In the spring of 1973 Helen“Penny” Chenery set sail on a voyage with a strapping reddish racehorse. Little did she know then that their names would be forever inseparable. This intertwined identity lasted 44 years, from the time SECRETARIAT was ordained by the racing gods in 73′ until Penny passed away at age 95 in 2017. The magic has resonated more than a quarter-century after the great horse’s death in 1989 — and it continues to this day.
“In 1973, the country was in an emotional slump,” Chenery wrote in the New York Times. “It was the time of the Watergate and Nixon scandals, and people were looking for something wholesome to admire. I’ve always felt that because he was a chestnut horse and our stable colors were blue and white, he was running in red, white and blue.”
Insofar as capitalizing on the never fading devotion her horse engendered, she was generous but discerning in how his image was utilized, spread and shared. The annual SECRETARIAT Festival in Paris, Ky., home of SECRETARIAT’s Claiborne Farm stallion career, was something to revel in and support. While Chenery did not star in the 2010 Disney movie SECRETARIAT, a paean to the great red horse, it seems that she could have.
SECRETARIAT was merely spectacular in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but he was surreal in winning the Belmont Stakes. The factual numbers were difficult to take aboard emotionally — a 31-length margin of victory in record time. Juxtaposed against a quarter-century of Triple Crown disappointments (CITATION 1948), SECRETARIAT that day cloaked himself in an aura that tarried in the heart, despite a few defeats sprinkled among a sequence of additional satisfying victories.
Chenery sold her stable (Meadow Stud) in 1979 but remained a respected presence in racing. Along with her various leadership roles in the sport, she was one of the first three women admitted to The Jockey Club in 1983 along with Martha Gerry and Allaire du Pont. Chenery never gave much thought to being a woman in the male-dominated sport.
“I did all the things I did out of instinct,” she said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012. “I was not trying to be a role model.”
In 2005, Chenery moved to Colorado to be closer to her children. The following year, she was presented the Eclipse Award of Merit for her contributions to thoroughbred racing. Even though it was not her intent, Chenery had indeed become a role model and one of thoroughbred racing’s finest ambassadors.