Whether you like the movie or not, Secretariat has been a welcome reminder of Big Red’s accomplishments, 37 years after he won the Triple Crown. And while I haven’t seen the movie, I am reminded of that incredible spring each time I walk into the Belmont paddock, where stands a statue of the Chenerys’ Triple Crown winner.
In May of 2009, that statue was damaged in a horrific accident when City On Line, trained by Allen Jerkens, dumped his rider on the track and ran back to the paddock, crashing into the statue. City On Line had to be euthanized; the base of the statue was destroyed, while the statue itself was relatively unscathed.
The statue is a 1988 copy of a 1974 original by John Skeaping. According to Beth Sheffer, curator at the National Museum of Racing, which owns the statue, Paul Mellon commissioned the original; it was loaned to the New York Racing Association until 1988, when it was returned to the Museum. Skeaping then made the copy that was placed in the Belmont paddock.
Responsible for all objects in the Museum’s collection, Sheffer began the process of replacing the statue’s base. “The bronze itself didn’t sustain that much damage and it was fixed nearly immediately,” said Sheffer. The base, however, had been shattered, and Sheffer began accepting bids to replace it. In the interim, NYRA built a temporary wood base, so that the statue could return to its rightful place.
The company chosen to replace the base was the Proctor Marble Company of Vermont, owned by Brent and June Wilson, who brought much more to the project than expertise in granite.
June Wilson grew up on Long Island, not far from Belmont Park. “My father Robert was a racing enthusiast,” she said this fall. “He always went the track, and I went with him. I loved seeing the horses, and my father always said that that’s how kids learn math, by learning to handicap. He wasn’t a big-time gambler, but he enjoyed betting a little here and there.”
June and her father’s racing exploits brought them to the Kentucky Derby in 1973. “I have the original program,” she said, “and some uncashed tickets, and my entrance ticket. It was the only Derby my father went to.”
Robert Hagan died in 1999; the year before, his daughters asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he asked for tickets to the Breeders’ Cup. He and June went, watching Awesome Again win at Churchill Downs, as they’d watched Secretariat win there 26 years before.
“My father always wanted to be cremated,” June said. “He always said that he wanted to be buried by the eighth pole, and one racetrack” – she declines to name it – “gave us permission to bury some of his ashes there. The rest of his ashes are scattered at various parts of 12 different tracks, including one in Ireland. We’d sprinkle a few in flowerbeds, or near the paddock. I think that he probably looks down and smiles at that.”
Wilson and Sheffer had met when Wilson had brought some memorabilia to the Museum the year before the paddock accident at Belmont. June’s husband Brent is a sculptor who hand-carves marble, and they submitted a bid for the base. “We were honored when we got the contract,” she said.
Honored, but also anxious. “There are 547 hand-carved gold leaf letters on that black granite, which is a very tough stone,” explained June. “Brent uses an air hammer to carve the letters, then goes in by hand with a chisel. The letters are then gilded and overlaid with gold leaf. When I brought the base down to Belmont, I guarded it as if I were guarding Secretariat himself.”
This wasn’t the Wilsons’ first experience memorializing something to do with Secretariat; in 1994, Brent created the headstone and marker, of Vermont red slate, for Hollis B. Chenery, son of Christopher Chenery, who bred Secretariat, and brother of Penny.
Wilson’s father died at the end of the Saratoga meet in 1999, on September 3rd, and his daughter, in addition to missing him, thought, “How am I going to go to the races without him?”
So the next season, she applied for a job at NYRA. “And that’s how I got my security job there,” she said.
She’s worked 11 meets now; though she used to work more frequently, she’s now at the track only on Saturdays, driving over from her home in Vermont. It’s her job to escort a designated jockey to the paddock from the jocks’ room. “I love my job. When I got to escort a jockey to the paddock for the Travers, I thought I’d hit the lottery.”
The Wilsons were involved for a while with Karakorum partnerships and owned shares in Karakorum Starlet and Fly with Karakorum. “They both made us proud,” she said. Though they’re out of the ownership game at this point, June expects that they’ll go back to it. “It was a great experience,” she said, “so exciting. We used to say that we owned her nose, but she owned our hearts.”
The Wilsons also support racing philanthropy; June attended the Belmont Child Care Association benefit in Saratoga this year, and she and her husband donate marble items and gifts for their auction. “Anna House is a great place,” she said.
A year ago when Belmont closed, Secretariat spent the winter atop a plain wooden box. This year, thanks to the Wilsons, he is firmly returned to his former grandeur, even as he is celebrated in a major motion picture.
One imagines that Robert Hagan would be pleased.
Photo credit for restored statue to June Wilson