Long before the Hollywood version of the great horse Secretariat, I came into the sphere of the horse and his owner, Penny Chenery. She was the woman from the “Secretariat” movie and I felt privileged to know her.
I am saddened to learn of her death. I recall her as pleasant, approachable, and likeable, not the adjectives I would use to describe every horse owner I encountered through my years on the racing beat. My pleasant tenure in her company became the yardstick I used forever afterward in compiling my A-list and my “four thumbs down” list of people in this sport.
Some might suggest she bullied her trainer, Lucien Laurin. I saw her as a woman who had her act together, emerging from a stay-at-home existence (we called them housewives in those days) to represent her late father’s Meadow Stable. Christopher Chenery had no idea what he’d handed his daughter upon his death. First, Riva Ridge in 1972, then Secretariat the following year, rocketed Chenery smack into the bulls-eye of worldwide attention.
No one can possibly prepare for that pressure. For Chenery, it had to be worse: 1973 was not a time when anyone expected to see a woman CEO, or a woman managing a sports campaign for one of the greatest athletes of all time. The male-dominated sports world was suspicious and even resentful in 1973 of any woman making decisions and signing the checks. Women were smack in the bra-burning era of “women’s lib” and were making waves that not all of society found palatable. How were you to act as a woman? What were you to say? How should you dress? These questions troubled women in the public view.
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Into this arena stepped Penny Chenery (then Penny Tweedy), always gracious in public, always classically attired in a prim dress, never publicly uttering a cuss word and perpetually glossing over a multitude of stressful moments with the soothing power of good manners. She was Secretariat’s and Riva’s spokeswoman in a world where the athletes never get to say what they’re really thinking. She handled the likes of that chauvinist supremo, Howard Cosell, and his condescending microphone with a sense of class and manners I’m sure blew right over the toupee glued to his head. (Remember Howard with Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs?)
The only time I saw Chenery take a step back was when Secretariat and Riva Ridge arrived in Lexington to begin stud duties at Claiborne Farm. The two horses deplaned at the airport and walked into Claiborne’s mustard colored vans waiting to take them up Versailles Road, around New Circle Road and along then two-lane Paris Pike to the farm. The little motorcade had a police escort, lights flashing. Chenery had accompanied the horses to Lexington but had no words for the media. I’m sure some resented this; I was surprised and disappointed — but what can you do.
Much later, I don’t recall where, Chenery approached me and apologized for having had nothing to say on “retirement” day. She explained she’d been too emotional to speak. She was giving up control of Riva, syndicated for $5 million, and Secretariat, syndicated for a then-record $6.08 million, which meant she no longer was their owner. She’d always expressed a particular fondness for Riva. Turning over control of both horses to the business side of the horse industry must have seemed like giving up two beloved pets.
Eventually, Chenery made Lexington her home. Occasionally I met up with her; two occasions stand out. The first was at a Bob Evans restaurant on Richmond Road. After we finished our meal and I excused myself momentarily, I was on my way back to our booth when I saw her slipping a breakfast roll into her purse.
I quickly reached down toward my shoes, pretending to tie a lace, hoping she hadn’t seen me seeing her. She had that effect on you, making you reach deep into your bag of manners so as not to embarrass her. I remember thinking, “even Secretariat’s mom is human, after all. Maybe she doesn’t have time to go to Kroger.”
On the other occasion she invited me to her house for tea. I was holding my cup with all the daintiness I could muster when her big beast of a dog came over and slapped its tail in my face. Tea spewed from the cup like Old Faithful, spilling all over the light-colored carpet which might have been Berber. I don’t think she’d seen the dog wag its tail.
I wanted to blurt out: “your f$#@@$ dog made me do it.” Chenery said nothing, fetching fizzy water to blot out the stain. She carried on as though nothing had happened. I blurted out something lame, like, “I never could get the hang of holding tea cups.” But again, she had this effect on you, so I couldn’t blame that beastly dog. I hope to blazes the stain came out.
Long after the arc lights faded from the Secretariat years, Chenery made it her life’s mission to protect his legend and make sure it never faded or slipped into the ridiculous. She controlled memory of Secretariat, striving to present him in the best possible way even after his death. Every horse should be so lucky to have such an owner.
I’ll continue to remember Penny Chenery like this.
Maryjean Wall retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2008 after 35 years as an award-winning turf writer. She is the author of two books on Kentucky history: “How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders” and “Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel.”