On the afternoon of May 15, 1972, Americans were glued to their television sets as another assassination attempt played out. This time it was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, who was the target not far from the race track in Laurel, Md.
As Americans who had endured the tragic year of 1968, when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, we had become accustomed to remembering where we were when all those shots rang out. Well on that day in 1972, I was at the Meadow Stable in Doswell, Va., with my CBS News colleague Heywood Hale Broun talking to Penny Chenery Tweedy, who would become the “grande dame” of Thoroughbred racing. For now, she was celebrating her first Triple Crown triumph, a win in the Kentucky Derby with Riva Ridge, her Eclipse Award winner from the previous year.
It was a bigger win than the farm had ever had during the many years that Mrs. Tweedy's aging father, the industrialist Christopher Chenery, had run the operation. Mrs. Tweedy, Penny most people called her, hadn't been at it very long, but she had a trusted assistant that her father had turned over to her, a woman everyone called Miss Hamm. They suggested we talk to the farm manager who had raised Riva Ridge.
Woodie asked him if there were any future Riva's in their current crop of 2-year-olds gamboling about over the Virginia pastureland. “Heywood, I'm worried about Mrs. Tweedy,” he replied, “I mean, this year she has Riva and all that publicity. Next year, she's not gonna have nothin'.”
Now Miss Hamm was technically the farm secretary. But she would help Mrs. Tweedy when it was time to name the newcomers. That's how their 2-year-old Bold Ruler–Somethingroyal colt came to be known as … Secretariat. There we were in the company of royalty and we didn't have a clue.
So while the unknown Secretariat was being readied for his debut on a training track in Florida, Riva Ridge shipped to Baltimore to try to extend his chances to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. But he came up short on a muddy track in the Preakness before going on to win the Belmont. Secretariat, on the other hand, came out of nowhere that summer to win seven out of nine races and beat out his stablemate to become the first 2-year-old to win Horse of the Year honors.
In Woodie's view, Americans who were desperately searching for a new hero in a time of tumult, caught a break. He said, “The fact that Secretariat was a chestnut, that wonderful color, and the fact that he was so big had a lot to do with it. If Riva Ridge had won the Triple Crown he never would have been as successful because his ears flopped back and forth and he had a slight resemblance to a mule … not quite what you want in a hero. There are actors who are better actors than some, but the handsome actor is the one that we remember.”
Mrs. Tweedy picked up on that thought when I interviewed her on the 20th anniversary of Secretariat's coming of age. “He was good looking, but he was also charismatic,” she said. “ He had personality and presence and people responded to that. But when he was racing, you couldn't pal up to him at all. You'd lose an arm.”
Penny, who died on Sept. 16 at the age of 95, was at one with her magnificent Thoroughbred. They both had dignity and staying power and character and charm. If you ever met either of them, you walked away feeling good.
She told me she learned a lot about Secretariat's resolve after he suffered an alarming upset in the Wood Memorial leading up to his Kentucky Derby success. “Seeing him stand in the corner of his stall and not come out to the webbing. He was not pleased with himself. He did not care to talk to us. It was then I knew he was emotionally involved in racing.”
Those were trying times for Mrs Tweedy. Her father had died at the beginning of the year and she had huge estate taxes to pay, forcing her to syndicate the horse even before he had proved his mettle in his record-breaking Triple Crown. She was sanguine about it all. “We were lucky that Dad lived into 1973 because that meant we had a year in which to settle his affairs so the horse could race as a 3-year-old. On balance, I was just very grateful we were the ones that got to race him.”
But in a perfect world, she said, “It was such a shame we didn't get to see what he could do as a 4-year-old because he was very strong. He could've carried weight. He was malleable. You could train him for different situations and run him at different distances. He was a multi-dimensional racehorse. You're just making me sad all over again.”
It was a sentiment shared by many of Secretariat's admirers including Heywood Hale Broun, who carried a picture of the champ in his wallet for 30 years. “I once showed my always-with-me picture of Secretariat to trainer Shug McGaughey,” Woodie wrote long ago, “as he stood surrounded by equine royalty that he would describe as 'good,' 'honest,' or 'useful.'
“He handed the little photo back and sighed, 'What an honor it would have been to have had one like that.'”
The vision I will always take with me of Penny Tweedy was of her with her arms up in the air, smiling broadly after Secretariat crossed the finish line at the Belmont … and Chic Anderson, the track announcer, proclaiming, “Look at Mrs Tweedy. She's having the time of her life.”
To view Penny Chenery interviewed about Secretariat and the Belmont Stakes, click here
E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III was the longtime Executive Producer and co-creator of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for National Television.
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