Well, Penny, after wishing you a Happy Birthday every couple of years, I
must update my sentiments one final time. Although it isn't your birthday, it
is the day you have entered the gates of racing's pantheon, and ethereally
speaking, have been reunited with those the two noble steeds who would help
define your life, as well as the man you so admired and cherished, who was
responsible for bringing you and them into the world.
I can only echo the numerous statements that have been made by fans and
industry leaders about your class, grace, charm, toughness, and savvy, all of
which helped elevate you into the vernacular as Thoroughbred racing's First Lady and an inspiration to so many young women looking to succeed at the highest level in the male dominated world of racing.
I still find it hard to believe you were 95 years old, because the images
are so vivid of the young Colorado housewife lured back to her roots and thrust
into the national spotlight and saving the empire your father built. You
rivaled Jackie O as the most photographed woman, and you handled it all with
the utmost class.
I will never forget that early spring morning at Belmont Park when
Secretariat went out for his big mile work before the Wood Memorial. As a lowly
librarian at the time, I was a bit intimidated approaching you at the barn and
talking to you. But despite not knowing who I was, you still made me feel as if
we had known each other for years, talking candidly about Big Red and Riva. And
of course there was the memory of walking to the track with you and Lucien that
morning, with my cameras in hand, unaware of the worldwide fame you were about
a thrill for a young librarian walking alongside Penny Chenery and Secretariat)
When a Daily Racing Form handicapper talked me into selling one of the
photos of Big Red I had taken that morning and placing an ad in DRF under some
made-up company name, I was dismayed to receive a letter from you addressed to
our P.O. Box address telling me the rights to sell all Secretariat merchandise
were protected and needed to be approved. I wrote you a letter back under my
own name apologizing and informing you we would cease all sales. You then wrote
back to me apologizing for sending me the letter, explaining that you didn't
know who the photographer was and that I was free to continue selling the photo.
You have no idea how important that made me feel; that you knew who I was and would
apologize for sending me such a formal letter.
We have had a number of conversations/interviews over the years in regard to
feature stories I wrote on Riva Ridge, Secretariat's early grooms, and several
others. And you always added so much to the stories with your profound,
And it was a special moment amidst all the euphoria talking to you in your
box minutes after American Pharoah's Belmont Stakes victory.
At 93 years old and still protective of Secretariat's image
and records, you came up with one of your many sharp comments. Of course you
said you were happy for racing. But when I told you that American Pharoah had
run one of the fastest Belmonts in history (2:26.55), you responded in quick
fashion, "Well, not fast enough," in reference to Secretariat's otherworldly
time of 2:24.
There isn't much more I can add other than what was in my original birthday
party column, for that tells it all. So once again, and for the final time,
here are what the guests had to say.
The party is about to begin. The guests, both two-legged and four-legged,
are arriving to celebrate Penny Chenery's 92nd birthday. The room is decked out
in blue and white balloons, and hanging on the walls are dozens of racing
photos, including the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. It is a
time for nostalgia, for remembering a great lady, who in 1973 was The Queen in
a sport of kings.
One by one, the guests present Penny with a birthday card, inscribed with their
"Dear Penny, first off, thanks for losing that coin flip and for being the
greatest press agent a star like me could ask for. And thanks for all the
comforts in life you provided, especially supplying me with the most dazzling
harem a handsome stud could ask for. I know I rewarded you and helped make you
famous, but it only equals what you did for me, although I have to admit I
wouldn't have minded staying in bed and sleeping all day on September 29, 1973.
All in all, it was a magical journey and we should take great pride in knowing
that we raised the equine genus up a notch and created the standard by which
all others are measured. And I never told you this, but I did see you flailing
your arms wildly as I came down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. What a
moment that was. I'm sorry I left you so soon, but, unlike the racetrack, there
are things in life we have no control over. Hopefully, one day they'll find a
cure for laminitis. I do miss those Certs breath mints at Claiborne Farm. Now
that we are reunited on this day, and I see my name in the pedigrees of so many
top-class horses, I want to take the time to wish you a very Happy Birthday and
many more to come."
number one glamour boy, Secretariat
"Dear Penny, it gives me great pleasure to return to wish you a Happy 92nd
birthday. I remember those early days when you had that funny-looking hairdo
and no one knew who you were. I have to admit I wasn't crazy about being cast
aside and living in the shadow of you know who (I still can't say his name),
but deep down we both know who always remained number one in your heart and who
really helped bring Meadow Stud back into national prominence. I even forgive
you for allowing the Disney people to cut me out of that movie, as if I never
existed. But I understand why they had to do it. If they hadn't, the movie
would have been about me. You and Lucien learned a lot from the admitted
mistakes you made with me after the Triple Crown, and I'm glad at least for
that, although I would have loved to go out a winner after the Stuyvesant
Handicap and not have to slog those two miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
again. But I'd rather concentrate on those glory days of 1971 and early ‘72
when I was The Boss and America's sweetheart. With my lop ears and narrow frame
I wasn't the movie star that a certain big red horse was, but I was a kind,
gentle soul, and it is with all sincerity that I wish you the happiest of
Your first love, Riva Ridge
"Dear Penny, we had some rough times and some stressful times, but mostly
loving and joyous times together, and through it all you were one classy lady,
and I don't even mind you telling the world about us after all these years. You
plucked me out of retirement and a sedentary life of boredom and thrust me onto
the national stage and gave me fame and fortune at a time when I thought I had
saddled my last horse, never to be remembered in the history books. We had a
great run together, sharing all the ups and downs, mostly ups, and for that I
will remain eternally grateful. Happy Birthday, and I have to say, you still
look damn good."
Your admiring trainer, Lucien Laurin
"Dear Penny, Well, we're still around after all these years. I certainly
have no regrets, despite the unfortunate twist my life took. But that was many
years ago as well. Thanks to you and Big Red, and, yes, Riva, I still am able
to keep busy doing autograph signings and attending major events and meeting
the fans, old and new. I thank you for two days in particular - August 2, 1971,
when you put me on Riva Ridge for the first time in the Flash Stakes, and July
31, 1972, when you and Lucien allowed me to get a leg up on the greatest horse
of all time in an allowance race, when no one had heard of the name
Secretariat. I had ridden many top horses before that, but my career was
launched into orbit that day at Saratoga. Have a wonderful birthday and I'm
sure we'll see each other at the next signing."
favorite jockey, Ron Turcotte
"Dear Penny, how great it is to see you again and all the old familiar
faces. I see Big Red over there and have a burning desire to go over and take
the brush to him and give him the brightest shine he's ever had. What I
wouldn't give to wrap my arms around his neck one more time and tell him what a
champ he is. And how about ‘ol Riva, still lookin' as laid back as ever, with
those ears floppin' all over. Boy, do I miss those days, and I have you and
Lucien to thank for allowing me to spend every day of my life during those
unforgettable years taking care of legends. I think I'll go over and at least
feed Red and Riva a nice big piece of birthday cake for old times' sake. Keep
up the good causes and for making racing a better sport."
Your faithful groom, Eddie Sweat
"Dear Penny, this is the final time I will be able to tell you what a joy
and honor it has been working with you and keeping Secretariat's name alive and in the hearts of
racing fans from 9 to 90. We have built Secretariat's brand name, his
merchandising, and his website Secretariat.com into something everlasting, as
well as the creation of the Secretariat "Vox Popili" Award, and you can rest
assured I will continue to keep that connection with the fans alive.
Here's to all the wonderful special moments we have had together
over the years.
"Dear Penny, I'm sure you don't remember us, well, maybe you do, but
although we were a big disappointment to you, not living up to our brothers'
reputation, we did try, but we just weren't blessed with their talent. But we
do want to thank you for at least putting us in the spotlight for our maiden
races and having all of racing following us and rooting for us. They are
moments we'll never forget. Have a wonderful birthday and we'll go over now and
try to renew family acquaintances. Thanks again for the 15 minutes of fame."
Happy Birthday from Red and Riva's brothers, Capital Asset and Capito
"Dear Penny, I know we had our differences and you and your horse robbed me
and my horse of our immortality, and I do have to tell you that regardless of
how they portrayed me in the movie, I am not a loudmouth and a bully, and deep
down was a great admirer of you and Secretariat. I did get in the Hall of Fame,
so there is something to say for that. I still would love to get another crack
at that big red horse with my beautiful Sham, but that's not going to happen,
so I'll just accept it and think about what might have been had Sham come along
in a different year. I'm so glad you're still around to tell everyone about
those days and of two very special horses."
one-time antagonist, Frank "Pancho" Martin
"Dear Penny, all I can do is echo my trainer's words and
wish I hadn't bloodied my mouth and lost a tooth hitting it against the gate at
the start of the Derby. Who knows, right? Hey, I did finish ahead of you guys
in the Wood Memorial, abscess or no abscess. That's' something. It was a good
fight overall; I just came out second best. They said I had an unusually large
heart, but Red's heart was even larger. Some luck, huh?"
Happy Birthday from your equine antagonist, Sham
"Dear Penny, it's great to see you again. I'm happy to say that Big Red's
old home, Claiborne Farm, is back on the upswing thanks to Arch, Blame, Pulpit,
and War Front. Things are going well here, and on your 92nd birthday I would
love to give you the world's biggest cake, so that it could hold six million
candles. Well, 6.08 million to be exact. You helped make my career when I was
just a mere youngster and trying so hard to fill my daddy's shoes and impress
Mr. Phipps and the other board members. It was so great working with you in
putting together a deal far beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. We
rewrote the book on syndicating horses. We made history, and we will share that
bond for all time."
Your one-time partner, Seth Hancock
"Dear Penny, bet you didn't think we'd make it here, but there was no way we
were going to miss seeing you and all our old friends. We remember those old
days at The Meadow and you as a little girl growing up, and the apple of your
pappy's eyes. Man, it's good to see Big Red and Riva again after helpin' raise
them as babies. We remember the day we put Red in that first stall in the
yearling barn, so we knew then he was the special one of the bunch. Man, he was
strong. He was so different from Riva. Red would test us, but Riva was just a kind
soul. It was sad to see The Meadow go, and we never did go back again, even
though we passed it all the time. We remember bein' picked up every mornin' in
Duval Town, that was built after the emancipation to house freed slaves. They'd
pick us up and bring us to the farm. We sure did love workin' for Mr. Chenery.
He always treated us so well, as you did. Oh, by the way, Aunt Sadie and
Magnolia say hi and Happy Birthday. And so did ‘ol Wilbur (Bill) and Harry
Street, who vanned Red to Hialeah as a 2-year-old, and Howard Gentry, and Olive
Britt, who still regrets not gettin' to the farm in time take Red out of
Somethingroyal. But she remembers Mr. Gentry telling her, ‘This is what we've
been waiting for for 35 years.'"
Happy Birthday from the boys at home -- Charlie Ross, Howard Gregory, Bannie
Mines, Lewis Tillman, and Raymond "Peter Blue" Goodall
"Dear Penny, all I can say is thank you for allowing me to name Secretariat,
even though it took six tries to get it. It was my honor and privilege working
by your side during those years. You were indeed your father's daughter. A very
From Meadow Stud secretary Elizabeth Ham
"Dear Penny, I had so much fun playing you in the Secretariat movie. I have
to admit I hadn't been to a racetrack since I filmed ‘A Little Romance' at
Longchamp when I was 13. It was inspirational becoming you and just being with
you at Belmont on Belmont Stakes day and seeing the admiration people still
have for you. I have to admit my favorite moment in the movie was telling our
shady trainer to pack up and take a hike. So, thanks for letting me into your
world and for making this such a fun role. I hope I look as good as you at
Happy Birthday from the other Penny, Diane Lane
"My Dear Penny, thank you for being there when I needed you and for keeping
the name of our beloved Meadow alive. You gave up the life you had built for
yourself and your family to return to your roots and help save what we built up
over so many years. I'm so proud of you for what you accomplished and the
self-confident, strong-willed person you became. I didn't live to see
Secretariat, but I was there with you all the way. I hope you're aware of that.
It is so reassuring to know that it was from our blood, passed on through the
generations, that a legend was born; perhaps the greatest of all time. And,
yes, I was well aware at the time that we finally won the Kentucky Derby with
Riva. It gave me a great deal of comfort knowing that. To see you now,
celebrating your 92nd birthday, warms my heart, as does seeing my grandson tell
the story of your life so masterfully. The Meadow is gone, but it will never be
forgotten thanks to you."
Your loving father
So, let's light the candles and cut the cake and celebrate a
life well lived, and remember a very special time, not only in racing, but in
America. It truly was a time for heroes, and like Secretariat, Penny Chenery
raised the sport to a different plateau.