|Each year, the grave of Secretariat considered by many to be the greatest race horse that ever lived is adorned with flowers and visited by thousands. Seventeen years after his death, tears still run for the horse known as Big Red.
Hundreds of kilometres away, the grave of his groom the man who knew the copper-coloured thoroughbred better than anyone else and loved him like his child is near forgotten, visited only by family.
It is this injustice that launched writer Lawrence Scanlan on a three-year journey to tell the story of Eddie Sweat, one of nine children and a sharecroppers son who grew up to care for the worlds most beloved horse, in The Horse God Built: Secretariat, His Groom, His Legacy (HarperCollins, 274 pp.).
Scanlans publisher initially requested he focus on the Canadian aspects of the Secretariat legend the horses trainer Lucien Laurin was born in Quebec and his jockey Ron Turcotte was from New Brunswick. But Scanlan preferred a fresh angle. "I didnt want to go over old ground. Nobody had written about Secretariat through the eyes of the groom."
In the racing world, the owners, trainers and jockeys receive the attention, not the grooms and hot walkers, he noted. During his research, two photographs inspired Scanlan to write the Eddie Sweat story. One was taken moments after Sweat had said goodbye to Secretariat, who was retiring from the racetrack. Standing alone, his back to the camera, Sweat is brushing away a tear. The other photo shows Sweat comforting Secretariat during the flight to his retirement pasture. "Secretariat has grabbed Eddies jacket," said Scanlan. "Like a child clinging to its mother."
Scanlan knew there was a great story behind the photos, a story that took him to Secretariats elaborate resting place in Kentucky, and Sweats simple grave in South Carolina. The stark contrast tells the tale of the sports two different worlds, where princely horses are pampered by lowly paupers.
In The Horse God Built, Scanlan sheds light on the culture of the backstretch, a place where exercise riders gallop at dawn, the pounding hooves emerging from morning mists. Its a world away from the glitz and glamour of race day, a place far from the roaring crowds. Grooms sleep next to their horses, where living quarters are concrete boxes no larger than a horses stall. The hours are long and the pay is lousy. "But the backstretch can be seductive. It has a lure of its own," says Scanlan. "Its about hope, and sometimes its about glory."
Scanlan, who lives in Kingston, Ontario, is no stranger to the horse world. He owns a Canadian sport horse and has written nine books on equines, including Wild About Horses, Riding High (a profile of show jumper Ian Millar and his legendary mount Big Ben) and Little Horse of Iron, a tribute to the Canadian breed.
Interviewing trainers, grooms, exercise riders and owners who knew Sweat, Scanlan grew to love and respect his subject, so much so he dedicated the book to him. "I write best when Im passionate about the subject," he says. "Eddie changed how I behave around my own horse, and I hope this book will help people re-think their relationship with their own horses."
For two years, Sweat was devoted to Secretariat. He mixed his hot mash, rubbed his legs, and greeted him each morning by shaking the horses tongue. He became part of the horse, in tune with his moods and movements. He was very much the man behind the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Secretariat ran his last race in Canada, at Torontos Woodbine track. Thirty-three years later, his record wins have yet to be broken.
"Just mentioning the name Eddie Sweat became my diplomatic passport," said Scanlan. "He was respected by everyone. Other grooms learned from him. He put on bandages that never slipped but were never too tight, and he knew how to rub his horses to make them run better." He knew when the horse was ill, if he was off his food, if he wasnt walking right, or standing right.
"He was Secretariats voice, his lifeline and soul mate," said Scanlan. Like all stallions, he could be a handful, but Sweat knew how to gentle him. "He could be fractious, but Eddie never let it get to him. Hed talk to him constantly."
Their relationship was wondrous, and Sweat reaped benefits as well. His picture graced the covers of Ebony and Jet magazines, and fans asked for his autograph.
What Scanlan uncovers is the racing worlds culture of classes. At one time, black people dominated the racetrack. "In the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 14 out of 16 jockeys were black," he says. "Back then, at the race track, blacks and whites were on equal footing." But that all changed, and in Eddies time, blacks worked horses from the ground, not from their backs.
When Sweat died in 1998, at age 59, he was penniless. No one from the track attended his funeral. When Secretariat died, so did a part of Sweat. He lost his appetite and cried for days, wondering if he could have saved the horse from the painful lameness that resulted in his euthanasia.
"Eddie slipped off the radar. He became just another guy on the track," said Scanlan. Yet, as the groom of the worlds most valuable horse (he was worth $1.3 million in earnings), Sweat earned only one per cent of Secretariats winnings. "Eddie was a sweet, sweet man," said Scanlan. "Its thought that he gave much of it away."
In writing Sweats story, Scanlan has paid tribute to not just Secretariats groom, but to all those who work in glorys shadow. "I hope this will shed light on the conditions of the backstretch," he said. "People like Eddie deserve better."