It is a timeless moment captured in grainy black-and-white. Almost 50 years later, the photo of a jubilant Penny Chenery, her arms out-flung as if in full flight, has become one of racing’s most iconic images. By the gods’ good grace, I was at Belmont that magnificent day in 1973, standing two tiers above the Chenery box, and vividly recall a small figure in a pale dress waving in exaltation to the world at large. Over 65,000 euphoric souls were present, but she was so electrified by happiness, her light eclipsed them all. The memory of that ecstatic lady and her radiant, red horse proved the rarest of gifts, something which resonated so deeply that it seemed to bind to my DNA.
I had thought that fleeting glimpse of Penny Chenery would have to last for the rest of my life. But I was wrong. The gods can work in wonderful ways, when you sigh your heart’s cry into their realm. Thirty-two years later, time and circumstance found me employed at Santa Anita, which I had visited frequently as a child, and where I had “someday” longed to be. In 2010, Secretariat.com, the organization founded by Chenery to “ Keep the Big Red Flame Burning,” and to further the philanthropic pursuits which she had supported for most of her life, inaugurated the Vox Populi Award at Santa Anita. The incomparable Zenyatta was the winner and Penny Chenery was there, charming and gracious, the embodiment of a title which had stuck, because she wore it so well. By right of birth and deeds, she had evolved into “The First Lady of Racing.”
There were other Penny Chenery appearances at Santa Anita in conjunction with the award, but the one which is a pressed flower in my memory book came in 2012, the year of the gallant Paynter, who had miraculously survived a barrage of health crises. The weather on this banner day proved to be a challenge for even the most stalwart of fans. There is no place more frigid than a cavernous racetrack on a raw, wet day. On the morning of the third Vox Populi Award, torrential rain and a bone-chilling wind brutalized Southern California. Cosseted in thermals, a sweater, a jacket, and Santa Anita’s retro camel-hair cape, I set out in search of the guest of honor’s meet-and-greet table, prepared to wade through a sea of eager autograph hounds. To my dismay, I found Penny Chenery and her party situated close to a breezeway, attended by a handful of half-pulverized fans. She sat unperturbed, cheerful in a puffy cardinal red coat, engaged in conversation with Bob Baffert. I asked a tall gentleman who was hovering nearby if perhaps a more comfortable spot could be located for “Ms. Chenery,” and he replied that the request had been made, and they were awaiting word. I later learned that the man to whom I had spoken was Penny’s son, Chris Tweedy. I offered to bring coffee or something stronger to help abate the cold, but Penny, nibbling on a saltine, pleasantly declined. Chris mentioned that she had not been feeling well that morning, yet there she sat, attentive and responsive to the weather warriors who had gathered, doing her bit without complaint in circumstances which were 31 lengths from being ideal.
Penny asked if I would like an autograph, but I had neither the track’s giveaway poster, nor the higher-quality version which was for sale. “Here, take this,” she said with a smile, offering one of the latter. “I squiggled a bit in the corner of this one, trying to get the pen to work, if that is alright.” Alright? I would have taken a free squiggle from Penny Chenery any day of any year! Since so few were commanding her attention, I corralled my courage and told her that I had been at Belmont “that day," at which point I marvel that her eyes did not glaze from the tedium of being forced to listen to yet another version of a story which she had doubtlessly heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times. She not only listened, but acted as if she had never heard the story before, and added her own observations to my ruminations. When one of my talented shutterbug friends appeared on the scene, Penny kindly agreed to pose for a few photos. Seeing us looking at the results, Penny asked if she could see, too. Jane happily handed her the camera, and after studying the shots, Penny concluded wryly that she thought she did not look “too terrible." I walked away with a poster bearing her autograph and a squiggle, and a photo which I shall treasure for the rest of my life. In exchange, I left behind a piece of my heart.
I watched as she slowly walked away, unwilling to shift my gaze until she was no longer visible. The sky had turned a January gray, and her bright coral jacket stood in stark contrast to the dreariness of the winter day, just as her younger self, illuminated by joy, had dimmed a crowd of thousands one June afternoon in 1973. As she disappeared from sight, I could swear that I saw the shadow of a big red horse following closely behind.