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Flashback: Vol. 18, No. 3 – Horse Fans Still Putting Money on Secretariat

First published in the December 2010/January December 2011 issue of Sweet Spot

By Charles Kaufman

Sports movies affect memorabilia collectors in many ways. Whatever this person accomplished in a moment or over a career is something collectors want to hold in their memories. Ultimately, at least one question tugs at the psyche and in the pocketbook?

“Should I add something with a signature to my collection?”

For the moment, forget about those classics about the lives of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jim Thorpe and Monty Stratton.

“Raging Bull” gave life to the autographing life of boxer Jake LaMotta. “Field of Dreams” and “Eight Men Out” introduced collectors or renewed interest in Joe Jackson and the 1919 Black Sox. “A League of Their Own” welcomed former players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League” to autograph shows, large and small. “Brian’s Song,” the story of Brian Piccolo, stimulated interest in his memorabilia and further buoyed interest in Gale Saysecretariaters. “Rudy” introduced football fans to Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger. Yep, he gets to sign autographs, too.

More recently, “Miracle” renewed interest, as it does every four years, in the gold medal-winning U.S. Hockey team from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. “Cinderella Man” sent collectors to  the Internet in search of James Braddock memorabilia.

Which brings us to a sports about a different athlete — Secretariat. The film by the same name has inspired movie enthusiasts, horseracing fans and collectors alike who have galloped to purchase everything from strands of Secretariat’s mane to famed photos autographed by jockey Ron Turcotte and dynamic Secretariat owner Penny Tweedy Chenery.

Leonard Lusky, president of Secretariat.com in Louisville, Ky., said sales of signed and other items on its website have always been strong. Sales have funneled Secretariat Foundation funds into the various programs that research laminitis, a painful and often incurable hoof condition that ultimately took the life of Secretariat in 1989. Secretariat’s heart weighed 22 pounds at death, about two-and-a-half times the size of a heart of the average thoroughbred.

“The movie enhanced what was already there and brought in a whole new audience,” Lusky said. “The racing world always has understood the importance of Secretariat, but when it went to Hollywood, the mainstream audience understood.”

The anticipation grew through the marketing efforts of Disney, the maker of the movie. “Once the movie was released, we were deluged with orders.” In the first three days the drama grossed $12.6 million, less than what Hollywood expected. (By comparison, “The Blind Side” grossed $34 million during its opening weekend.

“Secretariat” will need a long run before it is proclaimed profitable. The movie reportedly took $35 million to produce. Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s hard-driving jockey, and Mrs. Chenery tour parts of the country, particularly locales that love the sport of kings. The schedule at tracks is most intense during the Triple Crown season, spring and summer.

Lusky joined Mrs. Chenery 10 years ago to grow the Foundation and its work. He said most people seek photos signed by Turcotte, which are available through a variety of websites and Turcotte’s own site. But the most popular items on the Secretariat site are original track programs, notably the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, among others.

Among the most famous photos are from track photographer Bob Coglianese, who snapped Turcotte casting a glimpse over his left shoulder at the field left in the dust, arguably the most memorable finish on a

track. Big Red won by an unforgettable, unthinkable 31 lengths. Turcotte said at the time that he kept hearing race announcer Chick Anderson’s voice. Anderson said he was 25 lengths in front. He was moving “like a tremendous machine.” Turcotte turned to see where the other horses were. “I know this sounds crazy,” Turcotte reportedly said, “but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride.” This image is sold all over the Internet.

“That’s the iconic photo,” Lusky said. Another is the official finish line shot that because of the winning margin is a long horizontal piece that shows the blur of the track and stretched out animals. “It is so cool,” Lusky added. “That’s the first thing people see and want.” It also presents more challenges in terms of wall space. It’s 84-inches long. Most people want Ron Turcotte’s signature. The demand for Chenery is less voluminous. Collectors gravitate to athletes.

Lusky jokes that he wishes he had a few Secretariat hoof prints on items. He’s joking. He gives Secretariat the respect accorded other iconic athletes. “Secretariat’s accomplishment makes him the equivalent of Muhammed Ali in boxing, Michael Jordan in basketball and Babe Ruth in baseball. “He is the man,” Lusky said. “While he’s not the only triple crown winner, what he did in 1973 transcended horseracing. I’ve worked with the Affirmed and Seattle Slew people. Those horses are apples to oranges when compared to Secretariat because Secretariat holds the course records, including a 2:24 world record for 1.5 miles on a dirt track.

“Mrs. Chenery becomes part of the legacy in that she was a woman owner in a man’s world. Secretariat’s triple crown is something the country needed on the heels of Watergate and the Vietnam war. These things combined led to the adulation and adoration of Secretariat as a pure sports hero.” In 16 months, Secretariat finished in the money in every one of his 21 races except one (Aqueduct on July 4, 1972) — that’s 16 wins, three places and one show and posted total earnings of $1,316,808.

The story is beautifully told in the movie and triggers more interest and collectors. It also generates “cheap copies” of photographs. Lusky said some dealers are taking well known photos and going to copy machines to recreate an image, presenting licensing violations.

“There are definitely forgeries,” he said. “Several times a week I’ll get calls questioning something with what is believed to be Ron Turcotte’s signature. If we find something on eBay, for example, that Ron knows he didn’t sign, we will have it taken down.”

Lusky said Mrs. Chenery was “very visionary” in protecting the rights of Secretariat’s name. “I don’t have to spend a lot of time policing it because it’s already being policed. Perhaps the most popular Secretariat memorabilia item is the bobblehead, a commercial, caricature-like item most people attach to figures in the ’50s and ‘60s. Mrs. Chenery, the guardian of civility and reputation, asked Lusky, “Don’t you think that’s a little bit undignified for Secretariat?”

Anticipating the question, Lusky the marketer said he told her, “You’ve always been supportive of what the masses want. Right now, this is what they want.” The first figure was so popular that five more versions followed. The editions all sold out. The first sold out in eight days. Secondary market prices of the first one have been known to reach $850. The second edition in 2003, A Belmont edition consisting of 1,973 pieces, originally sold for $73 each. A smaller bobble, seven-inches long and five inches tall, the Prancing Edition, has a lower collectible value; 12,500 were produced and sold out. Because of the supply, these are available for less than $50. Mrs. Chenery did sign about 150 of these on the base.

To a great extent, the bobblehead sales funded the statue of Secretariat at the Kentucky Horsepark in Louisville. In addition to proceeds from the bobblehead sales, the life-sized statue of Secretariat with jockey Turcotte and trainer Eddie Sweat was funded through the sale of collectibles directly from Mrs. Chenery.

On Nov. 1, 2003, the blanket worn by Secretariat after his career finale in the 1973 Canadian International Championship sold for $21,600, after being offered through eBay. On April 22, 2004, Big Red’s maiden horseshoe sold for $10,721; and an original Secretariat shoe nail from the 1973 Belmont Stakes sold June 11, 2006, for $6,100. In June 2004, Leland’s offered Lot 1613, Secretariat’s Triple Crown bit and bridle. Reserve: $40,000. It did not sell. Leland’s officials believed the reserve simply was too high. (In the same sale jockey Red Pollard’s Seabiscuit did not sell either. It had a $30,000 reserve.) Mrs. Chenery apparently lowered expectations and in May 2005, Secretariat’s Triple Crown-worn bit and bridle sold for $26,887.50. Ron Turcotte’s riding pants used on a mount of Secretariat sold for $717.

Leland’s did get a consignment for its June auction in 2010, a lock of Secretariat’s mane. It sold for $1,827.12. The consignor said she obtained the hair from Secretariat’s handler, who pulled the pieces of hair from the horse’s mane and handed them directly to her during a visit to Lexington. A set of Ron Turcotte Meadow Stable silks, with the jockey’s name stitched in the blue and white checkered shirt, did not sell on the Internet. The authentication of the Turcotte silks were questionable, sources said. The stable knew who and where the silks were made.

To a stable owner, silk designs are like a family coat of arms. When the folks at Disney Pictures informed Mrs. Chenery they would need six or seven sets of silks, all replicas of Turcotte’s, she demanded that they remain with Disney and never go to market. Disney said it would “destroy” them, sources told Sweet Spot.

Some Secretariat items, including the trophies, are on loan to museums at the nation’s great horseracing tracks. But Mrs. Chenery still has the Belmont winner’s blanket, great film footage and photographs that are regarded as “internal, proprietary” and for Mrs. Chenery’s eyes only. She also has a mint collection of all Secretariat’s programs. Other items are considered “odds and ends.” Lusky said Mrs. Chenery intends to sell one or two items periodically, at her discretion. “We haven’t sold anything since the recession hit,” he said.

As for people who make claims of having a hair sample from arguably the greatest horse who ever lived, Lusky said a lot ofhair is given at Claiborne Farms. “Unless you can prove it through DNA analysis, it’s worth a great memory. (A hair sample) is something the Chenerys feel strongly about. “She’s got hers and Ron his. She’s got it in a clump in a ribbon.”

Mrs. Chenery still answers e-mail monthly in “chats” on the Secretariat Foundation website. Secretariat fans write in offering photos of Secretariat. She loves to receive them. Common items signed by Turcotte, in addition to photos, are signed jockey goggles.

Ron Turcotte appears at autographed memorabilia shows but he is appreciated and in greater demand at events at race tracks. He’s taking control of the reins of memorabilia on his own website called Derby Legends. At the post are Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruguet, Steve Cauthen, Laffit Pincay and Pat Day.

In horseracing, Secretariat is king, and he’s ahead of the field in the memorabilia business. “There’s nothing more commercial in horseracing memorabilia than Secretariat,” said Josh Evans, whose auction house Leland’s once handled a few Secretariatitems. “Part of it is the monumental effect his deeds had on popular culture at the time he won the Triple Crown and perhaps, more importantly, when he won the Belmont by 31 lengths. Those images are forever etched in the minds of collectors worldwide.”

The fact that it happened just 37 years ago, mere infancy in memorabilia terms, makes Secretariat in great demand. “It fits perfectly into the age demographic of today’s well-heeled collector,” he said. The Secretariat Foundation website ensures that even Turcotte-signed photos are available for common collectors who simply want to walk up to the betting window with two one-dollar bills. It sells signed items in the $50 range.

And odds are you’ll love the movie.

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