The late Penny Chenery and the great Secretariat are forever linked as the greatest one-two punch in the history of American racing. The story remains as rich today as it was in 1973, especially considering the fact Chenery was navigating her way through settling her family’s estate and negotiating a record-breaking stud deal all the while trying the manage the most popular athlete in sports.
Oh, and by the way, Chenery’s Meadow Stable won the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes with Riva Ridge.
But there was so much more to Chenery than the great ride with Big Red. Just 51 when Secretariat became the first horse in 25 years to annex the Triple Crown, in many ways Chenery’s life at the forefront of the industry was just the beginning.
The term “ambassador” is one that could be overused in describing Chenery’s enthusiasm for the sport, but she never tired of telling Secretariat’s story and sharing tidbits with anyone who asked.
In any trip to a racetrack, especially Belmont Park, it would take much longer for her to reach her seat than it did for Secretariat to travel the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes.
If one never had the chance to meet Chenery, receive her warm smile and a kind word, well, you needn’t even ask. She found the time for everyone.
Chenery also served the industry in oh-so-many ways. Not long after Secretariat was off to stud at Claiborne Farm, she was the first woman to be named president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and after serving two terms, she was named the organization’s board chairman.
She served on the board of directors of the Breeders’ Cup and just about every other Thoroughbred-related organization. She also served on the executive committee of the American Horse Council and as president of the Grayson Foundation and raised an incredible amount of money for various equine organizations.
Just one example: Chenery helped kick-start a fundraiser for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation by donating Secretariat’s tack box while vice president of the organization.
And she continued to breed horses. She bred New York-bred Saratoga Dew (Cormorant—Super Luna, by In Reality). Super Luna is out of Alada, a daughter of Riva Ridge out of Syrian Sea, Secretariat’s full sister.
In 1992 for Charles Engel, Saratoga Dew won the Comely Stakes (G2), ran second in the Alabama Stakes (G1), and won Belmont’s Gazelle Handicap (G1) and Beldame Stakes (G1) on her way to earning an Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-filly and was also named the New York-bred horse of the year.
In 1983, Chenery, along with Martha F. Gerry and Allaire du Pont, broke the glass ceiling in racing while becoming the first women admitted as members of The Jockey Club.
The Blood-Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth, in the “What’s Going On Here” column of Nov. 26, 1983, wrote:
“And now the base of the club membership has been expanded to include—not only those who have spent a good deal of money breeding and racing horses, and some friends who have not—but those who already have raised the level of racing, through their great horses, and by their presence, their sportsmanship, their contributions, their service, such as few men have contributed.
“The new members of The Jockey Club may not make a paradise, but they are good examples, of the best in racing.”
From our own personal memories of Chenery, she was gracious enough to not only share her box seats at Saratoga Race Course, but also allow us to stay with her at a rented summer home at the Spa on State Street back in the mid 1980s, allowing us first-hand to learn of her charm, class, and service.
She also pulled us aside prior to the 2004 Belmont Stakes at an overcrowded Belmont Park and into her box area—along with actor Bill Murray—to watch Smarty Jones try to emulate Big Red.
During a pre-shooting party for the Disney movie “Secretariat” held at the “Castle” in Woodford County in the fall of 2009, Chenery introduced us to actress Diane Lane, who was portraying her in the film. When told of our position at The Blood-Horse, Lane—who had studied Chenery extensively for the role—excitedly explained the importance of the weekly publication as a “must read.” A series of stammers followed.
Chenery, however, never stammered, was never at a loss for words—always the right words—and never wavered in her love for all things Thoroughbred.