Theresa Fitzgerald was in Kentucky just when the Thoroughbred racing industry and The Blood-Horse needed her most.
The former librarian, who passed away Sept. 13 at age 87, took a chaotic mix of books, newspaper and magazine clippings, and staff-maintained card files and turned them into what was arguably the most comprehensive archive devoted to the sport at the time.
Fitzgerald also built strong friendships here and left a legacy of caring and warmth that everyone who knew her will never forget.
Former editor Kent Hollingsworth tapped Fitzgerald to fulfill a mission near and dear to him—to preserve racing history and also make it more accessible to racing fans and history buffs. During the 1970s The Blood-Horse possessed the country’s best collection of published works and research devoted to chronicling Thoroughbred racing. A serious obstacle, however, had barred Hollingsworth from fulfilling his mission. The material was there; the organization was not.
The situation cried out for Fitzgerald’s skills. Hollingsworth reportedly hired the Bronx native “sight unseen” and made one of the more brilliant decisions of his long tenure at the magazine. Fitzgerald had earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in library science and had started her career at the New York Public Library before IBM relocated her husband, Thomas, to Lexington.
When she arrived at The Blood-Horse, she tackled her mission with zest and professionalism.
“She was a stickler for doing things right,” said former Blood-Horse copy editor Pat Dolan. “We had a lot of books that were not available anywhere else. She separated the ones that were really valuable and had a special place for them. Then she went through those millions of books and worked to preserve the ones that needed to be preserved, fixing the bindings. She knew how to do that or where to have it done.”
While Fitzgerald ran The Blood-Horse library, it became a regular stop for journalists and historians during their annual treks to attend the Kentucky Derby.
“People came from all over the country…and they would call, too, from over the world, really, with questions,” Dolan said.
Besides preserving history, Fitzgerald loved delving into the archives in search of interesting details for Hollingsworth and staff writers.
“I did all the fun things—researching remote and sometimes obscure details, e.g., former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s hair tonic and the words of the folk song John Henry,” Fitzgerald wrote in her retirement farewell to The Blood-Horse staff Jan. 14, 1993.
She also experienced some heartfelt and bittersweet moments. Fitzgerald got to name the first foal of the stakes-placed mare High Street, who delivered that foal when she was 22 years old; and she was in the library with Penny Chenery when Chenery got a phone call asking for permission to euthanize Secretariat’s dam Somethingroyal after the mare had injured herself in a fall.
Amid the poignant moments Fitzgerald loved to have a good time, too.
Fitzgerald founded and organized a regular, not-to-be-missed St. Patrick’s Day potluck luncheon at The Blood-Horse.
“She and her husband made it a special day,” said Carol Hopper, former personnel director. “They would decorate and brought Irish music. Theresa was a very social person and never met a stranger.”
Fitzgerald maintained her connection to The Blood-Horse long after her retirement. On the second Tuesday of every month, or thereabouts, Fitzgerald would meet other retirees for lunch. Sometimes there were five, sometimes a dozen, but there was always plenty to talk about.
“She was so knowledgeable about the horse business, books, and just everything,” said Dolan. “Theresa was always conscientious about when things were not going right with someone; she would let you know she was thinking of you and praying for you.”
Farewell, Theresa, and thank you for your skills and your kindness. When “When the Saints Go Marching In” was played at your funeral service, family and friends couldn’t help but smile at a song so appropriate for the occasion.