The letters meant so much to Penny Chenery, breeder and owner of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat. They were written by ambitious girls from coast to coast, telling her she serves as a role model for them.
In an age when there was no emphasis on providing women with an advanced education, Chenery attended Columbia Business School. That gave her the background she needed as she turned around faltering Meadow Stable, a racing and breeding operation founded by her father, Christopher.
Chenery, who passed away last year at age 95, never forgot her father’s encouragement and how much that meant to her. “He told me, ‘You can accomplish anything you want to, as long as you work hard and care,’" she remembered in a 2015 interview.
She became determined to revive Meadow Stable for reasons that involved the heart more than business. “I love horses and I loved my dad,” she said. “He was failing and my brother and sister wanted to sell the stable and I said, ‘No, not while Dad is alive.’ “
Chenery embraced the role of a rare female leader in business. She knew horses, having ridden since age 5, and she was prepared to make tough decisions. She fired Casey Hayes, the farm’s long-time trainer, in 1969.
After consulting with family friend and business associate Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farm, she hired Roger Laurin to replace Hayes. He helped to make the operation profitable again before leaving to train for the Phipps family. Chenery hired Roger’s father, Lucien to succeed him.
Her wisdom and diligence paid off in a big way in 1972. Riva Ridge swept the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes while Secretariat began to fulfill his seemingly boundless potential as the champion 2-year-old.
Chenery thought highly of Secretariat from the minute he was born. “He was a strong foal and he had an air about him. He was very self-confident,” she said. “He was the boss.”
He achieved somewhat measured victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1973, each time holding sway by two-and-a-half lengths. Ron Turcotte, always believing a Triple Crown was well within reach, kept as much in reserve as possible for the Belmont Stakes.
And then he emptied the tank. That led to one of the most monumental performances in any sport, one Chenery remembers so vividly. Secretariat broke sharply this time; there was no hanging back the way he had in the first two legs. Sham was determined to make him run and make him run early. Sham gave everything he had – it was not nearly enough.
“He just ground Sham down,” Chenery said.
She could still hear Chic Anderson’s famous call, his voice rising with excitement. “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” She could still hear Lucien, always fearing the worst, saying, “Ronnie, don’t fall off.“
She could still see Secretariat, all but flying down the stretch as Turcotte peeked behind him to see the scorched competition almost fading from view.
Her pride in Secretariat was as strong in 2015 as it was when he was hailed as a Triple Crown champion. “He’s a hero without blemish,” she said. “He’s a true champion you can admire from any field.”
Chenery went on to join Martha Gerry and Allaire du Pont as the first women to be admitted as members of The Jockey Club. It was only fitting.
- Her father, Christopher Chenery, overcame childhood poverty to make a fortune in utilities.
- She served as a Red Cross volunteer who traveled to France as a Doughnut Girl to boost troop morale during World War II.
- She bred Saratoga Dew, the first New York-bred to win an Eclipse Award. Saratoga Dew was voted the top 3-year-old filly in 1992.
- She was portrayed by Diane Lane in the 2010 motion picture “Secretariat.”
- She received honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., in March 2011.
This was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.