Jim Gaffney, the former exercise rider of thoroughbred champions who called himself "just one of the spokes of the wheel that helped Secretariat on his path to greatness and immortality," died Thursday at his Commack home. He was 75.
Gaffney had been suffering from emphysema and died in his sleep, surrounded by family members just days after a publicity appearance at Belmont Park, site of Secretariat's resounding 31-length Belmont Stakes victory in 1973 that secured the Triple Crown.
Gaffney posed with a horse that is portraying Secretariat in an upcoming movie, and was planning to be at Saturday's 142nd Belmont Stakes to sign autographs with Penny Chenery Tweedy and Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's owner and jockey, respectively.
Hired by trainer Lucian Laurin in 1972, Gaffney also was an exercise rider for Laurin's Riva Ridge, who won two of the three Triple Crown events that year. It was in '72 that Gaffney first rode the 2-year-old Secretariat, a moment he later described as "having this big red machine under me, and from that very first day I knew he had a power of strength that I have never felt before. . . ."
Author Bill Nack, Newsday's racing reporter at the time, was summoned by Gaffney hours before Riva Ridge's 1972 Belmont victory to see the 2-year-old chestnut colt yet to make his racing debut. "His name is Secretariat," Gaffney told Nack. "Don't forget his name."
Born March 13, 1935, in Columbus, Ohio - his father was a machinist and his mother owned a restaurant - Gaffney moved with his family to Hialeah, Fla., within walking distance of the famed racetrack there, by the time he was 15, and immediately took a job galloping horses.
He was summoned to New York "by racing," said his daughter, Desirie, settled on Long Island and worked as a mutuel clerk for the three New York State tracks - Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga Springs - from 1957 to 2000. "Racing was my dad's passion," she said. "And being exercise rider for Secretariat was such a huge part of his life."