Picture a time when horse racing was an honest sport, with horse lovers in charge of the farms that produced true champions. Warm morning winds ruffled the stubby tails and manes of colts that gamboled in the soft grass, and it was not all about money or fame, but a love of an animal. This was the world remembered by the grooms, exercise riders, and staff of “The Meadows,” the Chenery farm that introduced Bold Ruler, Cicada, Secretariat, and other racing legends.
In 1963 a young boy named Wayne Mount began working at The Meadow, where Christopher Chenery was the owner of a farm focused on producing “the” racehorse. “Mr. Chenery,” says Mount now, “was a gentleman. A real gentleman. If he said it, he meant it.” Chenery was aware of everything that went on at his dynasty. “I was off work sick one day,” Wayne Mount recalls. “The next day I came into work. Mr. Chenery asked me, ‘how did it go yesterday?’ I said, ‘fine.’” Chenery replied with his famous, “Uh-huh” meaning, “I know the truth.” Mount laughs now. “I should have said, ‘fine – I feel better today.’” Of Secretariat, Mount explains his success. “He had great breeding. He had great training. There was great handling. Of course, (trainer) Lucien Lauren did a wonderful job.” Christopher Chenery knew horses and loved them, which helped. Mount’s first view of Secretariat was when the colt was two days old. “I said, ‘we’ve got something great here.’ The way he stood up, he was saying, ‘I’m here! Now what?’ I lived on the farm,” Wayne Mount says. “And I would like my ashes spread across the farm after my death.”
While the world outside was embroiled in civil rights and racial tensions, African-American staff recalls none of these issues at The Meadow. “It was perfect and peaceful,” Larry Tillman recalls. “The Chenerys took you in like family. Mr. Chenery was a great man. He built a great stock in horses.” Working around Secretariat, “you could tell he had it all together” just by looking at the horse. The Tillmans themselves are a legacy at The Meadow, one of several families employed here. “Brothers, uncles, grandfathers, sisters, wives,” says Larry Tillman. Moses Tillman agrees. “The unity was very special. The Chenerys were like family; everyone treated you like family. They were all very nice people.” His sister Dorothy Tillman nods. “When we were kids, the Chenerys let us fish and watch the horses run around,” she remembers with fondness. “It was such a quiet, peaceful place. I loved watching the horses run in the pastures.” It was Lewis Tillman who pulled a very young Secretariat out of a lake, saving the colt from drowning. Lewis’ nephew Wesley Tillman and his wife have been a part of The Meadows history for years. Wesley was an exercise boy during Secretariat’s life. He was also on “watch” with mares about to foal. “He was just a good horse,” he says simply. He and his wife celebrated 60 years of marriage in May 2013. Both of them speak fondly of the Chenery family, the racehorses, and the farm.
Alvin Mines began working at The Meadows in 1971. His grandfather, an employee, brought young Mines down to the farm to visit, see horses, and eventually to work. “I moved horses, went to the track to help train, and groomed the horses,” Mines explains. One day, “we went to shoe Secretariat and he reared up in his stall, shaking his head.” Someone decided, “we’ll come back.” A few hours later, “we went back and Secretariat stood for shoeing, just as calm as could be. He had a mind of his own. He wanted to do it his way.” Mines also loved Cicada and Riva Ridge. He can cite their accomplishments without blinking an eye.
The stories of the people who lived and worked at The Meadow can also be found in the book Secretariats Meadow: The Land, The Family, The Legend. Kate Chenery-Tweedy, Christopher Chenery’s granddaughter, co-authored the book with Leeanne Meadows Ladin. Ladin’s favorite part of writing the book was “meeting the gentlemen who took care of Secretariat every day.”
It was a peaceful time at a peaceful place. People worked together despite race and status. Sure, everyone loved to win, but they truly loved the horses and the jobs that took them around the horses. “I’d do it again,” says Wayne Mount. “I made less than $400 a month. But I’d do it all over again.”
To learn more about the grooms of The Meadow: click HERE
Penny Chenery does not believe in cheating to race: See HERE
More on Secretariat HERE
Photo of J. Yates courtesy R. Stephens