On new year's day 1992 a 6-year-old gelding finished fourth in a race for $3,000 claimers at Tampa Bay Downs. His performance was uninspired, his story depressingly familiar. The horse had shown promise as a 2-year-old, but a chronic leg condition kept him off the track. In five lifetime starts he had had winnings of only $6,085, barely enough to cover his feed and hay. The time had come to sell him to a slaughterhouse.
His name was Secretariat Dancer—Secretariat, as in the greatest horse ever to nibble at a hay net, and Dancer, as in Northern Dancer, arguably the preeminent thoroughbred sire of this century. Secretariat Dancer was the result of a carefully engineered breeding between the 1973 Triple Crown winner and Cadency, a daughter of Northern Dancer. When Cadency foaled the large bay colt in 1986, her breeders had hopes that this melding of dynasties would result in a champion. But six years and countless disappointments later, it was clear that, at least in Secretariat Dancer's case, bloodlines aren't everything.
Anna Brill Godwin, a 19-year-old hotwalker in the receiving barn at Tampa Bay Downs, noticed the doomed horse standing in the back of a stall, sweating and rocking from side to side on his sore front legs. Godwin reached in to give him a pat on the nose. Secretariat Dancer nuzzled her hand, then raised his head and nickered loudly. "It was like he was asking me to save him," Godwin says. Then she saw the name on his bridle.
Though she was only a year old when Secretariat was making racing history, Godwin knew all about Big Red of Meadow Stable. She knew that his owner, Penny Tweedy, had called him Sexy. She had heard the track announcements for his three Triple Crown victories, her favorite being that of the Belmont Stakes ("Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!"), which the colt won by an astonishing 31 lengths. She also sensed that Secretariat Dancer's trainer, Mark Maker, had mixed emotions about selling the horse to "killers," as they are known on the backstretch, who collect horses for the slaughterhouses.
"You can't kill one of Secretariat's babies!" Godwin told Maker, who agreed to sell her the horse for $202. Godwin called her mother, Marian Brill, a tough-talking, chain-smoking racetrack veteran who has a small stable of horses at Tampa Bay Downs. Upon hearing of Secretariat Dancer's plight, Brill exacted a check from one of her owners, Hilmer Leddon, and dashed over to the receiving barn.
After completing the transaction Brill unwrapped the horse's leg bandages to get a look at Leddon's purchase and let loose a string of expletives. Secretariat Dancer's legs, she says, her face darkening, looked "like ground hamburger. They ran him on those legs, and he still managed to finish fourth. That told me something about the size of his heart."
Like Charlie Brown and his scraggly Christmas tree, Brill saw in Secretariat Dancer "something that just needed a little love." It took 30 minutes for the horse to hobble the 150 yards from the receiving barn to Brill's stable. She worked on him for three days, applying salves and compresses to his inflamed shins, then sent him to Leddon's farm near Orlando to convalesce.
Secretariat Dancer was "a handsome, leggy foal," according to Bernard McCormack, the general manager of Winfields Farm in Toronto, the celebrated farm where Secretariat Dancer—and Northern Dancer, of course—was born. Ed Hyde, a Toronto investment lawyer, paid $70,000 in Canadian dollars for the gelding at the 1988 Woodbine sales, an annual event in Toronto.
Secretariat Dancer made his first career start on Sept. 25, 1988, at Woodbine Racetrack, the track at which his sire had run his last race 15 years earlier. Like his illustrious dad, Secretariat Dancer lost his first race, finishing second by a length.
After the race the gelding's veterinarian discovered that he had bowed a tendon in his left foreleg, often a career-ending injury for a racehorse. Secretariat Dancer was given a year off, then sent to Hialeah Park in 1989. After a month of training, the tendon injury flared up again. He was sent back to Hyde's farm near Toronto, deemed unraceable and was retired.
Two years later Florida-based trainer George Maker, Mark's father, saw Secretariat Dancer grazing in his pasture in Toronto. Maker, who specializes in claiming horses, thought the horse might be able to race again. He bought Secretariat Dancer from Hyde for $1,500 and sent him to Detroit Racecourse.
And there, on Oct. 20, 1991, 5-year-old Secretariat Dancer, in his second career start, broke his maiden against $5,000 claimers. Maker thought enough of the horse's effort to ship him to Hialeah with the rest of his stable.
But Secretariat Dancer was no match for the younger, healthier horses at Hialeah, and he finished off the board in three starts. So Maker took him to Tampa Bay Downs with the hope that someone would be impressed with his bloodlines and claim him.
There were no takers. Secretariat Dancer was jostled during the New Year's Day race and returned to the barn with bowed tendons in both front legs. Maker, whose livelihood depends on the soundness of his horses, could no longer afford to keep him. Then Godwin appeared on the scene.
After a year of recuperation at Leddon's farm, Secretariat Dancer was brought back to the track last December in a six-furlong, $3,500 claiming race. He finished seventh, but Brill saw a mild finishing kick that suggested he might like to go farther. She ran him again nine days later, this time at a mile and a 16th. He got up in the final strides to win by a nose, but his victory came against the cheapest horses stabled at the track.
Now, on a sunny day in March, Secretariat Dancer is entered in a mile and a 16th race for $3,000 claimers. All six members of the Brill family have turned out for his race. The horses in today's field are a quaint assortment of winded losers and barnyard pets, many with bum knees. With his scarred legs, Secretariat Dancer fits right in.
When the gates open, Secretariat Dancer comes out slowly, but he quickly moves up as the field passes the grandstand. Going into the first turn he is bumped by a horse running erratically along the rail. He stumbles slightly, and Brill nearly bites her cigarette in half. He moves up steadily along the backstretch and is second going into the final turn. He appears to flatten out in the homestretch, but 100 yards from the wire he sweeps past the front-runner.
There are hugs and joyful tears as the family meets in the winner's circle for the winner's photo. Secretariat Dancer, the resplendent warrior, is nearly covered with mud, but Brill, mascara running down her checks, leans over and plants a kiss on his nose.
In 10 races this year Secretariat Dancer has had three wins. With year-to-date earnings of $5,835 he has earned more than 28 times his purchase price. He is fitter than he was as a 3-year-old, although his once-dark-brown coat is now nearly black, and other trainers tease Brill about the gelding's slight paunch. Newly nicknamed Sexy, he is the barn pet in a motley 10-horse stable.
"I wouldn't put him in a tough race," says Leddon, who co-owns the horse with Marian Brill's husband, Gary. "He'd try so hard, I'd be afraid he'd hurt himself." After this year Secretariat Dancer will retire to Leddon's farm to begin a second career, as a pleasure horse.
Until then Secretariat Dancer will continue racing in the claiming ranks, where the competition is light but where he could also be claimed by another trainer at any time. Brill isn't worried. "Nobody's going to take an old horse with legs like this," she says from her seat next to Secretariat Dancer's stall, where the horse has his front legs planted in a tub of ice. "He'll run until he tells us he's had enough. He'll make a great riding horse."
For now, Sexy has a pet goat, Nicholas, to keep him company, all the carrots he wants and the love of a good woman.
Stephanie Diaz, who lives in Fairfield, Conn., writes on horse racing and other equine subjects.