Friends, Family Celebrate Penny Chenery at Keeneland

LegendsContent provided by Blood-horse
Kate Tweedy speaks at the memorial service for her mother, Penny Chenery, on Oct. 8 at Keeneland. (Anne Eberhardt/BloodHorse)

A large audience packed the Keeneland sales pavilion Oct. 9 to remember the life of Helen "Penny" Chenery, the "First Lady of Thoroughbred Racing," who died Sept. 16 at age 95.

Remembered by many as an ambassador for the sport, a pioneer for women in racing, a fierce competitor, a charming friend, a thoughtful mentor, and an icon for many racing fans, the memorial service had a number of speakers share their favorite memories of Chenery, who campaigned legendary 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

NBC reporter and analyst Donna Brothers started by saying that she had admired Chenery even before she met her, especially for being a trailblazer for women in the sport.

"Secretariat and Penny have been a fabric of horse racing since my earliest memory," Brothers said. "I always thought she handled herself remarkably well for a woman who was predominantly in a man's world."

Chenery's son John Tweedy spoke next, recalling memories of his mother and saying how overwhelmed and grateful his family is for all of the support and outpouring of love after Chenery died. He recalled various memories of his mother, including some from when she took him around the racetrack.

"When she showed me around the racetrack, she didn't see people divided by class ... she saw people united by a love of the horse," he said.

Next was 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew's co-owner Sally Hill, who became a friend of Chenery's when Seattle Slew was running.

"I know Penny wasn't thrilled that another Triple Crown winner came along so quickly. But she was exceptionally nice to take me under her wing," she said.

Viewing Chenery as a mentor, Hill cherished the advice given to her from the owner of Secretariat.

"Take all of your friends and all of your family along for the ride because if you do, you'll have such wonderful memories from it," Hill said, recalling one such piece of wisdom Chenery gave her about Seattle Slew's 1977 campaign. 

And Hill shared another life lesson from Chenery, which received a few laughs from the crowd.

"Make sure you get a facelift just before you need one," she recalled her friend telling her.

Citing Chenery and Secretariat as a reason she got involved in racing was NBC Sports producer and Santa Anita Park director of broadcasting Amy Zimmerman. Zimmerman affectionately referred to herself and the women who were inspired by Chenery as "Penny's girls."

NBC sportscaster Kenny Rice shared his favorite memories of Chenery and her warm personality.

"She had the rare ability to make a casual acquaintance, a stranger, feel like the most important person in the room," Rice said. "I believe she would have been the first female president had she chosen to run, but then she had too much honor and dignity to get involved in politics."

Exercise rider Charlie Davis recalled Chenery's tenacity and competitive nature, especially around the stable.

"She was like my mom. When you tell my mom she can't do something, she was going to do it and do it better than you can," he said. "She comes into a man's world and she beat the man. She didn't beat the man, she destroyed him."

Dell Hancock of Claiborne Farm, which put together Secretariat's stallion syndication and is where the champion stood and is buried, thanked Chenery and her family for a lifetime of support and trust in handling Secretariat.

Retired jockey Pat Day shared a letter from Ron Turcotte, the rider of Secretariat and Chenery’s 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge among others.

"Penny was a champion and a competitor, and she pushed all of us to do better. For that and for a chance to ride Meadow Stable's best horses, I'm forever thankful," he read.

Day said he was in awe of Chenery's dedication to racing fans and her kind attitude.

"I was always amazed at the way she treated herself and her fans," he said. "The line (at the Secretariat Festival) would be out the door and she would make the time to greet each one."

The last speaker was Chenery's daughter Kate Tweedy, who shared a side of her mother not always seen, including her zest for life that was apparent even in her final days.

"That might has well been her mantra," Tweedy said. "If you're going to do something, make the most of it."

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