Looking back at a legend
1 of 2
2 of 2
Thirty-five years after her great Virginia-born stallion won the Triple Crown and became “America’s Super Horse,” Penny Chenery is still known as “Secretariat’s Mom.” It’s a label that Chenery, now 86 and living in Boulder, Colorado, happily embraces. She never tires of her role as the great horse’s perpetual cheerleader.
“Secretariat was a hell of a horse,” says the woman who once owned and managed Meadow Stable, just outside Richmond in Doswell. “He remains an accessible icon whose strength, beauty and courage were incorruptible.” Indeed, Chenery marvels at the volume of mail she receives, especially through the website Secretariat.com, and is delighted that her horse still holds a special place in people’s hearts.
So does she. Affectionately known as “the first lady of racing,” Chenery remains immersed in the industry that she originally entered by default. In 1967, at the age of 45, she was tapped to rescue Meadow Stable when a debilitating illness sidelined its founder, her father, Christopher T. Chenery. She still starts each day by poring over The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times and daily faxes from Kentucky on racing and breeding trends. She currently owns a great-granddaughter of Secretariat named Cotton Anne, who raced until age 5. This year, Cotton Anne will be bred to a stallion named Stevie Wonderboy, who was the Eclipse Champion 2-Year-Old in 2005 and was owned by the late Merv Griffin. Says Chenery, “Racing has been my passion for over 40 years.”
In the 1970s, Chenery was the popular face of Thoroughbred racing, her blonde bouffant nearly as well known as her star horse. Now sporting honey-colored curls, Chenery, with her blue eyes and fine-boned face, is as gracious and dignified as ever. She is selective about her schedule but will sign autographs for fans for hours at events such as the unveiling of Secretariat’s bronze statue at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. She raises funds for the Secretariat Foundation and other causes that benefit the Thoroughbred community. In 2005, she was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit for a lifetime of outstanding achievement. This year, Chenery will make special appearances for the 35th Triple Crown anniversary celebration, including one at the Kentucky Derby.
Next year, she may be going to the premiere of a Disney movie based on her life and Secretariat’s. She hopes the movie will underscore the fact that Secretariat was born in Virginia and not Kentucky, the hub of Thoroughbred breeding. “When I took Secretariat and Riva [Ridge] to Kentucky to stand at stud, people had signs saying Welcome Home. I told them their home was Virginia!” Chenery exclaims.
As a wife and mother of four children, Chenery says making the transition to racing stable owner and manager was difficult. As one of the few women at that level, Chenery was hailed as a pioneer in the nascent women’s movement. Her priority, though, was saving the faltering family business, which her brother and sister wanted to sell. “I ignored the fact that I was a woman,” she says about tackling the job.
Under her leadership, Meadow Stable won five of six consecutive Triple Crown races in 1972 and 1973. In 1972, the bay colt Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. By doing so, he literally saved the farm. In 1973, Secretariat swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, breaking track records and becoming the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown. In the cruelest of ironies, Chris Chenery, who began his stable’s bloodlines with a $600 broodmare, did not live to see the $6 million superhorse considered by many to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time. He died in January of 1973 at the age of 86, before Secretariat began his 3-year-old season. He had wanted to breed the perfect horse, and thanks to his famously “good eye for a mare” and nature’s genetic alchemy, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Christopher Chenery was born in 1886 amidst the post-Civil War poverty of Ashland, into a family whose antebellum eminence had long faded. Smart and ambitious, he became a millionaire financier in New York. In 1936, at age 50, Chenery bought back The Meadow, his ancestral homeplace in Caroline County, by then a casualty of the Depression.
Following the horsemen’s old adage of “breed the best to the best and hope for the best,” Chenery soon got impressive results from his selections. By 1950, Meadow Stable’s Hill Prince was Horse of the Year and the top contender for the Kentucky Derby. Other champions included First Landing, a Derby favorite in 1959; Cicada, the top money-winning filly of her time; and Sir Gaylord, the Derby favorite in 1962 that was injured before the race and retired to stud. Though the three favorites would not bring home the coveted gold Derby cup, The Meadow’s trophy room filled up with silver.
Penny Chenery was determined to carry on her father’s dream, but nothing could have prepared her for the magic and the mayhem prompted by Secretariat’s superstardom. He appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated—all in the same week. For a nation dispirited by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the big red horse in the blue and white silks became an all-American hero.
Yet all the fame and money would not be enough to keep The Meadow from slipping from Chenery family ownership. In 1978, after her brother and sister made it clear they wanted out of the racing business, Chenery was faced with an impossible choice. “With my inheritance, I had enough money to buy either the farm or the horses, but not both,” she recalls. By that time she was divorced from Jack Tweedy. Not wanting to live alone and run the 2,600-acre farm by herself, she reluctantly surrendered the cherished property. She kept a few horses and leased the training center at The Meadow for a while, later moving her operation to Kentucky.
“We were fortunate to have raced at the time we did,” Chenery says. “It’s so much more demanding now, and training methods have changed. More horses are now bred for speed and success as 2-year-olds, to give a quicker return on the owner’s investment, than for stamina and later maturity. This may factor into the absence of a Triple Crown winner since 1978.”
Decades later, her connection with The Meadow continues. Now owned by the State Fair of Virginia, the farm will also become the site of the new Virginia Museum of the Horse, which she endorses. Chenery’s latest visit to The Meadow was in October 2007, when she had an emotional reunion with many of its former workers, including Secretariat’s original grooms. At the training center across the road, she proudly showed onlookers the racetrack her father had designed, its imprint still visible in the dirt. Then, grinning with mischief, she said, “Let’s take a spin around the track!” She gunned her rented SUV and took off around an oval that had been pounded by some of the fleetest hooves in turf history.
BACK TO The Midas Touch
OR READ THE PROFILES:
Originally published June 2008