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A coming of age
William Nack
October 28, 1974
Secretariat ran his last race just a year ago, ending a Triple Crown career. Here is how it all began
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October 28, 1974

A Coming Of Age

Secretariat ran his last race just a year ago, ending a Triple Crown career. Here is how it all began

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This is a story about a horse, but it is also about the people around him, and the land, and the people who came to the land who built the barns and grew the grass and bought the feed, who searched the world for the finest blooded horses and bought them when they found them, who chose the mares and bred the studs and raised the horses and flipped the coins and crossed their fingers—always hoping for the best, the fastest animal on earth. There is much room for outrageous luck in the breeding of racehorses, but there is also some crawl space for shrewdness and work, and sometimes, with enough of that, things come together in the end. As they did that night.

It was almost midnight in Virginia, late for the farmlands north of Richmond, when the hour came—when the phone rang in Howard Gentry's home and two men were out the front door, hastily crossing the lawn to the car. They climbed in, forcing the doors to against the cold, and swung out the driveway onto the deserted road. They took off north. It was one of those hours when time is measured not by clocks but by uterine contractions, and the intervals between were getting shorter. Not far away, in a small wooden barn, beneath a solitary light, a mare was about to give birth. The men were rushing toward the barn to help her.

Howard Gentry had been manager of the Meadow Stud in Doswell for 20 years. Beside him was Raymond White Wood, a longtime friend and neighbor, for years Gentry's companion at straight pool, a railroad conductor by occupation and himself a modest breeder of thoroughbred horses. It was the night of March 29, 1970, not the kind of night to leave the velvet green of a pool table, with its friendly click and spin of conversation, to rush outdoors, but Gentry was anxious. Down in Barn 17A, the two-stall foaling barn near the western border of the farm, an aging broodmare named Somethingroyal was going into labor for the 14th time in her 18 years. And she was carrying a foal by Bold Ruler, the preeminent sire in America.

While Bold Ruler had become a champion progenitor of the species, probably the greatest in American history, Somethingroyal had made a mark as one of its most important mares. She was the kind of mare that breeders seek to found families and raise dynasties. She was already the dam of Sir Gaylord, a most gifted racehorse, the colt favored to win the 1962 Kentucky Derby until he broke down the day before the race.

So Howard Gentry would remember that he felt anxious, more so than usual, to be done with it, to get the foal delivered. He thought about the equipment and wondered if it was all there—the enema, the cup, the iodine and the antibiotics. He had told Bob Southworth to look in on the mare, but Southworth was not the regular night watchman and Gentry hoped he had called in time.

Gentry stopped the car about 100 feet from the barn and he and Wood cut across the wet grass. Gentry looked into the stall and walked quietly inside. Somethingroyal was breathing quickly, her nostrils flared. She was walking the stall. She seemed on edge, nervous. Gentry felt her neck and shoulder. She was warm and sweating slightly.

He left the stall, checking for the iodine, the enema, the cup for the iodine and the bowl for the water to wash the nipples for the suckling foal. The three men waited at the door, watching the old mare pace, circling as if caged, and spoke idly in unremembered conversations.

At midnight Somethingroyal stopped pacing and lay down, collapsing on the bed of straw. Gentry slipped on his rubber gloves and dropped to his knees beside her. Her water bag broke, spilling fluid. Any moment now, the foal.

The tip of the left foot appeared first, and Gentry waited for the other. In a normal birth, the front feet come out together, the head between the legs, so Gentry watched for the other foot. And then he decided to wait no longer. He feared the leg might be folded under, or twisted, positions that could cause injury to the shoulder under the extreme pressures of birth, so he reached his arm inside the vagina and felt the head, which was in a good position. He dropped his hand down to the right leg and felt for the hoof. He found it curled under, as he had thought, so he uncurled it gently, bringing the leg out. "Won't be long now," he said to Wood.

Somethingroyal pushed, paused, panted, and pushed again, and Gentry guided but did not pull the legs, not yet. He always waits for the shoulder to emerge before pulling. The legs came out together, then the head, with a splash of white down the face. Finally the shoulders emerged. The mare paused and Gentry took the front legs and waited for her to rest, always letting her lead the dance, push and relax, push and relax.

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