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Triple Crown winners fondly remembered

Penny Chenery and William Nack attend the "Secretariat"

Penny Chenery and William Nack attend the "Secretariat" premiere after party in Hollywood, California. (Sept. 30, 2010) Credit: Michael Caulfield

The owners of three of history's greatest racehorses remember them first as gangly colts, full of promise and personality but unproven.

"I really didn't have much faith in him. I thought he was too good-looking to be any good," Penny Chenery said of the chestnut yearling with three white socks who was born at her Meadow Farm in Virginia.

But Secretariat grew up to be as talented as he was handsome, galloping into immortality as the winner of the 1973 Triple Crown. His Belmont Stakes records -- the 31-length margin and 2:24 time -- still stand.

For Karen and Mickey Taylor, there was an instant bond with Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown victor.

"I loved him when he walked out of his stall," Karen Taylor said. "He had a great eye and just looked into your soul."

The Taylors, along with co-owners Sally and Jim Hill, bought the yearling for $17,500 at public auction. He stormed -- undefeated -- into the Triple Crown series and then took the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont.

And when Patrice Wolfson and her husband, Louis, watched Affirmed gambol at their Harbor View Farms in Florida, they were charmed by the horse who went on to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978 -- the last to do so.

"He was like a puppy dog," she recalled. "He was a homebred, and he'd come up to the fence when he was a young horse and put his head in my arms. He was just the sweetest, kindest horse."

All three women, and their families, ultimately forged bonds with their horses that transcended time. They remain fervently dedicated to their memories even with the next Belmont Stakes to be run this Saturday.

Some 38 years later, Chenery still is campaigning to change the official time of Secretariat's Preakness run. It was the only one of the Triple Crown jewels in which "Big Red" did not officially smash the track record. When the electronic eye failed, the Pimlico hand clocker's time was deemed official -- but other clockers had timed Secretariat as setting a record that day.

"I don't want to be greedy, but I think if the horse did run that fast, it should be recognized," Chenery said.

Last week, the Taylors were at California's Hollywood Park racetrack, watching Slew's grandchildren start their careers. "We got out of the business when Slew passed away, but we're getting back into it now," Mickey Taylor said.

Their lives, the owners said, were forever altered by their horses.

"I had been a good wife, a good mother, and I was 50 years old and dying for something new and interesting," Chenery said. "And this horse comes along and presents me with so many challenges and opened so many doors . . . He was my lifesaver."

The story of Secretariat's life and Chenery's relationship with the colt were interwoven in a 2010 Disney film.

Wolfson, whose summer home is in Old Westbury, said her memories of Affirmed's runs are among her most treasured.

"You never forget those moments," she said. "They are indelible . . . It was such a historic event."

The owners said a Triple Crown winner would give a much-needed lift to a sport that has ebbed in live attendance and suffered bad publicity over illegal drugging.

"It's not going to solve all our problems," said Sally Hill, "but it would be a great help to bring back that interest."

Wolfson said she'd be thrilled to see a successor.

"There is something about this chestnut that reminds me a little tiny bit of Affirmed -- the way he wants to win," she said of I'll Have Another, the Triple Crown hopeful. "Racing can use a star and maybe he could be that star. Maybe it's time."

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