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A Moment, a Man, And a Miracle
By Paul McFee
On March 30th 1968 a bright red colt was born to parents literally chosen by the toss of a coin. The colt was born to Somethingroyal, and stallion, Bold Ruler. Bold Ruler was considered one of the most significant stallions of his time. He was known to have both the speed to be a frontrunner, and the stamina to run 1 1/4 mile tracks. The colt, a red chestnut horse with three white socks and a star with a narrow blaze was named Secretariat, a name that would not only set the standard for horse racing, but a name that touched the world and demonstrated almost supernatural possibilities. Secretariat showed exceptional greatness within the first two years of life, winning the 1972 American Horse of the Year honors, a record for a two year-old that was only repeated once since, in 1977.
July 4th, 1936, another great champion first fell in love with horses after he sat atop a horse in Powell, Ohio. The man's name was James Gaffney. That summer day would begin a lifelong love affair with horses and horse racing. A smile from a young child's face would hint of a future life defining passion and remain in the minds of everyone that ever met Jim Gaffney.
April 1972, Jimmy Gaffney's life intersected by chance with the often-doubted racehorse Secretariat. Jim had worked with racehorses for most of his life, but when he first met Secretariat, Jim saw something different. Jim was quoted as saying: "I had been on race horses almost all of my adult life and when I stepped up on Secretariat the first time in April, 1972. I had this big red machine under me and from that very first day I knew he had had a power of strength that I have never felt from a two year-old horse before. The very first time Lucien Laurin told me to work him a quarter mile the April morning at Belmont Park, I told him that he would be RUNNING REALLY FAST and he said so let him. I went a quarter in 21 seconds and I believe that Lucien realized at that time we had a racehorse on our hands." Jim was one of two men entrusted with exercising the champion Secretariat every morning and did his job with the same passion that defined his life. A coin toss decided the birth of Secretariat and fate introduced the champion to a man who would contribute equal greatness to Secretariat and to those who loved him. 1973 Secretariat wins the famed Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths, setting a track record of 1 minute 59 seconds, a record that stood for the next 28 years. Each 1/4 mile segment of the race was successively faster than the last, demonstrating that Secretariat was accelerating even through the last 1/4 mile. The win was epic. 1973 Secretariat runs the Preakness Stakes and again, comes from behind and is never challenged, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. The champion racer was now on the cover of Time magazine and center stage in the public consciousness that was being challenged at the time, by events such as U.S. troops being withdrawn from Vietnam, oil prices increasing by 200%, 100,000 unemployed workers laid off from U.S. car makers, Roe v. Wade trial and an ever deepening recession...but for that frozen moment in time, America had something to be hopeful for. The hope was that this young horse, a horse that was counted out in the past, could win the coveted Triple Crown in the upcoming race at the Belmont Stakes.
1973 Belmont Stakes, Secretariat runs in front of 67, 605 eager spectators and opens not from behind the pack, but setting a fast pace, challenged only by a horse named Sham. Secretariat and Sham run 10 lengths ahead of any other horse. After 6 furlongs, Sham begins to tire and fades into the pack, finishing last. Secretariat however, runs even faster, finishing 31 lengths ahead of the other horses and not only wins the race, but sets the record for the fastest time of any horse in a 1 1/2 mile track, 2 minutes and 24 seconds. The record time continues to stand today. Many knowledgeable horseracing fans cursed Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s rider, for running the horse at such a reckless speed. They felt sure that the horse would run out of steam, lose or even die in the process. Turcotte would later say that the pace was beyond his control and Secretariat just wanted to run. Many more felt that Turcotte would be harmed traveling at such high-speed. The picture below shows a curious Turcotte as he tried to look behind him. He later said, “Looking back momentarily I became even more scared and turned back around.” Spectators said they would not have been surprised if Secretariat took to flight like Pegasus. Most wept openly at the vision of the rare moment of perfection in an otherwise imperfect world and time. Many winning ticket holders never turn in their tickets, choosing instead to hold on to them as souvenirs and a memory of that magical day at Belmont Racetrack, when Secretariat, won the coveted Triple Crown, reassuring us that even in challenging times events can occur that demonstrate greatness.
On October 4th, 1989, Secretariat lost his earthly race that all living things run, but he left us with a legacy that inspires still today. His name will be forever linked to a championship year when he drew our attention away from World events, even for a few minutes. Secretariat's championship year inspired us, gave us reason to look at our own lives with promise and hope, and made us smile and even cry, but most of all to run from within.
On the morning of June 3rd, 2010, Jim Gaffney also left us with a legacy that will stand for all time. Jim Gaffney had many accomplishments, loving Husband, dedicated Father and Grandfather, friend to everyone he ever met. I am proud to say that I had the good fortune of getting to know Jim over the last seven years. His passion and happiness was always evident in his quick smile and warm easy laugh. Jim was a very unique man. His life was forever touched by his brief time with history and I know we were all touched by the greatness and hope that we saw in James Gaffney. On the weekend of May 29th 2010 Jim Gaffney attended an event at the Belmont racetrack with his son Jim. Even through his weakened state, he excitedly talked racing with fans, took pictures and signed autographs, all the while with his signature warm smile. Jim was able to meet one of Secretariat's offspring and for a moment he was joined with the history that made him so passionate during his life. The moment, the man and the memories were palpable. Jim’s son Jim Gaffney said, “here is a picture of Dad with Secretariats grandson "bulls n blood" one of the horses picked to play in movie, the day before he passed away. It was taken at the northeast equine festival at Belmont racetrack where 37 years ago he rode the “big horse” every morning around the same track and where he set the Belmont track record.” There is something magical about the past and
present intersecting in such a powerful way. It serves to remind us all that we are here for such a short time, but can affect so very much if we try. Jim worked with Secretariat for a little over a year, but it was the year that the name Secretariat captured our hearts, instilled hope and demonstrated the courage we all needed in a conflict worn Country. Jim's life was one of those rare occasions when someone has touched their passion and are forever changed, and through their experience, they forever change us. He lived a rich and full life and his full life inspires us to hope for a brush with greatness, even a momentary brush with hope. A moment that occurs even by chance that can change us forever. Secretariat is remembered as a horse that loved to run, a horse that not only came from behind, but that ran faster and harder than any other horse. Secretariat was a horse that was clearly motivated by the joy of running the race from within. Jim Gaffney also found his joy and passion for life from within and loved to smile and make others smile. His passionate view of life and continuous optimism inspired others to run the best race possible. June 5th, 2010: The 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes started just a few hours after funeral services for Mr. Jim Gaffney concluded. The race he loved, the track at which he celebrated the win of Secretariat, the history that he added to equally as much as it added to him. Today Jim will not be physically at his beloved track, but I can't imagine that his spirit will be far away. History offers us awards to mark the passage of time, records to signify our achievements, but Jim was beyond that. Jim will be remembered as much as history itself. Jim's life will stand to remind us that one year in a life lived for something great can define every year that follows. Our time is finite, but our legacy will live forever. Jim's love of life is an example to us all. Touching greatness, however brief or protracted, will spawn hope, happiness and contentment...what more is there?
So today as the announcer at Belmont says those famous words, "and they’re off," we know you are there Jim, yesterday, today and forever, and we know that you celebrate our races, small and large, when run with passion. The following short quote from Jim, says more about the man than volumes of words could ever say and pays tribute to the man who ran with greatness, Jim Gaffney. "I was just one of the spokes of the wheel that had helped Secretariat on his path to greatness and immortality. Any good trainer, exercise rider, groom, or jockey could have done what we did. It was SECRETARIAT that did it, we just pointed his head and he would do it from there... It was a beautiful ride.... I feel honored and proud to have been a small part of his life and miss him dearly. I guess animals have a way of growing on you and he certainly did with me, and will always have a place in my heart. Sincerely, Jim Gaffney" A wonderful ride indeed Jim, and all of those who adored you in life will miss you dearly, but your legacy...Will be forever celebrated and will forever remind us of the moment, the man and the miracle.
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