In 1973, a horse by the name of Secretariat captured the hearts of America.
Nicknamed “Big Red’, the chestnut colt with three white socks and a star with a narrow blaze, would become the first horse to take the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948.
Winning the final leg by a whopping 31 lengths, The Big Red Horse sent Americans into a frenzy and would grace the cover’s of Time Magazine, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated– something that hadn’t happened before, or since.
Secretariat’s owner Helen “Penny” Chenery has an amazing story of her own and without her drive, the story of Secretariat may not have been written.
In the 1950’s “The Meadow” owned by Penny’s father was known as a Racing Powerhouse. Christopher Chenery owned and bred more than 200 race winners.
When her father became ill with Parkinsons, Penny would put aside her housewife role and take over at the Meadows. “Though I was living in Colorado with four small children, I’d kept more in touch with the stable.” Her older sister was in Tucson. “My brother was an academic. That left me to run the farm, and I was dying to do it.”
Penny inherited the task of bringing the Meadows back from the brink of oblivion, with 4 children this would be no easy task. Her willingness to spend her savings, combined with her business acumen and determination, would keep the racing stable and breeding farm afloat “I just thought, this is my job and I know how to do it and kinda get out of my way.’ Penny embarked on a crash course studying The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Record and the Daily Racing Form cover to cover in an attempt to enhance her racing and breeding knowledge.
Despite her efforts, it would be a stroke of luck that would bring about her greatest success. A simple coin toss with a respected breeder decided Secretariat’s owner. It was a coin toss that Chenery lost, but she ended up with the unborn foal by Bold Ruler, out of Somethingroyal. Names for the foal were put forward by the Meadow Stables Secretary Elizabeth Ham, but were rejected for various reason’s by the Jockey Club. At the sixth attempt the name “Secretariat” was approved and the legend was born.
Fast forward and Penny’s involvement in racing did not cease with the retirement of Secretariat. She would go on to serve as President of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association from 1976-1984 and President of the Grayson Foundation supporting equine research in 1985-86. She was one of the first women to be elected to membership in The Jockey Club in 1983. Penny has also been a leading advocate for the health and welfare of retired Thoroughbreds and was a driving force in the formation of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Penny still has horses racing today but prefers to watch from the comfort of her home.
What made Penny unique is that she recognized the opportunity to utilize the public’s love of Secretariat for the good of racing and of the race horse. Despite the passing years, Penny has remained the epitome of a grand lady of racing, alway’s representing the highest ambitions and standards of those to whom the Thoroughbred is an important part of life.
“It was the time of Watergate and Vietnam, and here was this red, white and blue hero. He wore blue and white blinkers and was a bright red horse.”
– Penny Chenery