Thoroughbred Club honors First Lady of the Turf
Penny Chenery has never been afraid to speak her mind. As the 81st Honor Guest at the Thoroughbred Club of America’s annual Testimonial Dinner, held at Keeneland Race Course on Sunday night, Chenery scanned the list of previous honorees and noticed there had been only three other women.
“All I have to say,” she said, slowly but resolutely, “is ‘Come on, guys!’” That remark brought some whoops and hollers from a crowd that is usually a bit more reserved at this function. But Penny Chenery has been telling it like it is for a long time, and that’s just one reason this Testimonial Dinner, according to Thoroughbred Club directors, had its largest turnout in history.
As the head of Meadow Stable during the great runs of Riva Ridge and Secretariat 40 years, and in industry leadership positions in the ensuing years, Chenery wasn’t just setting an example for other women. Through words and actions, she has demonstrated dignity, class, and an all-too-rare understanding that the sport has to open up to its fans, to be more accessible.
“If we love the industry, we need to promote it,” she said. “And if we’re lucky enough to have a good horse, we need to make that horse available to the public. Ours is a shrinking world. This is our job. Promote the horse.”
She advised other owners who have a star horse in their stable to “welcome the groupies, set up a website. Do anything you can to make non-racing people understand. We shouldn’t be a closed society.”
Chenery said she signed more than 280 autographs this weekend at the Secretariat Festival in Bourbon County, Ky., but also took time to visit the Hancock family’s historic Claiborne Farm in Paris, where Secretariat stood at stud from 1974 until his death in 1989. “Yesterday, 300 people went through Claiborne Farm,” she said. “That is what we have to keep doing. You cannot bottle that experience.
“Go to the track,” Chenery chided the audience. “Take a friend, or even take someone you don’t like. We have to promote the live experience. Being at the farms, being at the sales, being with the horses.”
There was no horse that promoted racing better than Secretariat, who was featured not just on the covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated but on Time and Newsweek during his unforgettable Triple Crown run of 1973.
“The horse was a ham, I was a ham. It worked for me,” she said.
Two members of the Secretariat team were on hand for the Testimonial Dinner: jockey Ron Turcotte and exercise rider Charlie Davis. Chenery lamented the absence of Big Red’s trainer, the late Lucien Laurin. Turcotte and Davis reminisced about Secretariat, both of them saying they thought his last-to-first Preakness victory – not his 31-length Belmont win – was his finest hour. “I never saw a horse leap through the air like that,” Davis said in recalling a famous photo of Secretariat bounding toward the leaders going into the first turn after breaking behind the field.
“After 40 years, I still haven’t been able to find the right words to say what it meant to be associated with Secretariat,” said Turcotte.
Someone who always had the right words to describe the two-time Horse of the Year is seven-time Eclipse Award-winning writer William Nack, author of “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.”
Unable to attend the Testimonial Dinner, Nack sent the following tribute to Chenery, read in part at the dinner by Thoroughbred Club president Julia Cauthen.
“While Penny Chenery has oft been acclaimed as the woman who managed the career of the mighty Secretariat, the most celebrated American racehorse of the last half of the 20th century, her handling of that colt’s rise to glory constitutes but a small measure of the legacy that she has left behind in what we now must call the sport of kings…and queens.
“When Penny came on the scene in the early 1970s, filling the void created by her father’s absence due to illness, she really became the first woman in the history of the sport to assume all the duties and roles previously assumed by the men who had dominated the sport as owners or trainers. Of course, there had been many prominent women in racing over the first seven decades of the century, including Gladys Phipps, Lucille Wright, Isabel Dodge Sloan, Edith Bancroft, and Ethel Jacobs, to name but a few, and they were often seen in winner’s circles around America having their pictures taken. But it was usually the men around their horses, their trainers or their husbands, who spoke for their stables, their breeding syndicates, and their horses – the men who were most visible.
“Penny changed all that. No one really spoke for her and the Chenery stable of horses and their breeding syndicates but Penny. She was the boss. Beginning with Riva Ridge in 1971 and 72, and finally through Secretariat’s extraordinary charge through the Triple Crown, through all of which she came under the intense scrutiny of the press and the sport, she was the face and the voice of her horses, not only attending all their races in the afternoon, but all their major workouts in the morning.
“And what a face! Here was one of the first owners in history who was actually as photogenic as her horses, Secretariat included.
“And what a voice! Whenever she spoke to the press, and unlike many hardboots, Penny dressed up her sentences with interesting nouns and verbs, and she often delivered them in words of more than two syllables and they always made sense. She was bright, talkative, and often witty. And always accessible, whether it was to speak for Secretariat at a formal press conference or at an impromptu gathering after a workout.
“In consequence, the turf writers and broadcasters absolutely loved her.
“There was that memorable morning at Belmont Park when Secretariat worked the fastest three-eighths of a mile in Belmont history – a 32 2/5-second blow-out before the Bay Shore – and when she and trainer Lucien Laurin got the word on the time from the official clocker, she thought a moment and blurted, ‘Well, that ought to open his pipes!’
“Asked by one reporter how she got her nickname Penny, she said, ‘My mother’s name was Helen, as was mine, so there was a need to differentiate. I guess it was an era when nicknames were popular. And I deplored it. Penny, Boofie, Muffie. We should all be shot!’
“Wit and wisdom aside, Penny also brought a sense of grace to her role as an owner. Following Secretariat’s third-place showing in the Wood, the trainer of Sham, Frank Pancho Martin, had thrown some unkind barbs at Laurin in the press, and this air of hostility existed in full until Secretariat beat Sham in that record-breaking Kentucky Derby. It even hovered in the air at Pimlico, if less so, and one day Penny approached me, knowing I was on good terms with Martin, and asked me to introduce them if I saw the chance. ‘I’ve never met Frank Martin,’ Penny said. ‘And I would like to.’
“A few mornings before the Preakness, I saw Pancho sitting alone by Sham’s stall and Penny doing an interview at the other end of the shed. I told Frank that Penny wanted to meet him. He lit up like a boy on Christmas morning. I then approached Penny and whispered to her that Frank was looking forward to meeting her.
“’Oh, good!’ she said. ‘Let’s go.’
“As Penny approached him, Frank leaped to his feet like a young cadet at West Point, looking like he was about to click his heels and salute. Instead, he stuck out his hand. ‘Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Tweedy,’ Pancho said.
“‘I’ve heard so many nice things about you,’ Penny said.
“They had a pleasant chat. Penny patted Sham’s chocolate nose, remarked on how kind the colt was, and Pancho showed her where Sham had lost two teeth when he rapped the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
“They wished each other good luck in the Preakness. ‘Well, thank you,’ she said. ‘It was nice to meet you.’
“’It was nice to meet YOU,’ he said.
“Penny’s was a lovely gesture and it stilled what troubled waters existed between the two camps.
“Penny has been making herself available in this sport, as a speaker and spokesperson, ever since.
“Truly, and on more than one level, she has been and yet is the first lady of the American turf.”
To see the TCA testimonial program, click here