Bourbon County

Secretariat reigns at Bourbon Fest

PARIS — The bevy of big red horses waited more or less patiently for their turn at reflected glory. For here they were, only minutes from Claiborne Farm and a hair-breadth from men who had ridden Secretariat during his most hair-on-fire days in 1973.

Maybe they knew that the original Big Red lay in the ground only miles from here, still worshiped by those who love horses and speed.

Maybe not.

But they seemed to know they were supposed to behave. To walk with their heads up and look like they were somebody. Somebody named Secretariat.

Here Saturday at the Sosby Arena at the Bourbon County Fairgrounds, John Sosby was ready to look over the 19 prospects who had come to vie for the first-ever Secretariat look-alike crown at the first-ever Bourbon County Secretariat Festival.

The Claiborne Farm manager when Secretariat ruled the famous farm was pleased with what he was seeing.

It was 4 o'clock. All day long, a small but enthusiastic crowd had come to the fairgrounds to watch videos of the great horse's races, to buy and bid on choice Secretariat memorabilia, and to meet owner Penny Chenery and exercise riders Jimmy Gaffney and Charlie Davis.

But this was the high point of the day. Horses — those not red, not big and not Thoroughbred — had applied and been turned away for this chance to be Big Red In Redux.

Before the show, there's a lot of confidence. Everybody has known their horse was a dead-ringer from the day the foal slipped out of his or her mama and landed in the warm hay.

"We think a lot of this horse," said Carol Deeble of Lexington, talking about I'm Going West, a huge horse at 17-plus hands.

Two women nearby said he's got the edge because of his size. Secretariat, they said, was 17-1.

Actually, he was 16-2.

Therein lies a problem with the 1973 Triple Crown winning Secretariat, the horse that owns two (or, as many argue, three) of the Triple Crown tracks' records. He is bigger than life. And bigger in death, too.

They mythologize rightly, argues Davis, his exercise rider. "I mean it. We didn't make Secretariat. He made us. I was never the pilot with that horse. I was the co-pilot."

Still, he wasn't that tall.

"But he was huge in other ways," said Davis. Asked what he would be looking for as a judge, Davis thought a long while. "Attitude," he said. Wistfully, he said he wished he could ride them all to know for sure who should win. "Because you can look like him but he's going to have to be The Man, you know. He's going to have to be that special."

Sosby, like almost no one else here, is not swayed by the Legend under discussion. On his sheet for judging the horse, simple things matter. "Look at his shoulders. Look at his hide. Look at his feet."

His feet were the thing a lot of contenders were concentrating on, taking advantage of having their horses' legs painted with a non-toxic paint to mimic Secretariat's stockings.

Vicki Elliott looked across at her competition and laughed. There was a horse, not a yard from her, with his stallion halter nameplate clearly engraved with his name: "Secretariat."

"All this time, we were looking for Elvis and we found Secretariat. They were ahead of us on that," she said.

Shelly Mann, the quick-thinking owner of the horse with the new nameplate, said her horse (whose real name is J.J.) is "kind of chubby and I wanted the judges to know he represented the stallion years, not the racing years."

Besides, she said, J.J. can't read.

It took almost an hour for the 19 horses to be judged. In the pack, there were dressage horses, hunter-jumpers, eventers, fillies, divas. A yearling. A hunter on the flat. A barrel-racer. A horse who helps rope cows.

In the end, Penny Chenery would not comment on the one she found most fetching. She would say only that "I saw an element of him in every horse but no horse that had it all."

In the end, blue and white painted blinders didn't matter. Razzmatazz nameplates, however cute, didn't. Even the 4-H kiddo's story didn't seem to move the judges.

The winner turned out to be the only stallion in the show. The only one who didn't employ a single dab of paint anywhere. His stockings were his own. They were on the correct feet. His shoulders were broad. So, too, his backside.

Strangely, Trolley Boy (known to those close to him as Charlie) had been the first horse in the 19-horse parade.

"He made it so hard on the others," said Sosby. But not so hard on the judges.

His owner, Angela Walker, is really starting to like him a lot.

She has owned him for all of 30 days.