Thoroughbred Club honors First Lady of the Turf

by | 10.01.2012 | 7:40am
Ron Turcotte with Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery

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.

“'Thank you!'

“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

  • The greatest turf lady of all times.  Anytime I’ve had the occasion to meet her she has always been so approachable and open.  God Bless her and God bless that big red horse.

  • Convene

    I love this woman! I loved her then; I love her now! She probably did more to promote the greatness of this sport than anyone alive. Along the way she also promoted the importance and talent of the women in the game, championing women without ever sinking to the militant, antagonistic levels of so many women fighting for our rights. That’s why everyone loved her. In a very real sense, she was for PEOPLE’S rights and dignity, not just women’s and she never made anyone feel attacked or demeaned. She is still one of the best-known and best-loved faces of racing and I salute her for all the unique things she is.

    Thank you Penny – for the memories, for the role model, for the wonderful part you play not just in racing but in humanity. (And yes, those nicknames were pretty terrible, weren’t they!)

    Keep on keeping on – and on and on and on!

    Thank you to the Thoroughbred Club of America for honoring this special lady.

  • Penny has taught all of us, the true meaning of a “Lady”. And I must add, she is a very Smart Lady!! I was a very young teenager when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and I’ve always looked up to Penny. I’m so happy, Penny, is being recognized for her contribution to Horse Racing.
    Thanks, Ray for the story :)

  • Sharman Woll

    Penny is a First Class Lady that has done so much for the sport, as been said many times before…………. but more than that, she has been very kind, seriously humble, all the while Secretariat was Winning the Triple Crown!!!! And that was amazing, it truly was incredible!!!!! I can’t begin to imagine the pressure she was under, wow!!!!!  :)

     She was then, and still is now, a True Role Model……… for those people “Blessed with a Super Horse” – showing that Sharing the horse with the fans, Communicating with the Public and Press, and being female – Yes, you can Have it All!!!  It can be done!!!!

    I have looked up to Penny my entire life!!!! IF there were only more women out there – like Penny – what a different world this would be!!! THANK YOU for sharing this, an Thank You Penny – for being WHO YOU ARE – the Greatest Lady in the History of Racing. God Bless You – and Thank You for sharing Riva and Secretariat with all of us, then and now…….. you have no idea, how much that means!!!!!!!!! Sending much love and hugs to Penny and Ron, thanks for carrying on – the Dream of Secretariat!!!! Much Love and Hugs!!!!!!!!   :)

  • Francis Bush

    She’s a fantastic lady. Her devotion to racing is unparalled. Look for her bio in my book titled Famous Horsewomen of Virginia, Dementi Publishing, Manakin-Sabot.

  • Ida Lee

    What a woman!!! Like Secretariat was my first real love, his owner was a woman I admired more than any other public female of the time. How I wanted to be her!! Of course, the fact that I would have loved to own Secretariat may have had something to do with it but like Big Red, she just stood out as special. And the way she has protected this Treasure’s name and legacy through so many years is unbelievable. It’s almost like he’s still alive. Thank you Penny…my admiration knows no bounds. P.S. May I add she looks more beautiful today than she did when I first saw her in 1972.

  • JTweedy Jr

    We agree, totally.  Penny was always an altruist. She was always thinking about others and the welfare of the sport.

  • nu-fan

    One additional thing, along with all of the other comments already made, that has always made Penny Chenery stand out–to me–is her excellent business skills.  She has a thread in her actions and comments that indicate that she understands public relations, marketing and other essential business skills that are needed in the horseracing industry.  And, she knows how to relate to fans. Perhaps, her education at the Columbia Business School and her upbringing with an exceptional father, who also was a standout in business, made her that unique figure in a sport that is dominated–even still–by men.  And, she is a class act.

  • Achinjrt

    I was one of those fans in the line to get Penny’s autograph – and I have rescued 2 of Big Red’s daughters in their last stage of life – to give them love and “yard ornament” status.  Penny is one of those ladies that we all strive to be!

  • Adele Williams

    Sorry I couldn’t be there.

  • Marianna Haun

    She was brilliant. Standing ramrod straight behind the podium and exhorting all horse owners with star athletes to make them available to the public…”give them a web page,….we need to promote the live experience. Secretariat was a ham and so was I and I loved it. Take somebody you like to the races or somebody you don’t like…just go and experience the wonder of the horse and the sport. This shouldn’t be a closed world.” Penny was her usual amazing self. It was hard to believe she was nearing 91 years of age…she is ageless. Her son, a documentary film maker was there recording her for a documentary on her life. Someone should turn his camera on his face so she could have recorded the pride of an adoring son. It was so touching. I will long remember the evening…the constant running video in the background of Penny and Secretariat and her other horses and family. It was an evening that the Turf world was able to let her know how much she is valued. I’ve spent nearly two decades trying to understand what made Secretariat have such a great heart but I have learned just as much about what a great heart his owner has….

  • Sharman Woll

    Me too, wish I could have been there.

  • Sharman Woll

    OH I am so GLAD she was recognized, she is a brilliant woman in more ways than one!!!  I just love Penny, she is my hero!!!!   :)

  • Plain & simple…”The Lady” Loves the HORSES & “THE GAME”…ty…

  • Mine Too !! Every time I go to the Secretariat Festival in Paris, Kentucky, Penny is so gracious to everyone. I look forward to next March and visiting The Meadow where Secretariat was born.  

  • All class, all the time. A beautiful woman reflecting the best of racing. A glimmering star in a dark sky. 


    the greatest move in history,the preakness.have a large b/w photo in post parade of big red.Thank you Ms Penny Tweedy,and family

  • Terri Zeitz

    Ray, you did a fabulous job. She surely is the queen of the turf. Interestingly enough, I recently learned that NYRA was founded by Christropher Chenery, Ms. Chenery’s father. I wonder what she thinks of Cuomo’s plans with NYRA?

  • Vconwicke

    I’m in total agreement in your perception of Mrs. Penny Chenery’s.  I have often thought about her father, Christopher Chenery.  He truly must have been a very exceptional man and very influential in her and his other two children’s lives and development.  It was Christopher Chenery’s dream to breed the perfect racehorse; and, he devoted thirty years in developing the blood lines that produced the great Secretariat.  Of course, Mrs. Penny Chenery’s management of her horse helped to produce our greatest Triple Crown Winner.   I met Mrs. Penny Chenery once in 2010 and could not believe how natural, uneffected, modest and savvy she is still.  Mrs. Penny Chenery is a remarkable woman and I believe there will never be anyone like her in the world of thoroughbred horse racing.  She is one of a kind just as her horse, the great Secretariat.  Mrs. Penny Chenery was indeed the right owner for America’s Super Horse – Big Red!  She is as great as he is.  Thank you, Mrs. Chenery!

  • Vconwicke

    I would love to know Mrs. Penny Chenery views of Gov. Cuomo’s takeover of NYRA!!  I’m certain she would be right on the money! 

  • Vconwicke

    Mrs. Penny Chenery is a class act all the way. 

  • Pogoriccio

    I am trying to contact Mr. William Nack, do you know of a way that I can accomplish this important task?

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