Remembering Penny Chenery

September 25, 2017 03:29pm
Penny Chenery 4

Many recognize her from the 2011 movie “Secretariat.” Others remember her from the 1973 Triple Crown campaign. Others simply know her as “Secretariat’s owner.” Regardless of the relationship, one thing is for sure; September 16, 2017 was a day of grief for anybody familiar with the name Penny Chenery.

Helen “Penny” Chenery, otherwise known as the First Lady of Racing or, occasionally, the owner of Secretariat and Riva Ridge, was 95 years old when she died in her Boulder, Colorado home. Immediately after her family released the news, a wave of total devastation swept the horse racing world. It was as though a light atop a hill had burnt out, and there was nothing that even came close to being able to replace it. Because that’s exactly what Penny was: a light to all those in the sport to which she had dedicated her life.

My first experience with horse racing was not some glamorous feat, but it was, in fact, due completely to the First Lady of Racing. In late 2010, my grandmother suggested that the two of us go see a new movie that had just been released; of course, ten-year-old, horse-obsessed me was not about to pass up the opportunity to see a movie about my favorite animal. With that, the pair of us drove the forty five minute drive to the nearest theater, bought our tickets, and picked seats towards the middle of the theater. I went in with little (if any) knowledge about the Sport of Kings, and hardly a desire to learn much more about it; in fact, this was the sport that my eight-year-old self had solemnly sworn to hate, due to the fact that the jockeys whipped their horses. Despite this, I went into the movie with an open mind, and came out with a totally new perspective, one that would change the course of my life from then on out. The day after I exited that movie theater, I begged my mom to drive me to the nearest Wal-Mart so I could buy Bill Nack’s “Secretariat.” If only I had known what would have followed. And had Penny Chenery not taken that risky move in the middle of 1970, I wouldn’t have had that chance.

After the first few chapters of Nack’s book, I quickly picked out a figure after whom I’d shape my horse racing goals and future. She was a woman who was incredibly smart, unbelievably cunning, and had a way with both words and horses that I instantly admired. A few Google searches told me that Penny Chenery lived in Boulder, Colorado, and a couple more searches gave me a fan mail address. As quickly as I could jot down my varying thoughts concerning horse racing, I sealed the envelope shut and sent it on its way. Despite being told by my mother to not expect a hasty reply, every day after sending it I walked out to our mailbox, hoping to see the special letter. It was about a month later that my efforts were significantly rewarded.

As soon as I saw the envelope addressed to me, I sprinted up to the house and tore open the letter. Inside, I saw a postcard of the 1973 finish line of the Marlboro Cup, where Secretariat overtook Riva Ridge to win by open lengths. “My current favorite is Animal Kingdom,” Penny had written in response to my saying that Black Caviar was my current favorite. “Too bad that he got hurt. We’ll see by the end of the year who is the better horse of 2011.”

Whether or not either of us ended up being right was of no concern to me. What mattered was the lasting connection I had felt that was formed between me and a woman as legendary as Penny. Every time the name of Black Caviar or Animal Kingdom comes up, I remember the generosity of Penny Chenery along with the graciousness she showed by answering an eleven year old’s chicken-scratch-for-handwriting letter. Looking back on this, it’s with a firm faith that I can say Penny Chenery will continue to live on for as long as horse racing is a sport. After all, a sport is nothing without its First Lady.


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Meet Madison Jackson

An avid racing fan since age 10, when she first saw the movie "Secretariat," Jackson has been passionate about diving deeper into the sport, whether that be by going to various racetracks or developing contacts with those in the racing industry.

She began writing about racing in seventh grade, when a 500-word writing assignment turned into a published book. But her proudest writing accomplishment came in 2015, on a Facebook comment about the racehorse Runhappy, which earned her two tickets to the 2015 Breeders' Cup and the opportunity to hoist the Breeders' Cup Sprint garland over her shoulders.

Jackson lives in Northeast Indiana, where she keeps a variety of animals, including her two off-track Thoroughbreds, Rayonnant and Swinging Chango, her mini horse and her Paint. In the fall of 2018, she began attending the University of Louisville, where she's majoring in Equine Business Management.

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