After the great Secretariat died at age 19, it was estimated his heart was twice as large as that of the average racehorse. It’s believed this contributed to his fantastic racing career, including his 31 length Belmont Stakes win.
When Secretariat’s owner, Helen “Penny” Chenery, passed away September 16 at age 95, thoroughbred racing lost another “big-hearted” champion. Chenery was known throughout the sport for her unwavering support of both racing and its fans.
Chenery became active in racing after her mother passed away and her father, thoroughbred owner and breeder Christopher Chenery, became disabled. Despite resistance from some members of her family, Chenery stepped into her father’s shoes to keep Meadow Stable operating. Her love of horses and the training she’d received as one of twenty women alongside 800 men at Columbia Business School both contributed to her subsequent success.
During the first year of Chenery’s stewardship, Meadow Stable’s Riva Ridge won the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Just coming up in the barn at the same time was two-year-old Secretariat, who would be nicknamed “Big Red.”
Both Secretariat and Chenery embraced the limelight when he conquered the Triple Crown in 1973. As Chenery recalled, Secretariat loved the camera. “He heard the click, his ears went up, he was ‘on’…somehow I was the same.” While Big Red captured hearts by winning races, Chenery’s natural enthusiasm and good natured rapport with the media and the public created even more fans.
Long after Secretariat’s retirement, Chenery continued to be active in racing. Along with Martha Gerry and Allaire du Pont, she became one of the first female members of the Jockey Club. From 1976 to 1984, Chenery served as president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Her presence encouraged women to enter the primarily male-dominated sport as owners, trainers, breeders and diehard fans. In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures brought the inspirational story to the big screen when it released “Secretariat” starring Diane Lane as Chenery.
Upon receiving the 2005 Eclipse Award of Merit, Chenery urged her fellow owners and breeders to never forget the fans: “Respond to the people who write to you, sign every autograph…by participating and showing people how much you love racing, you make racing stronger.” Following her own advice, in 2010 Chenery established the Vox Populi (“Voice of the People”) Award to let the public name the horse they considered the year’s top contender. Recipients have included Zenyatta, California Chrome and Grand Slam champ American Pharoah. Chenery made a point of attending the Vox Populi presentations in person.
As recently as January 2016, Chenery was at Santa Anita Park signing autographs with Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Victor Espinoza. Her blue eyes shining brightly, Chenery acknowledged fans’ enthusiasm and spent time answering their questions. The Sport of Kings, and the sporting world, has lost a truly great ambassador. A public memorial service for Chenery will be held at Keeneland on October 9.