiting him on many occasions, and I like to think that we became friends. When he would see me approaching the fence he would run from the furthest corner of his paddock as fast as he could and pull up just as he reached me standing on the other side. I hoped he was as thrilled to see me as I was to see him, but it could have had something to do with his favorite peppermint candy that was hidden in my pocket. Either way, we had a relationship that meant the world to me and when another transfer pulled us apart I left with a broken heart.
Lexington has grown a lot since I called it home, but the heart of this bluegrass city is still wrapped in the history of these amazing creatures that continue to perpetuate the sport of kings. Secretariat is gone, but he remains forever at Claiborne, his final resting place visited by many who remember him running the race of a lifetime at the Belmont. But I prefer to remember my friend running at full speed toward me, his magnificent ego on full display, brimming with life and allowing me the privilege of spending time in his company.