by Jeremy Plonk
September 18, 2017
The passing of Penny Chenery sent many down memory lane this weekend as the Sport of Kings lost its long-running Queen of the Turf. Many knew her well; and even more had a passing acquaintance with her in the industry, simply because Ms. Chenery made herself available to most everyone. I fit into the latter category, and have kept a picture more than 20 years now in which I sport a guffawed smile next to her. She had that ability to strike awe.
The many tributes and obituaries written about Penny Chenery speak to her accomplishments. We recall, of course, Riva Ridge and Secretariat on the racetrack. No one will forget the television images of her waving her arms over head at Belmont. She went on to lead and chair many organizations that made life better for those in the racing game, including retired racehorses.
No doubt when you talk about the Mount Rushmore of women in Thoroughbred racing, the first carving is the profile of Penny Chenery. That got me thinking this morning about who might join her on such a (pun intended) monumental list. The first three of four in the Mount Rushmore came to mind in about 10 seconds. Penny Chenery, Charlsie Cantey and Julie Krone. It seems almost impossible to me to argue against their inclusion.
Cantey went from exercise rider to the face of horse racing on television over the span of more than four different decades from the 1970s through the 2000s. She broke down barriers and provided a southern comfort of sorts to viewers, many of whom can thank her for their introduction to the sport through ABC Sports and later NBC.
Krone, without peer, still ranks the most successful female competitor the sport has ever known. The Hall of Fame jockey was the first to win a Triple Crown race, as well as a Breeders’ Cup event. Her 3,700 victories and $90 million in mount earnings set the bar for future generations to pursue.
But Mount Rushmore honors four – presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt – and it’s the Roosevelt slot that always brings up the most debate. When it comes to the leading ladies in Thoroughbred racing, you get a very contentious discussion. Several names come to mind, but none tower over the rest like Chenery, Cantey and Krone.
Jockey Rosie Naparavnik appeared destined for that spot, but she hit the pause button after the 2014 Breeders’ Cup and has left her subsequent chapters “to be determined.” Trainer Jenine Sahadi also had promising, but fleeting elite-level success, winning Breeders’ Cup Sprints in 1996 and 1997, winning more than 400 races, including the Santa Anita Derby.
Kim Hammond has won more races than any other female trainer, but her 2,000+ victories have come rather anonymously in the Midwest. Linda Rice probably has the highest profile of any female trainer today, given her Grade 1 success on the NYRA circuit. Janet Elliot was the first female trainer to reach the Hall of Fame, but did her work on the Steeplechase circuit.
The fourth Mount Rushmore of racing’s leading ladies remains open for debate beyond the talk of jockeys and trainers.
Donna Brothers enjoyed success in the saddle and has gone on to succeed Charlsie Cantey on the NBC broadcast team, as well as showcase her talents as a businesswoman and owner with the Starlight Racing and Starladies syndicates. Speaking of owners, Claiborne Farms’ Dell Hancock would merit consideration. She and her family members have operated one of Kentucky’s most successful and historic breeding and racing operations of all-time.
Georganne Hale should also deserve a long look at this list. The racing secretary of the Maryland Jockey Club has been in the game more than 30 years as an executive. She’s been through the DeFrancis and Stronach eras as a mainstay for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Finally, I’d consider a quartet of esteemed media members.
On the print side, Maryjean Wall’s work in the Lexington Herald-Leader literally was the industry standard for decades. She won 3 Eclipse Awards, was the first female member of the National Turf Writers Association and in 2016 was inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Media Honor Roll. If Maryjean Wall is the 1 in Kentucky print coverage of horse racing, then Jennie Rees is the 1-A. The longtime Louisville Courier-Journal turf writer was the first female inducted into the Hall of Fame’s Media Honor Roll, preceding Ms. Wall by 2 years. She won Eclipse Awards in 4 different decades and remains a vibrant communications force in the industry today.
Finally, television would not be the same without the contributions of Amy Zimmerman and Caton Bredar. Zimmerman not only directed the creation of HRTV, but she’s been a television executive with Santa Anita for more than 30 years. In addition, she’s been an associate and features producer for NBC Sports’ racing coverage since the late 1980s. And, finally, I’m a little biased with Bredar, who has been my Night School co-host all seven seasons of the national online fan education program. Of course, she’s best known with her decades of work in racing television both on-track and at the network level. Bredar has been a leading voice for the horseplayer as well as horsemen and horsewomen.