Strong. Bright. Ambitious. Charming. Determined. Passionate. Ahead of her time.
Those were my impressions of Penny Chenery after having the pleasure of interviewing her on a number of occasions over the last few decades. She always made herself readily available. She invariably thanked me for reaching out before I could thank her for her valuable time.
Chenery understood her place in racing history as the breeder and owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. She was understandably proud of that. On one occasion, she told of letters she often received from young women who aspired to follow her lead by finding their way in such a demanding game. They wanted to thank her for providing them with a role model.
Even in a dramatically changed world, there could be no greater role model for women today. She grew up in an age when there was no emphasis on providing women with an advanced education. She attended Columbia Business School.
She grew up in an age when women were expected to oversee the kitchen, not a business. She took over faltering Meadow Stable, a racing and breeding operation established by her father, Christopher, and ultimately justified his faith in her.
In one interview, she recalled her father telling her, “You can accomplish anything you want to, as long as you work hard and care.”
Chenery’s determination to return Meadow Stable to prominence was more a matter of the heart than business. “I love horses and I loved my dad,” she said a couple of years ago. “He was failing and my brother and sister wanted to sell the stable and I said, ‘No, not while Dad is alive.’”
Chenery knew horses, having ridden since she was 5 years old. She could be tough when she had to be. After consulting with family friend and business associate Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farm, she hired Roger Laurin to replace Casey Hayes as the farm’s long-time trainer.
He helped to make the operation profitable again before leaving to work for the Phipps family. Chenery hired Roger’s father, Lucien, to succeed him. He proved to be a brilliant choice, for Lucien understood Secretariat as well as man could ever comprehend the needs and wants of any animal.
Chenery recognized Secretariat’s potential almost from the instant he staggered to his feet. “He was a strong foal and he had an air about him. He was very self-confident,” she once recalled. “He was the boss.”
Chenery credited Laurin for turning Secretariat into a superstar, noting that he understood the need to work the horse hard if he was to bring out the best in him. She said of Big Red’s race for the ages in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, “He just ground Sham down.”
Chenery was proudest of Secretariat, of course. But her love extended to all horses. I will never forget all but bumping into her in the crowded paddock at Santa Anita before then undefeated Zenyatta, known for breaking into a tension-releasing pre-race jig of sorts, competed in the Lady’s Secret Stakes on Oct. 10, 2009. The Lady’s Secret would be a prelude to Zenyatta’s ground-breaking triumph as the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
I asked Chenery what brought her to California.
“I came to see her dance,” Chenery said of Zenyatta.
And she broke into a radiant smile that spoke of her love of the game, her love of life.