In her acceptance of the Award of Merit at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, in January of 2006, Penny Chenery shared the story of the day she learned the lesson that would mark the rest of her racing life.
The scene was the 1950 Kentucky Derby. Chenery, 28 at the time, was there with her father, Christopher Chenery, proprietor of Virginia's Meadow Stud. As they watched stable star Hill Prince parade to the post, Penny's heart swelled with excitement.
"I knew he would win," Chenery said. "He was supposed to win."
And then he didn't, finishing second to Middleground. Penny was crushed.
"My dad looked at me crying and told me to stop," Chenery recalled. "He said, 'Don't embarrass the horse.'"
Chris Chenery's admonition should be a part of every license application. From time eternal, it has been human behavior that has brought shame to the racing game, not equine. Two decades later, when Penny Chenery was called upon to save Meadow Stud, her father's words still echoed. Chenery was given the rare opportunity to be the public voice of the era's most popular Thoroughbred, and she didn't dare mess it up.
She didn't. For the better part of five decades, until her death this week at 95, Chenery carried the flame of Secretariat's fame far and wide. Even after his death, in 1989, when there was no longer a Big Red of Meadow Stud to brighten the day, Chenery continued to nurse along the legend, ever deferring to the horse.
The dynamic was simple. Penny Chenery embodied the memory of Secretariat, and the memory of Secretariat was the gold standard of the sport. He retired from racing at the end of 1973, having become the ninth winner of the Triple Crown and a two-time Horse of the Year. His image had adorned the covers of national magazines more accustomed to world leaders and ballplayers. Befitting a king of the breed, Secretariat even went on to become a stallion of some influence, boasting sons and daughters like Lady's Secret, Risen Star, General Assembly, Pancho Villa, Tinners Way, and Terlingua.
Because of her background as Chris Chenery's horsewise daughter, Penny Chenery was keenly aware of Secretariat's unique place in the history of the sport, and how the perpetuation of his name could benefit the game at large.
Chenery leveraged Secretariat's name to establish the Secretariat Foundation and its Vox Populi Award. She was on the front line lending her cred to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation for veterinary studies, the American Horse Council, and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Her keynotes were plentiful and entertaining. She signed every photo or program shoved in her direction. If Penny said no to something, it probably was because she couldn't be in two places at once.
In 35 years worth of Eclipse Awards, Chenery was the first woman to stand alone on stage honored with the Award of Merit. Before that, she was the first woman to campaign a Triple Crown winner without the need to defer to a spouse. In 1983, Chenery joined Martha Gerry and Allaire duPont as the first women admitted to The Jockey Club.
Such historic signposts speak as much to the glacial pace of gender equality in Thoroughbred racing as they do to the accomplishments of the women honored. Since 2006, Alice Chandler, Dell Hancock, and Marylou Whitney have stood in the Eclipse Award of Merit spotlight, while 14 women have been added to The Jockey Club membership roles in the 35 years since Penny, Allaire, and Martha were welcomed.
"I wish I had another 20 years to try and put together something I could be proud of," Chenery said in her 2013 biographical documentary "Penny & Red," produced by her son John Tweedy.
She did not get that chance, but she made the most of the time she had. In the end, Penny Chenery was all about touching people with her love of the racehorse and the racing game.
"It's not about me," she would insist. "It's about the horse. It's about the sport. I love racing and want to share it with others."
Those of us lucky enough to brush close to Chenery caught bracing doses of her flinty intelligence, her self-effacing humor, and her reflexive knack of saying just the right thing.
Ann Moss, of Zenyatta fame, spent the afternoon in Chenery's glow on the occasion of the mare's Vox Populi Award in 2010, and came away with an everlasting moment.
"She said to me, 'I had the boy, and you have the girl,' " Moss said. "I was like, wow, that was such an honor."
A note in the mail, a phone call from out of the blue, warm acknowledgment in a crowded room - Chenery was old world adept at making sure there was never a barrier of wealth, class, or celebrity between her and the racing people who filled her life with so much happiness. At the end, she had her watercolors, her beautiful home in Colorado, and her grandchildren for comfort. Hopefully, she also knew that she had the everlasting gratitude of a the sport she had bequeathed such treasures.
"She meant so much to so many people," said Amy Zimmerman, the Eclipse Award winning TV producer and close Chenery friend. "She was a person you kind of thought would always be there."
In many ways, she will be.