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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"Eddie knew his craft. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was kind of the anchor of that team. Of all the people surrounding Secretariat, he was the most important, because he had daily, hands-on contact with the horse."

A way with horses

Sweat always said his greatest moment came at Belmont Park on June 9, 1973, when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes, shattering records and entering a realm that few, if any, horses have entered.

"That's when I had tears in my eyes," Sweat said. "When he was coming down through the stretch there by some 20 lengths, all I was saying was, 'Don't fall down, boy. Come on home.' It looked like he heard me."

Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's trainer, retired a few years later. Then Sweat went to work for Lucien's son, Roger, and rubbed horses for him.

"He was a nice, quiet person," Roger Laurin said. "I don't think I ever saw Eddie annoyed. He wasn't the kind to fight horses. His thing was to try to win them over with kindness."

Was he an exceptional groom?

"I think history bears that out," Laurin said. "I don't think anybody won as many stakes races as Eddie."

Laurin said he provided his employees with a pension and profit-sharing plan. When he retired and Sweat started working for other trainers, Laurin said, Sweat turned his into an IRA that should have funded an ample retirement.

"Eddie was such a good person, he might have given it away, for all I know," Laurin said. "His business sense was nowhere near his horse sense."

But every payday, Laurin said, Sweat sent most of his money home to his family.

Vogt, Sweat's friend and exercise rider for Roger Laurin, said Sweat might not have received his due working with the great Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

"He told me he made more money off Chief's Crown [working for Roger Laurin] than he did off Riva Ridge and Secretariat [working for Lucien Laurin]," Vogt said. "A lot of times, grooms don't get what they're supposed to get."

Gaffney, who worked for Lucien Laurin as Secretariat's exercise rider through his last race before the Kentucky Derby, also wonders if Sweat was adequately paid.

"I know I was really never compensated for my professional services," Gaffney said. "Lucien told me, 'Stay with this horse. I'll take good care of you.' And I never was taken care of."

Lucien Laurin, in his 80s and recovering from a heart attack at his home in Florida, spoke briefly by telephone about Sweat.

"He was the best," Laurin said. "He was a great man, and he was a great worker."

Asked about his pay, Laurin said: "He got a good salary. That's all I can tell you."

Sweat's wife and two daughters living in Queens were vague about finances.

His widow, Linda, said Sweat lost much of his savings to the Internal Revenue Service for penalties and payment of back taxes. She said he had nothing left when he died.

"But my husband didn't complain," Linda Sweat said. "All he wanted to do was talk about horses. And everything was 'Big Red.' "

"Big Red," Secretariat's nickname, also laced Sweat's conversation with his daughters -- so much so, said Michelle Joyner, 27, "that we really didn't want to hear it anymore. He loved his horses. But he mostly loved Secretariat."

She said they took in boarders to help pay the bills. And when her father died, if the family had had to pay for his funeral, she said, "we would have been stuck."

The Jockey Club Foundation, which helps needy people in racing, paid for the funeral. And Roger Laurin paid for Linda Sweat and her two daughters to fly to South Carolina.

"It's a sad thing, a guy like that when he dies his family can't afford to bury him," said Gaffney, the exercise rider. "But I've been on a racetrack all my life, and that's the way it is.

"After a big race, they might give the winning jockey a new car. Heck, he's probably got five new cars already. Why not give the groom a new car?

"The jockey's been on the horse for two minutes. The groom's with him five hours a day, six, seven days a week. They're the people behind the scenes. They're the forgotten ones. That's the way it is."

At Sweat's funeral, little mention was made of his work or his days with Secretariat, his relatives said. But the program, under the heading "Life Summary," read:

"Shorty's life was the racetrack, working with horses, and he enjoyed every minute of it. [Secretariat] was one of the most famous race horses of all time, and Shorty was the most successful groom

"Today, Edward 'Shorty' Sweat is still regarded as the most dedicated and professional groomer in the horse-racing industry. His name can be found in all the libraries across the United States."

Joyner, his daughter, suggested flowers in the shape of a horseshoe -- blue and white carnations, the color of Secretariat's bridle and jockey silks.

"We buried dad in his blue suit," she said. "That was his favorite color. The funeral man fixed him all up, and he went to the grave with a smile on his face."

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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