Life with 'Big Red' only rich in telling Horse racing: When groom Eddie Sweat died in April at 59, his memories of being a key member of Secretariat's team were bright, but his pockets empty.

June 02, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- He was Secretariat's best friend.

But when Eddie Sweat died in April at age 59, he was destitute. His family couldn't afford to bury him.

So a charitable organization paid for the funeral. And a former employer paid for Sweat's widow and two daughters to travel from their home in New York City to Sweat's home state of South Carolina.

There, on April 24, a group primarily of relatives -- no one from Secretariat's inner circle was present -- gathered at Rock Hill A.M.E. Church in Vance, S.C., to bid farewell to Edward "Shorty" Sweat.

A son of tenant farmers who picked cotton as a boy, Sweat dedicated his life to horses. He cared for Secretariat, who 25 years ago delivered one of the greatest performances in the history of sport. Completing a sweep of the Triple Crown, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a staggering 31 lengths.

Yet Sweat, perhaps the most essential member of the Secretariat team, died a pauper's death.

"I'm surprised Bill didn't do a story for Sports Illustrated called 'The Case of the Forgotten Groom,' " said Jim Gaffney, one of Secretariat's exercise riders.

"Bill" is William Nack, a writer for Sports Illustrated and author of "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion." He didn't write about Sweat's death, but several years ago he wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about grooms. It was titled, "Nobody Knows Their Names."

He highlighted this from Sweat:

"Only way that horses win is if you sit there and spend time with 'em. Show 'em that you're tryin' to help 'em. Love 'em. Talk to 'em. Get to know 'em. That's what you gotta do. You love 'em and they'll love you, too.

"People might call me crazy, but that's the way it is. I been on the racetrack 34 years, and I ain't never gonna give up. I think they'll take me to my grave with a pitchfork in my hand and a rub rag in my back pocket."

Coming up empty

Sweat died April 17 in a hospital not far from Belmont Park, where Real Quiet will attempt Saturday to become the 12th Triple Crown winner -- and third since Secretariat.

Sweat had endured numerous ailments, including a heart attack, open-heart surgery, asthma, leukemia and cancer of the stomach. Health insurance through his wife, Linda, a kindergarten teacher, paid his medical bills. But Sweat, on his own, possessed little.

He lost most of his cherished Secretariat memorabilia in a 1991 fire that gutted the Sweats' home in Queens. How he died virtually penniless is not clear. Friends, relatives and the two trainers for whom Sweat worked, Lucien and Roger Laurin, offered varying ideas.

"It really doesn't matter what happened to his money," said Danny Vogt, a longtime friend. "Whatever happened, Eddie came up empty."

Sweat certainly brought none of it into the world on Aug. 30, 1938, when his parents, Mary and David, had the sixth of their nine children. As Nack reported in his book, they were tenant farmers from Holly Hill, S.C. Eddie went to work early, after grade school, picking cotton, digging sweet potatoes and harvesting corn, soybeans and watermelon.

"At the age of 8, he was doing a man's work," Nack wrote.

As a teen-ager, Sweat went to work at the nearby thoroughbred training center of Lucien Laurin, walking the 2 1/2 miles from home. He dug fence holes and walked and groomed horses. He soon became Laurin's most trusted groom, cleaning out stalls, rubbing alcohol on horses' legs, wrapping their legs, giving them baths, brushing them.

Sweat began driving Laurin's horse van, transporting the runners from farm to track and track to track. And he wound up on the track himself, the backstretch, grooming Laurin's best horses.

In 1972, he rubbed Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. The next year, he rubbed Secretariat.

"I didn't get to rub Secretariat until he was 3 in Florida," Sweat said in a remembrance for the Kentucky Derby commemorative magazine. "Most of the people would tell me that I had that magic touch. But when I got him, he chased me out of the stall. I said, 'Well, I'll have to go back to my book now to figure out how to take care of this bad guy.'

"So the next day I go back in there, and he tried to hem me up in a corner, like he's saying, 'You don't come in here and boss me around!' I just had a little patience. I kept talking to him. Finally, he smelled me all over and said like, 'All right. It looks like I got to put up with this guy here. I might as well be a gentleman.'

"He come around and started liking me pretty good. He'd kick at me and bite at me if I was rubbing on him too hard. He never hurt me, though. After a while, I had him spoiled for carrots."

Nack, who practically lived with Secretariat as he raced into legend, befriended Sweat.

"He was one of those guys who was infinitely reliable," Nack said. "All the days I spent at Belmont Park visiting Riva Ridge and Secretariat, mostly Secretariat, he was there every morning. I don't remember him ever being sick a day.

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