Original content by David Maurer, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Bluefield College alumnus Robert “Bobby” Gentry studied engineering at BC from 1956 to 1959 before beginning a long career in agriculture. He’s a charter member of the school’s Golden Graduates Society and has hosted an alumni reunion on his farm every summer since 1986.
But, what most people don’t know about Gentry is that he played a key role in one of the most astounding athletic feats in the annals of sports.
On June 9, 1973, Secretariat won the fabled Belmont Stakes race by 31 lengths and captured the coveted Triple Crown, a feat not accomplished by any horse since 1948. With that accomplishment, Secretariat became known as one of the greatest racehorses ever.
In fact, published this past fall, “Secretariat’s Meadow: The Land, the Family, the Legend” is a book by Leeanne Ladin and Kate Chenery Tweedy that explores the place where the Virginia-born thoroughbred stallion grew into a big legend.
BC’s Gentry contributed and is featured in the book, which presents the little known story of Meadow Farm in Caroline County, Virginia, where Secretariat was born and raised and where Gentry worked from 1966 to 1982.
Initially, Gentry took care of the broodmares on the farm, and eventually he became the manager of the agricultural operations. His uncle, Howard Gentry, witnessed the mare Somethingroyal give birth to Secretariat.
“They didn’t see much point in calling me, because we had had some trouble before, and I hadn’t taken my shoes off for about three days,” said Gentry about the day Secretariat was born. “We had some other foals that were not doing well, and I had been taking care of them, so they let me rest.
“The first time I saw Secretariat was the next morning, because we had to suture the mare back up, because she had torn herself foaling. He was a perfectly normal, healthy foal, but just a horse. I shouldn’t say it that way, but you can never tell. There’s an old saying that a horse won’t tell you a lie, but he will make you a liar.”
But, Secretariat quickly let everyone know on Meadow Farm, horses and humans alike, that he was something special. Gentry even recalls how he soon realized that Secretariat was no longer “just a horse.”
“He was always the leader in the crowd,” said Gentry, who grew up on a farm in Charlottesville. “To us, he was Big Red, and he had a personality. He was a clown and was always cutting up, always into some devilment.”
It was obvious, Gentry said, that Secretariat’s owner Christopher T. Chenery and his wife, Penny, were ahead of the game. Understanding that the mare is as important as the stallion in passing along desirable traits, such as speed and stamina, Chenery’s dream of creating the perfect racehorse was realized in Big Red. And, that was no more apparent than at Belmont, the longest of the Triple Crown races, where Secretariat broke the track record by nearly four seconds, a feat no horse has come close to replicating since.
But, Gentry remembers more about Chenery than his breeding genius. He remembers him as “a great man,” and Gentry’s wife, Joyce Mullikin, also a Bluefield College graduate and onetime officer on the BC Alumni Council, remembers his generosity and kindness.
“The Belmont race was one of the most exciting events of our time at the Meadow,” said Joyce Gentry, who spent her career working in churches and public school systems. “Mr. Chenery and Penny were very generous. Whenever their horses won a race, they would pay every staff member, from top to bottom, a bonus.”
After his racing career, Secretariat lived out his remaining years at the storied Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. He was only 19 when he contracted laminitis, an extremely painful and usually incurable degenerative disease of the inner tissues of the hoof. When all medical treatment failed, the decision was made to end his suffering. On October 4, 1989, Secretariat’s mighty heart went still.
Since his passing, Secretariat has been named the Horse of the 20th Century and one of the top 50 athletes of the century. But, perhaps the greatest testament to him is found in the vast number of people who continue to love him.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us to have the opportunity and privilege of being there at the Meadow and being involved in the making of history,” said Gentry. “We were blessed to have had that opportunity.”
Now retired, the Gentrys will host their 25th anniversary Bluefield College alumni reunion on their farm in Charlottesville this summer. Alumni and friends from all generations are invited to attend.