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.