2012-06-16 / Columnists


by Candice C. Dunnigan

The other morning, over muffins and coffee at Bogan Lane Inn, a guest shared an interesting story about her experience with Secretariat. The breakfast group happened to be talking about last week’s Belmont Stakes race, and the fact that there would again be no Triple Crown winner. Trish Martin, the inn proprietress, called me up and said I really should talk to Joan Goodbody, and hear her tale about her time with Secretariat, the second to the last of the Triple Crown winners. So, I followed up on the lead, and met one of “Big Red’s” early riders, who knew him well before he became a household name.

Ms. Goodbody spent two weeks with the young stallion when he was a rising two-yearold at the beginning of his career. She was one of the few females working at the tracks in the early 1970s, and was an exercise rider, jack-of-all-trades ponier at Belmont Race Park. She had come to Belmont by ways of fate, and happened to be working near the barn where trainer Lucian Loren kept 22 of his racing “ponies.” In his heyday, Mr. Loren had upwards of 60 to 80 horses he was responsible for.

Joan Goodbody (right) with her good friend, Amanda Ninoniemi. Joan Goodbody (right) with her good friend, Amanda Ninoniemi. Secretariat was a very strong and willful horse, who had been having quite a time of bucking off his training jockeys, as well as breaking an arm or two of his grooms when he would latch on to their forearms, toss, and not let go. This particular spring, he was in full force. And after throwing off a rider, he bolted around the shed-rows of Belmont. As he was rounding a row of stalls at full throttle, he slipped on the concrete and down he went. The horse twisted his back.

Secretariat was put on stall rest. There was a hiatus in his training until he had some rest. Mr. Loren was not at the Belmont track at that time. He was busy that May with another famous race of the day, Riva Ridge. Mr. Loren was known for being a winning trainer, but he was difficult, and prone to tirades. Mr. Loren did not have a high opinion of women who worked at the track. He never had female outriders, grooms, or heaven forbid, a female jockey.

It was a good thing that Mr. Loren was not at the track when Secretariat was put back to work, because this time it was a woman who was on his back. That young woman was Joan Goodbody. Ms. Goodbody grew up riding horses in Virginia — all kinds, all types — and already had a wealth of experience by the time she was in her early 20s.

Ms. Goodbody’s father was a well-known and respected historian, and the family was based (and lived) inside historic Williamsburg in the 1950s. She remembers as a toddler going out to visit the draft horses in their pastures and sitting underneath them petting the feathers on their legs, as well as figuring out how to get on their backs and ride around. By the time she was a young girl, she had learned to drive a team. She had a natural talent for riding and took lessons, but soon she was earning money from hunter and jumpers owners in Virginia, riding their horses for them.

After junior college, Ms. Goodbody attended the University of Delaware, and helped finance her education by riding. She moved on to jumpers and worked mounts over good-sized fences (5 to 5.6 feet) prior to the annual Madison Square Garden horse shows. One thing led to another, and she moved over to ride steeplechasers in the late 1960s, finding her way to the world of Thoroughbred racing.

For a good two weeks, she worked with Secretariat, getting him back into form. Belmont Race Park is a huge tract of land. Ms. Goodbody told me that there are actually three tracks on the premises. There is a training track, a pony track, and the main racetrack. Belmont Park is older than Churchill Downs, and the actual Belmont (the third jewel of the Triple Crown) is the oldest race in the United States.

She rode the horse on a training program that consisted of long trot work to strengthen his back.

She added that he, indeed, was a huge horse, even at the young age of two.

She said, “He was built like a large quarter horse. It was like sitting on a 10-year-old cutting horse.”

His chest was very deep, and he was very, very broad (all of this unusual for a young Thoroughbred).

At Belmont Park, the women riders were not allowed to live on the grounds, nor were they permitted there until 6 a.m. Most of the real track training is done between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., unless special permission was granted. She also said she would nicker to Secretariat all the time, and he would nicker back to her.

Mr. Loren came back later in the spring, and both he and Secretariat moved on. Ms. Goodbody continued working horses and eventually wound up exercising a total of five Derby winners, including Dust Commander. She said she would ride as few as four, to upward of 20 horses in a day during peak season. That regimen took its toll.

She went to work for a major feed company as an equine feed nutritionist for several years. A few years later she took to driving again and drove teams and carriages in Charleston, South Carolina. After a serious accident, Ms. Goodbody left the horse world, but now is taking lessons again for pleasure.

She was on Mackinac Island several years ago with good friends from the Upper Peninsula, and happened to be on one of Trish Martin’s nature walks. They met again at one of the lilac lectures. This year Ms. Goodbody and her friends are here for the Lilac Festival. When Ms. Martin brought up the Belmont, that got Ms. Goodbody reminiscing. What an interesting life and line of work Ms. Goodbody was a part of. It just goes to show you, you never know who “lilac time” will bring to Mackinac.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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