Racing World Mourns Passing Of ‘First Lady Of Thoroughbred Racing’

by | 09.17.2017 | 6:20pm
Penny Chenery, the "First Lady of Thoroughbred Racing"

Thrust into national prominence as the owner and breeder of Riva Ridge and Secretariat, Penny Chenery charmed the nation as an engaging and quick-witted owner who represented her equine champions with poise, dignity, and keen business sense. She grasped her role as the voice of the silent equine hero. As she put it, “The horse can't talk – but I can.”

The racing community mourned the passing of the “First Lady of Thoroughbred Racing” across the nation:

Ron Turcotte, rode 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge: “She'll be missed. We had a lot of fun together all these years and we had a lot in common. I truly appreciated her letting me ride her great horses, and we won some nice races together, some nice ones besides those with Secretariat. There was Riva Ridge, of course, and Upper Case, who won the Florida Derby and Wood, and a few other nice ones. We never really had a word together. I know the movie shows that we did, but we always got along.”

William Nack, author of Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion: “Penny Chenery was an original. From the day she stepped into the racing scene in 1971, when she took over the management of the Meadow Stable from her ailing father, to the day she helped Secretariat into his stall at Claiborne Farm in the fall of 1973, no woman had ever played the leading role in a sport dominated for decades by men. Of course, there had been prominent female owners out front in the sport over the years, from Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps to Mrs. Richard C. Du Pont, but none had a more visible role, or more widespread public appeal, than Helen Bates Chenery.

“She became a familiar figure in the Sport of Kings when Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1972, but her stewardship of Riva was merely a lounge act for the main event that was to come. It was as the manager of Secretariat's brilliant tour de force in winning the Triple Crown, in 1973, that she became the face of Thoroughbred racing in America, on television as well as in print.

“Intelligent, articulate, and attractive, with a facility for speaking in complete, often colorful sentences, she was the perfect PR lady for the mighty chestnut who pulled off the greatest Triple Crown performance in history. Over the ensuing four decades, rather than retire in obscurity, she was a regular at the sport's major events, always accessible for interviews, and came to be known as the First Lady of the American Turf. This was an accolade that made her wince, but it was richly deserved.”

Alex Waldrop, President and CEO, National Thoroughbred Racing Association: “Whether as the owner of Secretariat, the brilliant Triple Crown Champion she campaigned nearly a half-century ago, or as a leader and ambassador for the sport she loved, Penny Chenery led an extraordinary life that touched Thoroughbred racing fans and others in a unique and personal way. Thankfully, her legacy will live on for many generations to come.”

Breeders' Cup Ltd.: “Penny Chenery made an indelible impact on the world of Thoroughbred racing, as an owner, industry leader and as a grand ambassador of our sport for nearly half a century.  Secretariat's conquest of the Triple Crown in 1973 captivated an entire nation, as millions of Americans shared with her the great joy and celebration of Secretariat's 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, while Penny displayed remarkable spirit, grace and class through it all. Just as important, we recall her tremendous devotion and contributions to the racing industry, breaking barriers as she became the first female president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association, the first president of the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation, one of the founders of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, and supported charitable causes through the Secretariat Foundation. Most of all, we will miss Penny's great warmth and dignity, as we extend our deepest sympathies to her family and loved ones.”

Kevin Flanery, President of Churchill Downs Racetrack: “Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby family join all in Thoroughbred racing in mourning the passing of Penny Chenery.  Fans embraced her as the owner of Secretariat, her legendary Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner and American sports icon, along with her ongoing role as the protector of his legacy and lifelong supporter of causes that promote the health and welfare of retired Thoroughbreds.  We at Churchill Downs also fondly recall her 1972 Kentucky Derby victory with Riva Ridge and other occasions when horses carried her famed blue-and-white blocked silks in races beneath our Twin Spires.  Mrs. Chenery's wonderful life had a deep and lasting impact on all in Thoroughbred racing and to countless individuals beyond our industry.  If anyone ever deserved the title ‘First Lady of American Racing,' it was Penny Chenery, and our thoughts are with her family, friends and all who loved her.”

Patrick Armstrong, Kentucky Derby Museum President & CEO: “Penny Chenery was a beloved icon of Thoroughbred racing. We are honored by the support she has shown the Kentucky Derby Museum, the continued devotion of our visitors to 1972 Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge and 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat and the ongoing privilege of keeping her legacy and contributions alive within our walls and beyond. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and loved ones at this difficult time.”

Chris Kay, President and CEO, NYRA: “Penny Chenery was a true pioneer in our sport and, on behalf of the women and men of the New York Racing Association, we mourn her loss and offer our condolences to the Chenery family. Belmont Park is where champions are crowned and there was no greater champion for women in racing than Penny Chenery. We look forward to honoring her memory and celebrating the life and legacy of a woman so important to the fabric of racing in New York.”

Bill Thomason, President and CEO, Keeneland: “Keeneland joins the Thoroughbred community worldwide in mourning the passing of Penny Chenery. Mrs. Chenery exemplified the very best of our sport, serving as one of its most beloved and passionate ambassadors. She was a generous owner, tirelessly sharing the legacy of her great Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, with generations of fans that extended far beyond racing. Keeneland is honored to have played a role in the movie Secretariat, and to remember her 1972 Blue Grass Stakes winner Riva Ridge. We are thankful for her extraordinary contributions to racing, and we extend our deepest condolences to her family and friends.”

Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe, vice president of operations, Meadow Event Park: “We are very saddened by the passing of Penny Chenery and are mourning with the rest of the nation who revered this remarkable lady. At the same time, we are so grateful for the connection she maintained with The Meadow, her ancestral homeplace in Virginia, long after it passed from Chenery family ownership. Penny's generosity and support of our efforts to preserve Secretariat's birthplace and present the full story of Meadow Stable provided much-needed momentum for our program.  We will always be inspired by the determination, perseverance and high standards that Penny exhibited throughout her life and will strive to do even more to honor her extraordinary legacy.”

Leeanne Meadows Ladin, Secretariat tourism manager at Meadow Event Park, author of ‘Secretariat's Meadow': “Penny Chenery, to me, with her strength and style, was the perfect embodiment of graciousness and grit. I learned so much from her and she literally changed my life. Her support of Secretariat's Meadow helped take the book to a level I never dreamed of. That book led to this job and again, Penny's generosity made an enormous difference. She came to our Secretariat events; she gave us personal family items and Meadow Stable mementos on loan; and most recently, Penny gave us Groundshaker, a great-great granddaughter of Secretariat and the last race horse she bred and raced. Penny was so enduring, so indomitable that I felt like she would live forever. In the hearts of her fans, she will. And here at The Meadow, along with the spirit of her great horse, she always will.”

  • Kevin Callinan

    In the same week we are reminded that owners can make or break the industry. Penny Chenery was appreciative of the fan and respected the position she had. We need more owners to show the class she exuded.

  • ThoroughbredWriter

    I am heartbroken. Penny was my mentor, opened the doors for me to begin my vocation as a horse racing writer. I feel like I’ve lost my Mother–more people in horse racing have lost Mother, Mentor and Friend than can be counter, I’ll wager. <3

  • Madeline Brooks

    He raises his great head, and swivels his ear…could it be? Then, his noble eye softens, and he whirls and jumps, his unbridled spirit lifted by joy. Together again…a love everlasting.

    • Jennifer

      You’re referencing Riva Ridge, no doubt. :)

  • Kathy Young

    She, like a true Thoroughbred, was as beautiful inside as out; and like her Riva Ridge and Secretariat, she set standards we all should strive to follow.

  • Dennis

    We should all be honored with the dignaty that this great lady brought to racing.neverbelittleing the sport.

  • Richard C

    The industry needs to select one day on the calendar to honor the “First Lady of American Racing” from coast to coast.

    • Kori

      It should be March 30th, Secretariat’s birthday.

  • James Settembre

    Penny was the epitome of class and a great ambassador for the sport of thoroughbred racing. She paved the way for women in a sport that is dominated by men and did it in a way that should be applauded. A great mentor in a sport that sorely needed and continues to need them. In a sport where humans take a back seat to our 4 legged heroes, no discussion of the human side is complete unless it includes Penny Chenery. She will be sorely missed by the thoroughbred racing community and is irreplaceable. My deepest sympathy not just to the Chenery family but to racing in general. We have lost an icon.

  • Ida Lee

    Ms. Chenery taught a generation of little girls and young women that they could be more than house wifes and mothers ….we could be house wifes, mothers and then some…..she recognized what she had in Secretariat and shared him with his adoring public to this day…protected the great Secretariat name and legacy …I love that she fought for the recognition of his speed breaking record performance in the Preakness….that she established the Vox Populi award as the voice of the people….I feel like the horse racing world will never be the same without Penny Chenery….RIP Great Lady ….

  • David Worley

    RIP Penny. May you stroll the great meadows in the here after watching Big Red run. Yours was a life well lived.

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