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Crowning Moments: The owners
Before the Belmont Stakes this year, Patrice Wolfson will do as she did last year, when Funny Cide was aiming for Triple Crown immortality. Wolfson, who bred and owned 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, will make three corsages. She will send one to Penny Chenery, owner and breeder of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. She will send another one to Karen Taylor, who owned 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew - the only undefeated Triple Crown winner to date - with her husband and Jim and Sally Hill. And Patrice Wolfson will wear one herself.
Wolfson's corsages identify members of American racing's most exclusive club.
Smarty Jones's attempt at the Triple Crown, like those of recent Derby and Preakness winners before him, have prompted a lot of memories for the winning owners. Times have changed since the Wolfsons, the Hills and Taylors, and Chenery collected the sport's ultimate trophy. Unlike their predecessors, Smarty Jones's owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, will also get a $5 million bonus check from Visa if their colt pulls off the elusive triple. And Smarty Jones will be allowed to contest the Belmont on the medication Salix if he needs it, an option that was not allowed in New York during the 1970's.
But Chenery, the Taylors, and Wolfson agree that one thing hasn't changed since Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner, took the final leg of the series 26 years ago: It takes a great horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. They all hope Smarty Jones is such a horse, and Wolfson is keeping her fingers crossed that next year she'll be sending one of her corsages to Pat Chapman.
Penny Chenery came by her Triple Crown winner the old-fashioned way: She bred him. Her father, Meadow Stable owner Christopher Chenery, had had a longstanding arrangement with Ogden Phipps, in which Meadow Stable sent two broodmares a year to Phipps's stallion Bold Ruler. Under the agreement, Chenery and Phipps would meet every two years for a coin toss, with the winner getting first choice of the mares' foals. The loser took first choice the following year. Penny Chenery stuck to the custom after taking over the family stable in the late 1960's. In 1969, Phipps won the toss and chose the Bold Ruler-Somethingroyal filly, who never won a race. Taking her choice the next year, Penny Chenery selected Somethingroyal's 1970 colt by Bold Ruler, the horse that turned out to be Secretariat.
"Homebreeders have an awful lot of misfires to make up for, so you're grateful for the one big horse that makes it all worthwhile," she said.
At age 50, Chenery was thrust into the spotlight by "Big Red," who captured the public imagination with his authoritative victories. Like Smarty Jones, Secretariat approached the Belmont attempting to end a long Triple Crown drought. The previous winner had been Citation in 1948, and Chenery keenly felt the pressure.
"It was terrible!" she said. "I never drew a free breath because everybody wanted for Secretariat to win the Triple Crown. There were all those good vibes I got, but it was also a tremendous burden to make everybody's dreams come true."
Secretariat's runaway 31-length Belmont made Secretariat immortal not only for racing fans, but also for the general public.
"It changes your life in that forever you'll be associated with your horse," Chenery said. "You can't go back to being just a member of the community. There's something special about you after that for people. You have to be prepared to share that with people forever.
"I'm always amazed at the young people who write to me who couldn't possibly have known about the horse. They've read about him or seen him on the internet."
Chenery sees some similarities between the Secretariat era and that of Smarty Jones.
"I think it's quite parallel," she said. "It's a time when we need to feel good about something. We can't feel particularly good about what's going on in the country or with foreign policy. Smarty Jones is easy to love. The time in which this is occurring makes him attractive."
"I had a red horse in blue and white colors, and they have a red horse with blue and white colors," she said. "I think there's something to it.
"The thing I notice about Smarty Jones is that he is a high-energy horse. He seems to love racing and he seems to love to run, but he also has lots to give. I don't think we've seen the bottom of him yet, in any sense. If you watch his ears out there, he's having a ball.
"The field is wide open, and it's his to win. I welcome Smarty, and I welcome the Chapmans. We've had our moments of glory, it's been a long time, so let's come on and have another one. It's such an electric moment. Maybe to non-racing people, it's a happening. To racing people, it's the second coming, and we really need it."
Karen and Mickey Taylor
Karen and Mickey Taylor had a singular Triple Crown experience. Seattle Slew is the only undefeated Triple Crown winner and the only one bought at public auction. The Taylors, on the advice of their partner, Jim Hill, bought the Bold Reasoning colt at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky's summer sale in 1975, paying just $17,500. No one could have predicted that, two years later, the Taylors and their partners would be Triple Crown stars.
"We came four years behind Secretariat, and we weren't the bluebloods," Mickey Taylor said. "I was a third-generation logger, and Karen was a stewardess. We sold some T-shirts, and they fried us in the press for trying to merchandise the horse.
"Things are a lot different now than they were when Slew did it. One of the differences between then and now is that all the other Triple Crown winners were 2-year-old champions, and all of them had run before at Belmont.
"It's also different now from when we didn't have medication in New York, and the prep races back then were closer together. Affirmed ran three weeks before the Derby in 1978, and Slew and Secretariat ran two weeks before the Derby. But it's still tough."
The Taylors aren't bothered by the possibility that Smarty Jones might make Seattle Slew one of two undefeated Triple Crown winners. "No matter what happens, Slew was the first undefeated Triple Crown winner," Mickey said. "That's all that changes - you'd just have to change the word 'only' to 'first.' "
"It's great for racing, and the Chapmans seem like such good people," Karen said. "I would tell them to sit back, love your horse, and enjoy it. We're certainly rooting for him. I've been a fan of his since the Arkansas Derby."
"I hope it doesn't jinx him that they're trying to sell him [for stud duty]," Mickey said. "It usually jinxes them. That's why we took Slew off the market right after the Flamingo. It takes up too much of your time to try to set up a breeding deal when worrying about your horse is already taking up all your time.
"The greatest advice I ever received was from the master of Winfields and Northern Dancer, E.P. Taylor," Mickey said. "After he saw Slew win the Derby, he told me, 'This horse will make a great sire. Just make sure to keep control of your own destiny, and he'll take care of you.' And Karen and I did keep control of Slew. We looked after him for 27 years, and he looked after us."
"We had the greatest people on earth working with our horse," Karen said. "But every day we all just prayed he'd walk out of his stall healthy and sound. Thank heavens he did."
Patrice Wolfson remembers Affirmed's Belmont in vivid detail. Wolfson, the daughter of trainer Hirsch Jacobs and Stymie's owner Ethel Jacobs, had long experience with racing's dramas even before she married Lou Wolfson of Harbor View Farm. But even 26 years later, thinking back to their homebred colt's climactic stretch duel with Alydar can leave her breathless.
"The feeling never leaves you," she said. "I remember being in the stands that day, and it was almost like an earthquake hitting the grandstand as those two horses came into the stretch. You couldn't hold your binoculars. You just gasped for air. I remember just falling into my husband's arms. I knew Affirmed had won, that his nose was in front, and I saw Cauthen put his whip up in the air. Your legs shake when you realize it, because you know it's such a part of history to win the Triple Crown. Now, as time has gone on and 26 years have passed without another one, and now to see another horse going for it, it brings to mind how important the Triple Crown is.
"Affirmed had a great horse he had to put away," she said. "If there had been no Alydar, Affirmed would have been undefeated, too. We went into the Triple Crown after Secretariat and Seattle Slew had won it, and we wondered, 'Could it possibly happen again?' We knew we would never have the chance with him again. We knew Affirmed would go on to win other races and do other things, but the Belmont and the Triple Crown was only that one chance. People remember Affirmed for that race and for the Triple Crown and nothing else.
"I thought it might be easier to win now than it was years ago, because travel is so much easier on the horses now than it used to be," she said. "But it's just a tough three races to win. Affirmed had lightened up and wasn't really at his peak by the time he ran in the Belmont. But he dug in and wanted to win. That's what you breed a racehorse for."
The attention Affirmed's Triple Crown generated, she said, continues. "When people tell us they went to Kentucky to see him before he died, or write to us to say they saw him and how beautiful he was, we love to hear it," she said.
Wolfson said she plans to be at the Belmont, as does Chenery, but the Taylors will not attend; Karen Taylor recently injured her ankle. But they're all pulling for Smarty Jones.
"Racing needs a star right now, and Smarty Jones is a good example of what you want to see out there, a horse that has overcome adversities," Wolfson said. "Secretariat took your breath away, and Slew was unbelievable, being undefeated with such total fire. Affirmed was a quieter type who looked small next to the towering Alydar, and they had that great rivalry. The cast of characters was so different for each horse. They were three different kinds of horses who all became heroes."