A peaceful goodbye to a 35-year-old king

General Poppy and his girlfriend, the gray mare Pigeon, with owner Lee McGettigan. Photo: Patricia McQueen

Thirty-five years ago today, a remarkable Thoroughbred was born. Not remarkable for anything he did as a racehorse – far from it. General Poppy was remarkable for what he did in the 32 years after concluding his racing career, during which he was winless in seven starts for breeder Barry Schwartz.

Fate deprived Secretariat’s oldest known son of seeing his actual 35th birthday, but he came close. Poppy passed away just eight days ago, in the early evening hours of April 14. His remarkable old body had had enough, and he went with “peace in his eyes”, according to longtime owner Lee McGettigan, who held him close at the end, with Poppy’s girlfriend, Pigeon, right there trying to understand what was happening.

Patricia McQueen’s orginal article about this incredible son of Secretariat was first posted on April 23, 2016.
Read that article here

It was just over a year ago that I met Lee and General Poppy for the first time. I never would have believed he was then 34 years old as he galloped around, showing some of the grace and confidence that made him the “best fox hunter ever” in the eyes of both McGettigan and Gail Wofford, who hunted him in the early years.

Worn joints in her hands are evidence of the tremendous effort it took for McGettigan to hold on to the powerful son of Secretariat as he floated across the fields and soared over the jumps in his prime. “He was a star during the heyday of the Piedmont Hunt,” around the turn of the century.

One day long ago, when Lee was away, her husband, Michael, rode Poppy in a hunt. The gelding promptly gave him a riding lesson – he stopped at the first jump and Michael flew off. “I didn’t know he knew how to stop,” she said, laughing at the memory, adding that Poppy and Michael completed the hunt without further incident.

And she fondly recalls one day when she was in a generous mood and let a friend, an excellent rider, ride Poppy. “We went over this fence and all I could hear from her was ‘whoa, what an amazing experience that was to jump him’.”

The years have been full of amazing experiences with Poppy, but all good things must come to an end.

The old boy weathered the winter quite well, but appeared to have little strokes beginning in March. He would have trouble moving around, with a loss of coordination. Just as he’d get better, it would happen again. McGettigan knew the end was near, even though he was still eating well. And he clearly enjoyed being reunited with Pigeon a few weeks ago, allowing him to be King of the Hill once again.

When the King lay down for the last time, she called the vet as Pigeon stepped gingerly around them both and wondered why her friend wouldn’t get up. “She was there for him,” marveled McGettigan.

The end came peacefully, and shortly thereafter Poppy was buried in the pasture he loved sharing with Pigeon. McGettigan has 20 years of memories to treasure, and the keepsake of a braid made with his tail hair.

Previous articles in Patricia McQueen’s series on Secretariat’s offspring


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