Just off Interstate 95 in central Virginia is a place that any Thoroughbred fan considers hallowed ground. The Meadow, the farm where Secretariat was born and raised, has been in the news several times in recent decades, and the news hasn't been very good—it's been bought, and put up for auction, and up for sale again.
Since the property, dubbed the Meadow Event Park, was put on the auction block by the state's bankrupt state in May 2012 and bought by Tennessee company Universal Fairs, it has been sold again. The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation acquired a half-interest in the facility shortly after its public sale, and earlier this month, took over full ownership of the Park.
It looks like this ownership change is for the better.
'We really had a vague awareness of the Secretariat legacy here and what the site was about,” said Jeff Dillon, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation treasurer and senior vice president of finance and business services, who referred to the Bureau's initial involvement in the site as “happenstance.” Once he saw the farm in person, though, he realized its historic significance.
“Farm Bureau wants to be a good citizen of Virginia and help protect places like this,” he said. “Although we didn't see it coming, we now realize that we should have been involved in this all along,”
The 350-acre Park spent months boarded up after its former owner, the State Fair of Virginia defaulted on close to $80 million.
By the time Leeanne Ladin, author of “Secretariat's Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend” was hired as the director of equine events and Secretariat programs a few months ago, some of the farm's original buildings had begun to deteriorate during their time of neglect.
The broodmare barn where Big Red and Somethingroyal were housed after his birth in 1970 was lost to disrepair back in 2003. The foaling shed, yearling barn, and training barn where Secretariat was housed are still standing though, and Ladin has big plans for their careful restoration.
The first step in Ladin and Dillon's vision is a national historic site designation, which would guard the buildings once restored. They're holding off on restoration until the designation comes through to avoid compromising the integrity of their application in case they make unapproved modifications in the process. Until then, the property's age peeks through here and there. A few boards need replacing. In the foaling shed, the dust-blue and black color scheme of a couple of walls is starting to peel away. Inside the end stall where Secretariat was stabled in the training barn, already a stand-out in his foal crop, it's easy to be lulled by the surrounding quiet and forget that you're standing inside hallowed walls, if it wasn't for the plaque outside each door.
Ladin plans to change that, too.
In each of the barns where Secretariat once lived, she has visions of blown-up photographs of the Triple Crown winner and displays informing visitors about his development, and that of the farm's, at each stage of his life.
Until those are in place, banners are displayed across the Park with the familiar chestnut face, and Ladin is planning exhibits around each of the barns for the upcoming state fair to let visitors know they're standing on historic ground. The yearling barn where Secretariat began his education is not far from the 63,354-square-foot Exhibition Hall and 6,984 square-foot Pavilion. Opening day of the fair will also be called “Secretariat Day.”
Across Route 30 is the site of the old training complex, which is now surrounded by the Park's horse show facilities.
The foaling shed was moved at some point from its place behind the broodmare barn to a spot next to the training barn. The old track is long gone now, and both buildings sit a stone's throw away from the modern 143-stall barn and four arenas where local organizations hold horse shows, and where state fair competitors will ride later this summer. A large sign outside the foaling shed lets riders know that their horses are parading very close to a special place.
The State Fair had lost ground with local equine groups in recent years, but Ladin said that is changing.
“When people saw that Farm Bureau had [the Park], they started coming back,” said Ladin.
She already has shows on the calendar for local dressage, carriage, Arabian, Quarter Horse, and barrel racing organizations.
Meadow Hall, the stately mansion on the property, is a popular choice for weddings and dinners. One of its potential future uses could be to house a museum documenting the role of horses in the state's history. (While built to look historic, the house stands on the same spot as the original Morris/Chenery residence, but is not original. The original house was torn down by a previous owner.) In addition to the 2013 fair, the Park will host an antiques show, Christmas events, and the Virginia Equine Extravaganza horse expo, which includes competitions, exhibitions, and clinics.
Also still standing is the flat area, called “The Cove,” behind the old broodmare barn site where mares and foals, including Secretariat and Riva Ridge, spent much of their youth. The fences are gone, but the area has been kept clear, with a line of trees separating the space from the North Anna River.
The Cove, which Chris Chenery modified to reduce flooding from the river, is one of Ladin's favorite places on the farm.
“This is one of my favorite views, because he literally resculpted the land to fit his vision of what a Thoroughbred horse farm should be,” she said, looking over the lush grass.
It's also the setting of some of her favorite stories.
“One evening, the grooms call the mares and foals up at feeding time, and everyone comes up except Somethingroyal and Secretariat,” said Ladin. “They come down here looking for him, and they see Somethingroyal running back and forth along the fence whinnying frantically. Then they get really alarmed, and fan out to start looking for Secretariat, and they find him swimming in the North Anna River. One of the grooms Larry Tilman, told me this story. He jumped in, swam out in the river, and got him.
He said 'If it hadn't have been for me, you wouldn't have had your Triple Crown winner!'
Today, Ladin envisions the land as the host of a 5k and 10k in conjunction with the fair, and may eventually develop a trail there for a historic walking tour.
“I feel like everywhere here, you're walking in hoofprints of history. We're doing our best to preserve that, and to promote it, and to build on it, and to look at what Chris Chenery saw in this land and honor that.”
Dillon agrees, but said the project will probably be more of a marathon than a sprint.
The preservation process will rely on the generation of funding from the Park's rental. VFBF, Dillon pointed out, is a non-profit education and preservation organization not affiliated with the government, so funds are spread across several projects and can sometimes be tight. Money has been set aside for restoration already though, and several fundraisers feed those restoration-specific funds.
“It's been like a phoenix rising from the ashes, probably with a couple of weights tied to its talons,” said Dillon.
After the numerous sales and renovations the farm has seen in its 207 years though, this will hardly be its first flight.
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