As they made their way to Kentucky, Jack and Lynn Nankivil considered how to create a good first impression. They were looking to make a purchase that could change their lives, one that would bring royal equine blood to their Appaloosa breeding farm near Winona, Minn.
The great Secretariat — who swept the 1973 Triple Crown in one of the most brilliant performances of all time — had been retired to stud. He was bred to an Appaloosa mare in a test mating late in 1973, setting off a stampede from buyers eager to own the first offspring of the legendary thoroughbred. The Nankivils were headed for Claiborne Farm to make their pitch for the pregnant mare, Leola, when their car broke down just a few miles away.
If they were late for the meeting, they feared they would lose their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So they borrowed a vehicle from a local mechanic: a hippie van painted with flowers, peace signs and groovy sayings.
"It was like a Lucy and Desi comedy scene," Lynn Nankivil recalled. "Here we were in conservative Kentucky, in a van that said, 'Make Love, Not War.' It probably wasn't what they were expecting."
Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of Secretariat's most transcendent moment, when "Big Red" locked up the first Triple Crown in 25 years with a remarkable 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. After winning the Kentucky Derby in a time of 1 minute, 59⅖ seconds — a record that has survived half a century — he cemented his legend in the Belmont, a performance considered the greatest in racing history. His unmatched speed and beauty made him a cultural icon, celebrated in movies, books and fan websites across decades.
In 18 months, Lynn Nankivil and her daughters will acknowledge a quieter golden anniversary, of the night when Minnesota became the birthplace of Secretariat's first foal. The Nankivils won over Leola's owner, William Taylor, with their desire to build a better Appaloosa through an infusion of Triple Crown genes.
On Nov. 15, 1974, their Sahaptin Farm captured worldwide attention with the arrival of a colt. Named First Secretary, he was Minnesota's very own Big Red, looking just like his father save for the white Appaloosa blanket draped over his hindquarters.
Now in her 80s, Lynn Nankivil still lives at the farm on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The story of First Secretary doesn't come up often these days, but she still delights in the memories.
"For a while, everywhere we went, people would say, 'Tell us how you got that mare!' " she said. "It became an oft-told tale.
"Those were fun, adventurous years for our family. It really was life-changing. It's a great thing to remember."
To this day, the Nankivil family has never revealed how much they paid for Leola. Lynn Nankivil said the only person who knows is the banker who arranged the loan — and the amount was large enough to cause some confusion.
"Over the phone, he misunderstood," she said. "He thought we had purchased a house in Kentucky, not a horse."
The Nankivils operated a thriving Appaloosa business at Sahaptin Farm, breeding the distinctive spotted horses and producing champions shown by daughters Lisa, Amy and Paige. Like other equine enthusiasts around the world, Jack and Lynn had followed the news about Secretariat's sale to a breeding syndicate for $6.08 million — more than $40 million in today's dollars — and the fertility issues discovered after his retirement.
Word soon got out that Secretariat had a successful test breeding to Leola, a 13-year-old nurse mare used to care for orphaned foals at Claiborne Farm. Jack, a businessman and vice president of finance at what was then called St. Mary's College in Winona, was an energetic and optimistic man unafraid to take chances in life. When he heard Leola was for sale, he immediately decided they should try to buy her.
Taylor, who managed Claiborne Farm, already had fielded 600 letters and 300 phone calls from potential buyers. Jack and Lynn quickly planned a trip to bluegrass country and met with Taylor and his wife over dinner. Despite arriving at the farm in the hippie van, Jack made a winning pitch — and in July 1974, Leola arrived in Winona, with the eyes of the equine world upon her.
"I told Taylor that if I could buy the horse, it would not be a purchase by a promoter,'' Jack told the Minneapolis Star in 1975. "Taylor had offers for $100,000 [more than] the price paid. He was more interested that his horse would have a good owner.''
The idea that Secretariat's first offspring would be half-Appaloosa caused much pearl-clutching in the thoroughbred community, which viewed Leola as a peasant unworthy of its king. While Secretariat's pedigree carried regal names like Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal, Leola's listed her paternal grandparents only as "reservation-bred stallion and mare.''
But the Nankivils understood Leola was noble in her own right. Her roots traced to the Native Americans who developed the Appaloosa into a swift, brave and sturdy horse. The Nankivils hoped Leola's baby would merge the best of the two disparate worlds. Given their hefty financial gamble, they also hoped it would be a healthy colt with Appaloosa coloring, whose potential as a stallion would make him very valuable.
On the night First Secretary was born, the Nankivils invited a small group to keep watch with them, along with a photographer and a family friend handling media requests. They stood outside Leola's dimly lit stall as the mare began labor.
"We were all but bursting with anticipation,'' Lisa Nankivil recalled. "As he fully emerged, everyone held their breath.
"Dad shouted, 'It's a colt! Oh, my God, it's a colt!' And the coloring made him a legitimate registered Appaloosa who could stand at stud. I guess if you've ever won the lottery, you'd know how we all felt. My mom and dad were practically delirious with joy, because they had risked everything hoping for this outcome.''
Spotlight on Winona
Jack Nankivil told reporters the first thing his colt saw was "a flashbulb going off in his face." First Secretary, nicknamed "Red," made worldwide news. The next day, the Nankivils heard from friends in Europe who had read about his birth in their local newspapers.
The foal was huge, weighing 126 pounds. Jack called him "the most beautiful colt I've ever seen," with his father's copper-colored coat, three socks and white blaze complemented by the white Appaloosa splash over his hips.
First Secretary became something of a tourist attraction, with about 400 people coming to Sahaptin Farm to see him during the first few months of his life. In later years, St. Mary's University would send an annual busload of alumni to look at the spotted son of Secretariat. But the Nankivils kept their promise to Taylor, making First Secretary a breed-shaping stallion and not a carnival sideshow.
While the horse was still in the womb, 20 people bought breeding rights to him. He never raced or competed in shows; his value as a stallion ensured that would be his only career.
First Secretary would grow even larger than his famous father, topping out at 17 hands high and 1,350 pounds while maintaining his sweet disposition. Sahaptin Farm remained his home until 1988, when he was sold to a breeder in New Hampshire. He spent the last three years of his life standing at stud in Maryland, where he died in 1993 after a bout of colic.
Minnesota's "Red" sired 247 foals, and his offspring became show champions, racing winners and quality breeding stock in countries as far-flung as Australia and Switzerland.
The Nankivils made many visits to Secretariat at Claiborne Farm, though they never again arrived in a hippie van. After Canterbury Downs opened in Shakopee in 1985, they bought thoroughbreds in partnerships to race in their home state.
Jack died a year before the passing of his life-altering horse, losing a battle with lung cancer at age 54. Though the barn where First Secretary was born was lost to fire many years ago, Lynn continued to keep horses at the farm until her last mare died a year ago at age 28.
The memory of First Secretary is still there, too: in scrapbooks and photos, in boxes of clippings, in oft-told tales that never get old, even after 49 years.
"It was such a chance thing, like something out of a story," Amy Nankivil said. "It really excited the Appaloosa world, and it did improve the breed. It was a really special time, something that's still important to us."