In Memoriam: JIM GAFFNEY

Exercise Rider Jim Gaffney aboard SECRETARIAT

Horse racing is unusual among sports in that its athletes cannot speak for themselves.  They show us their heart and courage and speed and talent on the track, but it is up to the humans who care for them to tell their personal stories.  One of the greatest spokesmen a horse ever had left us last week.  Jim Gaffney, exercise rider for Secretariat and one of the best friends of The Infield, passed away Thursday at the age of 75.  Gaffney worked Big Red as well as Riva Ridge, Angle Light, Spanish Riddle and many other champions in his long career on the backside.  He also worked in the NYRA mutuel department until 2000.  To the end, he was a leading voice in the legend of Secretariat.  Gaffney met thousands of people and gave out hundreds of photos of Secretariat to the fans who stood in awe listening to his stories.  It is heartbreaking that he did not get to see the film version of his tale.

I met Jim in April of 2006, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Secretariat bronze at the Kentucky Horse Park.  It was an unusually frigid day and I was waiting inside the lobby for the activities to begin when an energetic, fast-talking older gentleman rushed up to me and my mom and asked if we were sisters!  He asked me if I knew who he was, and I told him any true Secretariat fan would know Jim Gaffney.  He waved his wife Mary over and posed for a picture with my mom & me, then slipped me one of his trademark yellow envelopes with the horses rubber-stamped on it.  Inside was an autographed photo of him astride Secretariat.  He encouraged me to write to him at the email address stamped on the envelope.  Each time he had a free moment, he found me and we talked about Big Red.  He seemed impressed at how much trivia I knew for such a young person, and he quizzed me about races and some of Big Red’s competition.

Shortly after the ribbon-cutting, I wrote to him and thus began a rich correspondence that lasted until just a little while ago.  Along the way, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Jim & his wife, Mary, at big races and Secretariat events in Kentucky.  At Breeders’ Cup 2006, I met the rest of Jim’s fan club in the paddock.  At Jim’s first Kentucky Derby in 2007 (he did not go to Secretariat’s; family events prevented it and so Charlie Davis went with Sec to Churchill), he was on the same floor in the clubhouse as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but after the race he wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel for a celebratory dinner!  In 2008, he once again had a great seat in the clubhouse, but my favorite memory from that year was a trip to Kroger.

Oaks 2008 was a terribly drizzly, rainy day, and so instead of getting Jim out in such weather, I suggested he make a trip to watch the staff make the wreath of roses for the Derby winner.  The store was crowded as the shoppers and curious Derby fans filed past the booth set up near the deli where the satin panels were stretched across two tables and a dozen ladies buzzed over them, stitching in the deep red rose blossoms.  Jim was so delighted watching the scene and impressed by the skillful seamstresses-slash-florists  that he pulled out a few of his yellow envelopes and passed them to the ladies.  He told them who he was and autographed the photos, laughing and sharing his favorite Secretariat memories.  Another shopper overheard and joined the small conversation, and Jim gave her a photo too.  Then a few more people came up, and a few more, and soon the entire store had turned from the roses to the spry gentleman who rode Secretariat!  Jim ran out of envelopes, so my dad rushed to the truck to get some more.  Jim happily signed photos for at least an hour, and the local news filmed a lot of it.  Mary was always supportive of his outgoing nature but that afternoon it seemed even she was surprised at the number of people smitten by Jim’s charisma and love for a horse.

Jim was an honorary Kentucky Colonel and had the official calling cards which he sent out with his yellow envelopes.  He found out about every new book, magazine article and news story about Secretariat and passed along the details to his circle of fans.  He was proud of his relationship with “Nack”, the most famous Big Red biographer, and reminded us that he was “Chapter 10” in the Book.  Many times he’d ask me how I liked the newest merchandise from Secretariat.com, and always said he’d pass along my comments to “Lusky”, the man in charge.  During one Derby excursion, he called up Seattle Slew’s exercise rider, Mike Kennedy, just to tell him how much fun he was having in Louisville, and then he passed the phone to me!  It was pretty cool chatting for a few moments with the guys who galloped Triple Crown winners — at the same time!

I took a photo of the Secretariat bronze that Jim was particularly fond of, and so along with a copy of the photo, I had some notepads made with the image prominently centered at the top.  He loved them and used them in his yellow envelopes to write personal messages to those he sent photos.  The camera was Jim’s best friend and worst enemy, as he took it everywhere and shot rolls and rolls of film, but many times he was so excited about what he was photographing that he moved the camera, resulting in rolls and rolls of blurry snapshots!  Jim also often would instant message me asking for picks at Belmont, and I’d dutifully study the DRF and pull out a few promising names.  He always promised to share the winnings, but sadly there were none ever to report:(

Along the way, I also met many other Secretariat fans who were friends of Jim.  I was able to tour Claiborne with Jim because of Mary McKinley, a fan & horse trainer from Pennsylvania.  I met Ron Turcotte & Penny Tweedy while hanging out with Jim.  And Jim encouraged me to pursue my love of the sport and make a career out of it.

Jim Gaffney was one of an exclusive fraternity of riders who got to sit astride the Greatest Racehorse Who Ever Lived.  But he was willing to share that with all of us, and welcome us into the world of Secretariat.

Thank you, Jim.

Thanks for the memories, Jim!

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10 Comments

Filed under Bourbon County Secretariat Festival, Claiborne Farm, Jim Gaffney, obituary, Secretariat

10 responses to “In Memoriam: JIM GAFFNEY

  1. Wendy

    I am so deeply saddened to hear about Jim’s passing. What an amazing guy. He will truly be missed by MANY!!!

    In 2007, while waiting for my TB Mare to foal, I was in search of all that I could discover about the sire’s bloodlines. She was bred to a son of Risen Star. In my search, I encountered Jim! I LOVED to listen to all of his stories about Secretariat, Riva Ridge and his riding days.

    Jim had not had the opportunity to be around foals, and told me that was something he would love to do. So while en route to the Derby in ’08, he and his wife, Mary stopped at Mary McKinley’s farm in PA for a visit. He met Magnus Star, son of Risen Star, and several new foals, as well. It was so wonderful to listen to Jim and hear about some of Magnus’ attributes, which reminded him of Secretariat. I know that Jim enjoyed that very much! He also got to see the latest foals, yearlings and two year old TBs on the farm, who were being groomed for the track!

    He and Mary stopped another time in their travels to Kentucky. I will never forget the many yellow envelopes, with a red, Secretariat stamp on each! He so enjoyed passing out photos to EVERYONE!!! And, believe me, it made so many people happy!

    I will also never forget our trip to the Secretariat Festival in Bourbon County, KY in Fall of ’08. I made the trip with my husband Mark, Mary McKinley, her TB “Shrekretariat” (who was entered in the Secretariat Look Alike contest–which Jim was judging) and Tony from Claiborne Farms. Such great memories from a great day–including a late dinner at Cracker Barrel at Jim’s request!

    My deepest sympathy to Mary and the rest of Jim’s family. We will truly miss him!

  2. Karen Curtis

    I know that I am very proud to have known Jim. Whenever he was in story-mode he could make you think that whatever the story was, it justed happened! He had a remarkable memory. I remember that tour of Claiborne we took with Jim. He and the stallion manager, Tony kicked back stories and everyone around couldn’t get close enough to them! Jim bragged on Candice to Tony that she was his go-to girl on horse info.
    Man, life’s too short and I know I am heart broken, I just wasn’t done with Jim yet! May he rest in peace, and I know he will tell Big Red about all the fans he and Jim have!

  3. Nancy Carr

    Jim was my brother and not only was he wonderful to all who knew him he was like that to his family as well. It is a great loss to our family; he loved everybody and everybody loved him.
    A big thank you to all who have said such great and wonderful things remembering him in special ways. It makes the loss a little less painful just to know the love everyone had for him.
    He has had a love for horses his entire life. In Hialeah, we lived about 5 blocks from the race track; as a kid, after school he would always head to the track just to be around the horses. I especially remember when he began exercising SECRETARIAT, him telling us about this great horse he had in his barn and how “this horse will make history one day, watch and see!”
    My kids would enjoy the times he would take them to the track early in the morning to watch him exercise Secretariat. He was their favorite uncle, and he made each of them feel special.

  4. jon levy

    wonderful stories about jimmy. what a good life.
    was he from park circle in brooklyn n.y.?
    i knew a jimmy gaffney who went on to the track as an exercise boy. could they be one and the same?

    • arleen

      My dad Jim Gaffney, and he did hang out at park circle. His whole life revolved around horses. I miss him so much! He died at 54.

  5. Stephanie B. Scott

    I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn just today of Jimmy Gaffney’s passing–and I am so very sorry for his loss. I am honored to add a tribute to this dear man. I first started corresponding with Jimmy in 2000 when first doing research on Secretariat–when I was also fortunate to correspond and speak with Penny Chenery as well– as I was on the committee working to pass legislation outlawing horse slaughter. (Most of the races who run out of the money, even many who did win, die horrendously in the present slaughter process of unspeakable, inexcusable suffering to the horses. Gaffney was also corresponding with me about that. And of course in other chats, he regaled me, too, with his happily shared stories of Secretariat. I sent him articles of interest about BigRed and he told me he was happy to read the article I sent written by Eddie Maple, Red’s jockey in his last race in Canada. In it, Maple described exactly how Red ran in that race and it was riveting! It was an amazing description of Red’s running style. Jimmy told me he was unaware of the article and loved it. And yes, he also sent me, so generously, several mailings and pics of Red that he signed. My fav is the shot of him smiling wide, standing next to Red at Saratoga with Turcotte up, just before the race. It is a gorgeous shot of the flaming RED color of 2 yr old Secretariat–just eye popping. And of course Jimmy was so proud that he was first to realize Secretariat’s greatness for the ages–and speak that opinion to others. His passing is a huge loss for all!
    And to Jimmy, doubless reuniting with Red and Riva on the other side…
    the good Lord welcomes you home dear Jimmy. You, like Big Red and Riva, were great hearts all. The best. With love and admiration, you will be remembered fondly.

  6. Jimmy, there wasnt a finer man he was a great father and husband, he also was a great friend. i met jimmy and his family in 1987 in new york at the race track. I was in new york saleing country western wear. we became friends. i was lucky to have met his wonderful wife and his children. i was also lucky to be able to stay at his home for a few adays, and there i learned so much about him and the great horse big red. his house was full of pictures of the horse and him. i remember one morning jimmy was makeing breakfast , pancakes and his wife looked over at me and said i wish he would make them round. they where long and thin.lol i will neve rforget all the good times we all had together. jimmy and his familey will always be in my heart. the horse world will miss him. thanks jimmy

    • Jimmy Gaffney

      Yes, a year has gone by and he is still missed like it was yesterday. Thanks for all the kind words. My family and I still look at comments and old letters written of all those who have met him and it brings some joy to our healing. Funny I was telling my wife that I can’t remember a time in my life ever coming home and not seeing him smile. Not a lot of people can say that buy I can. in my 38 years as his son, never saw him say hello to anyone and not smile and treat them like he’d known them all his life. A great legacy to carry on for sure…Jimmy Gaffney Jr.

      • Nina Morzenti

        Dear Jim,Jr
        I am so disappointed to think I’ll never meet your Dad again so he could make good on his promise and profuse apologies that “… next time we meet I’ll introduce you to my wife Mary”. That was in a note he wrote after I surprised him with a phone call at Saratoga in 1994. He had been sending me Secretariat memorabilia for a few years. I sent Jim a few Triple Crown Horseshoe Thoroughbreads from my line of specialty oat breads for the racing set. I had never spoken with him but was anxious to meet this fellow who was lucky enough to spend his life doing what he loved and sharing it with more than he might have had he simply done his job. I knew he’d have a slew of stories that I could add to my Thoroughbread Labels that I put in each loaf of bread like baseball cards in bubble gum. I was on my way to my mother’s in Mass so only planned for a day in Saratoga. Jim said, “Meet me at 6am and I’ll buy ya’ coffee…” and so we met and we drove to one of the tracks where horses were being exercised, Jim bubbling over with the enthusiasm that I had read in his notes. Soon after that year my husband’s Dad and my Mother required full time care so we each went to their respective homes in NJ and MA to see them thru this period of their lives. It was 2006 before I returned to Wyoming and another few years before I returned to any of my own interests. In 2004 both my sisters-in-law in their 60s died of cancer and mother died at 95 at her kitchen table the way I hoped. Jim Gaffney was one of the first names I googled as I went through my Thoroughbread business box last year.
        Are you following the footsteps of your Dad? Maybe I’ll get to meet you and your Mom. Your Dad would be glad. We’ll never stop missing him. Nina (nmorzenti@yahoo.com)

  7. Kelso

    Ah Jim was such a cool guy. Only met him once (covered in lilac sap, which is an entirely other story) but in the few short moments we talked I saw in him, a kindred spirit. Months later, I’ve only just heard of his death and I am deeply saddened that I had not heard the news sooner. I had always expected to see him again sometime. But alas, life is fleeting I suppose and the best of us are nearly always gone before anyone wishes for us to leave. I still remember him stopping by the farm to look at a few of the foals and indeed the yearling named (partially) for Secretariat himself (Shrekretariat). That was an amazing day, one I certainly will not forget anytime soon. We’ll miss you Jim, more than you can know. Even the ones whose live you touched only briefly.

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