17 Sep 2022 Nigel Fennell’s God’s Boy, 31-2.24, Breathes Life into Racing History
Last May, British farrier and blacksmith Nigel Fennell unveiled his masterwork at the American Horse Publications conference in May. When conference attendees surrounded Nigel as if he was an equine rock star – which he is – I sat back at my dinner table thinking about how to talk to him long enough to ask for an interview. The longer I waited, the more unlikely I found an opportunity to duck in long enough to hand Nigel a business card.
Nigel Fennell’s wife, Susie, willingly describes herself as a sculpture widow. But when her husband announced that he intended to build a life-sized steel one of Secretariat, equine royalty in the racing world, Susie knew she was in for a thrilling ride. I spent years as a lobbyist and political operative threading the needle of media access. Time to employ some dusty skills. I turned my head and noted that Nigel’s wife, Susie sat at the following table. A door opened, and I knew I had found my opportunity.
Three days after returning from the conference, I pitched Lisa Slade, the editor of The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked magazine, secured an acceptance of my story idea, and arranged an interview with Nigel Fennell. While the crowd of attendees continued to buzz around Nigel and his ground-breaking sculpture, I weaved through tables and chairs to reach Susie and introduce myself. I handed her a business card and asked for her email.
What I love most about writing a story about someone like Nigel Fennell and his work is how one interview unfolds to a host of supporting characters integral to the story. I interviewed Susie at length. Talking to Susie, I understood how building equine sculptures were a product of Nigel’s experience as a farrier and how an iconic event like the COVID-19 virus can breathe life into a dream.
The complexity of the sculpture that thousands of mosaics fixed onto Secretariat‘s body offered me another interview critical to the wholeness of the article. I interviewed longtime friend and farrier Justin Frank, the genius behind 4,608 mini-galloping steel silhouette mosaic Secretariats and five hundred and eight one jockey silhouettes. Justin’s evident care and passion for the project encouraged my admiration for his skill.
Yet, one interview, perhaps the only one as critical to describing Nigel’s Secretariat as the sculptor himself, is the one with the jockey that rode Secretariat to a crushing and record-setting victory. An interview with the racing legend Ron Turcotte. Keenly aware of the historical nature of my conversation with Ron, I opted to ask a question of a more personal nature when we first spoke.
“Tell me about the horse, Secretariat, the horse you knew. What was he like?”
Our conversation with the personal allowed Ron to talk not only about his historic ride but what Secretariat, the horse, meant to him. Anecdotes about how he greeted the horse every day by pulling on his tongue like he was shaking the horse’s ‘hand’ and how, at the height of the ground-breaking race, Ron could feel the stallion’s heart beating in his hands brought spirit to the conversation. The article I wrote for The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked Magazine melds history with art and history with the present and was a privilege for me to write.