Celebrity status comes to very few.
With at least 30,000 thoroughbred foals dropped every year, only a scant few become Triple Crown race winners or become well-known because of Breeders’ Cup success.
Thoroughbreds are magnificent animals. But their particular talents are generally seen as useful to the business side of our lives. Can they bring in enough race winnings or stallion stud fees to pay for the ever-rising costs of keeping them?
Are they an asset to their owners? Is it a useful business decision to keep them? For too many thoroughbreds, their room and board become too burdensome for any owner to consider.
One of those whose on-track record and failure as a stallion to produce roaring successes at the races was one of Penny Chenery’s thoroughbreds at the Meadow Farm in Doswell, Virginia.
That Penny Chenery. The owner of the fabled Secretariat. The owner of 1972 Kentucky Derby champion, Riva Ridge.
Even Penny Chenery, now 90 years young and retired from the racing end the racing/breeding business, had her share of horses that didn’t do well on the track.
It seems that Penny had a broodmare whose sons actually saved her Meadow Farm from bankruptcy. That brown-colored mare was Somethingroyal.
Somethingroyal bore 18 sons and daughters in her years at Meadow Farm. One of them — Riva Ridge — won the 1972 Kentucky Derby. Another one — Secretariat — won the 1973 Triple Crown for three-year-olds . . . at the same time winning the hearts and admiration of millions of Americans who only had a passing interest in thoroughbred racing.
Riva Ridge was the son of the very successful stallion, Princequillo. Riva Ridge’s value on the business side of racing was considerable.
He sired a colt named Straight Flush. Somethingroyal was the mother of the bay-colored Straight Flush. And since Secretariat was also a son of Somethingroyal (by the sire Bold Ruler), that made Straight Flush a half-brother of the wonderous “Big Red”.
Many years after she had left the everyday life of a thoroughbred breeder-owner, Mrs. Chenery said she remembered well Straight Flush. “He certainly did resemble Riva Ridge,” she offered. “He had that head and neck like Riva. And he was always a nice, quiet, serene horse.”
But he didn’t run like Riva. And he didn’t run nearly as fast as his half-brother, Secretariat.
Straight Flush was a late-blooming two-year-old in 1977, not running in his first race until October 15. He was second against fellow maidens under rider Jean Cruguet in the mud at Belmont Park.
He ran four more times at age two, and could not win. In five tries, Straight Flush had never been worst than fourth, but he not won.
In his fourth race at age three, he broke his maiden and won by a neck with the help of jockey Bill Shoemaker.
Riva Ridge was long retired. So was Secretariat. Straight Flush’s background filled with successful relatives couldn’t help him win races, but it kept race-interested eyes focused on his limited progress.
His second win came at Aqueduct in his 14th race. The jockey was Eddie Maple, and the winner’s share of the allowance purse was $9,600.
Before being retired in July of 1979, Straight Flush had raced 28 times and had three wins, was second in four of his efforts and finished third another three times. His winnings amounted to $49,820 — probably not enough for his room, board, farrior fees, vet fees, entry fees, and costs to keep him in training.
Even without eye-catching success or much money acquired, Straight Flush still had his half-brother, Kentucky Derby-champion sire, and famous mother for people to use in judging his worth as a stallion.
Famous relatives. All-time champion relatives.
As he passed from owner to owner, his stream of caretakers always looked for the one foal he might sire that could create a stir close to the tidal waves his father or half-brother had created.
Unfortunately, none of Straight Flush’s foals was a Grade I stakes winner. His stallion duties took him from Vivian, Louisiana to Paradise Farms in Longview, Texas. By the time he was in Colorado, he was 24 years old.
His business value had drifted as low as it could go. He was slowly moving downward toward oblivion.
Finally, a kind-hearted Texan who owned a feedlot for cattle and down-on-their-luck horses had Straight Flush on his dusty grounds. He sent an email to racing writer Stephanie Diaz, telling her the half-brother of Secretariat was just days away from a slaughterhouse.
The mostly emaciated Straight Flush was for sale. There obviously had been no bidders. Figuring she would get interest started, Diaz sent the feedlot owner a $200 bid . . . and believed her offer would be eclipsed in no time. A few days later, a phone call came telling of her new purchase — Secretariat’s half-brother.
Diaz arranged for a van trip to a thoroughbred retirement home in California for Straight Flush. Later, she met the horse she had saved. Despite his prominent ribs and protruding bones, Diaz was happy with his overall appearance.
“Just the longest legs you’ve ever seen,” she said. “And he’s a sweet horse, too, with a big, soft eye. Plain bay, wide face, with a kind expression.”
From age 24 to the unlikely age of 32, Straight Flush lived at horseman Neal Arave’s Riverside, California training ranch.
In those eight years, the old-timer flourished, romping along fence lines, standing in a shallow pond and splashing water in all directions, standing in the shade and enjoying the soft breezes under a stand of tall trees.
“He’s got the prettiest coat you’ve ever seen on a horse,” said Arave. “He looked like he was 14 years old the way he ran and played and had a good old time.”
Mrs. Chenery was happy to hear of his rescue.
“You’re always delighted when they have a happy ending,” she said. She has a long-standing reputation as one of the leading lights in finding refuges and safety for thoroughbreds in retirement.
“I’m not so naive as to think we can rescue every horse. But we can rescue the ones who are in danger — like on their way to that place, New Holland (a Pennsylvania town where an auction building that sells to buyers for slaughterhouses is one of the businesses).
Straight Flush was one of the lucky ones. Rescued at age 24, he had outlived most of those he had raced against. Living to age 32 made him even more remarkable.
Straight Flush, the half-brother of Secretariat, died in September of 2007. He didn’t reach the January 1 birthday of all northern hemisphere thoroughbreds when he would have turned 33.
He had been saved from going to a slaughterhouse.
But thousands of other thoroughbreds don’t get a reprieve when an email finds a benefactor willing to pay attention to their plight.