Log In

Penny Chenery: A True Icon

by Jon White

September 21, 2017

“Look at Mrs. Tweedy! She is having the time of her life!”

Chic Anderson said that to a vast CBS television audience as viewers watched an exuberant Penny Tweedy waving her arms wildly in celebration moments after Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, a spectacular triumph that brought an end to a 25-year Triple Crown drought.

Yes, during a magical three-year period from 1971 through 1973, thanks to Riva Ridge and Secretariat, there can be no doubt that Penny Chenery, known in those years as Penny Tweedy, was having the time of her life. And hers was truly an extraordinary life, a life that the racing world sadly learned had come to an end last Saturday. Helen “Penny” Chenery passed away at the age of 95 at her Colorado home in Boulder following complications from a stroke, her family announced via publicist Leonard Lusky.

Among Chenery’s many achievements, she:

--Won the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2006.

--Became the first female president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

--Was one of the first women elected to The Jockey Club.

--Became president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.

--Was on the executive committee of the American Horse Council.

--Helped found the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

--Created the Secretariat Vox Populi Award and the Secretariat Foundation.

After I learned of Chenery’s death, I sat down and again watched the documentary “Penny & Red, the Life of Secretariat’s Owner.” I highly recommend this documentary, which can be purchased at Secretariat.com. On the back of the DVD package, it says:

“For 40 years, Penny Chenery has told the stories of her champion Thoroughbreds Riva Ridge and Secretariat. Now, she’s ready to tell her own story…From her parents’ climb out of poverty to her own emergence as the ‘First Lady of Racing,’ Penny Chenery has always been fueled by the love of horses. Weaving together previously unreleased photos and films from family archives, and intimate conversations with award-winning filmmaker John Tweedy, ‘Penny & Red’ reveals her story as never before. Special Features include digitally-remastered versions of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races and rare footage of his years at stud.”

In “Penny & Red,” Chenery spoke with candor about her marriage and her children. She also revealed just how close her relationship with Lucien Laurin had been. Laurin trained both Riva Ridge and Secretariat.

As for Chenery’s deep affection for horses, it is quite evident throughout the documentary. At one point, she talked about one aspect of all horses that she especially appreciated.

“I love horses’ eyes,” she said. “They look at you and they tell you a lot when you first encounter them.”

Her father, Christopher Chenery, owned The Meadow, a farm in Virginia. Meadow Stud bred and Meadow Stable raced Riva Ridge and Secretariat, two powerhouse colts who might well have been back-to-back Triple Crown winners if not for some bad luck in that it rained prior to one of those races.

In 1972, Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby by 3 1/4 lengths on a fast track. This achieved a longtime goal on the part of Chris Chenery ever since Meadow Stable’s Hill Prince had finished second as the 5-2 second favorite to Middleground in the 1950 Run for the Roses.

When Riva Ridge won the roses, Chris Chenery’s health had deteriorated to such an extent -- he was only semi-conscious and had not been able to speak for several months -- that there was some question whether he actually knew he had won the Kentucky Derby. But daughter Penny is convinced that, even though her father could not say so, he knew he finally had won the Derby.

He knew, Penny said, “because tears came down when the nurse told him, ‘Mr. Chenery, Mr. Chenery, your horse won the Kentucky Derby!’ I mean, yeah, he knew.”

Chris Chenery died on Jan. 3, 1973. Later that year, Meadow Stable won another Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown with Secretariat.

Years later, Penny Chenery would say that Riva Ridge “saved the farm” by coming along when he did. She said if not for Riva Ridge, they not only probably would have had to sell The Meadow, they also quite possibly would have had to sell Secretariat. As it was, to deal with the exorbitant estate taxes following Chris Chenery’s death, Penny Chenery was forced to syndicate Secretariat for future stud duty. On Feb. 26, prior to Secretariat’s first 1973 start, it was announced that he had been syndicated for a then-record $6.08 million (32 shares at $190,000 apiece).

After Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby, he was a heavy 3-10 favorite in the Preakness. But he struggled on a sloppy track at Old Hilltop and finished fourth, six lengths behind the victorious Bee Bee Bee. When Riva Ride got back on dry land in the Belmont, he romped to a seven-length victory. The following year, Secretariat swept the Triple Crown. If the track had been fast for the 1972 Preakness, it is quite possible that Riva Ridge also would have been a Triple Crown winner. And that would have meant incredible back-to-back Triple Crowns for Meadow Stable, Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte.

In 1973, while a scandal that became known as Watergate was making daily headlines, the charismatic duo of Secretariat and Penny Tweedy took the nation on quite a ride.

Because Secretariat was by Bold Ruler, many questioned whether he possessed the stamina required to win the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. Secretariat silenced those 1 1/4-mile skeptics when he not only won the Run for the Roses by 2 1/2 lengths, he registered a final time of 1:59 2/5 to break Northern Dancer’s track record by three-fifths of a second. All these years later, Secretariat still holds that track record.

After becoming the first horse in the history of the Kentucky Derby to run each quarter-mile faster than the one before (:25 1/5 :24, :23 4/5, :23 2/5, :23), Secretariat won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in unorthodox fashion. Going from last to first with an electrifying burst of speed on the clubhouse turn, he again won by 2 1/2 lengths. It is quite rare for a horse to go so fast so early and still have enough gas left in the tank late to win any race, let alone a major event like the Preakness.


Secretariat died on Oct. 4, 1989. To help prove just how great he was, 13 years after his death, Secretariat broke the stakes record for the Preakness.

Thanks in large measure to the tireless efforts of Penny Chenery, Secretariat now holds the record for having run the fastest Preakness in history with a final time of 1:53 flat. But he would not get credit for this record until 2012.

The final time for the 1973 Preakness originally was posted as 1:55, but everyone knew at once that was wrong. In fact, there had been an electric timer malfunction.

Daily Racing Form’s highly respected clocker, Gene “Frenchy” Schwartz, and another Racing Form clocker, Frank Robinson, told the Form’s executive columnist, Joe Hirsch, that they had both timed Secretariat in 1:53 2/5, which would have broken Canonero II’s track record of 1:54.

In the Secretariat book “Big Red of Meadow Stable,” originally published shortly after Secretariat’s retirement in 1973, William Nack wrote of the final time for the 1973 Preakness: “The discrepancy would never be resolved, though the proof would be overwhelming in favor of the faster clocking. Pimlico officials, conceding that the electric timer had malfunctioned, would later accept the time belatedly reported to them by the track’s official timer, E.T. McClean, who claimed he had timed Secretariat in 1:54 2/5. Later still, behind the impetus of handicapper Steve Davidowitz, the Maryland Racing Commission held a hearing on the matter and listened to testimony presented by CBS-TV, among others, that Secretariat had beaten Canonero’s track record…But despite the time reported by two veteran Racing Form clockers, and despite the evidence presented by CBS-TV, the racing commission would finally decide to keep McClean’s time as official.”

For the first and only time in the history of the Racing Form, it decided to note for the record its disagreement with an official clocking in a chart. In the Racing’s Form’s Preakness chart, under the official race time of 1:54, it states: “Daily Racing Form Time 1:53 2/5 New Track Record.”

Canonero II’s time of 1:54 in 1971 stood as the Preakness record until Gate Dancer’s 1:53 3/5 clocking in 1984. And then, in 1985, Tank’s Prospect posted a record Preakness time of 1:53 2/5, a clocking matched by Louis Quatorze in 1996 and Curlin in 2007.

Tank’s Prospect, Louis Quatorze and Curlin shared the 1:53 2/5 record for the fastest Preakness in history until the outcome of a special hearing held by the Maryland Racing Commission on June 19, 2012. Penny Chenery and Tom Chuckas, the president of Pimlico, had requested the meeting in order to present evidence using modern technology in concert with videotape of the race that they felt proved that Secretariat’s final time was faster than 1:54 2/5.

The evidence was so compelling that the commissioners deliberated for only about 10 minutes before announcing the vote had been 7-0 to change Secretariat’s official Preakness time to 1:53, a stakes record. Thus, a longstanding injustice in Thoroughbred racing was at long last rectified.

When the Maryland Racing Commission announced its decision to change Secretariat’s time to a Preakness record 1:53, Chenery, 90 at the time, could not contain her pleasure with the decision. She let out a cheer.

“People don’t like to be told something that, by implication, they got wrong,” Chenery was quoted as saying in a Baltimore Sun story written by Chris Korman. “So we had to be pretty delicate in presenting this. I just had to hope that they would listen to the evidence and not think about the precedent of overturning history. But we see it all the time in sports now. It’s accepted, with replays. It’s completely consistent with the way sports are conducted now, that we use all the analytical tools possible.”

Prior to the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Secretariat had become such a big story that he appeared on the cover of three national magazines -- Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Most people were anticipating a Triple Crown sweep, as evidenced by Secretariat’s 1-10 odds in the Belmont. Still, a few disbelievers wondered if perhaps the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont would prove to be a distance too far for a son of Bold Ruler to succeed.

“If you are looking for a place where it might be won or lost today, you might try that last quarter of a mile,” Jack Whitaker said rather ominously during the CBS telecast.

Later in the broadcast, before the race, Haywood Hale Broun interviewed Penny Tweedy and members of her family.

Mrs. Tweedy, you are confident, I am sure,” Broun said at the end of the interview.

“No, I’m scared to death,” was Mrs. Tweedy’s honest response, accompanied by a hearty nervous laugh.

Well, as it turned out, not the mighty Sports Illustrated jinx nor the 1 1/2-mile distance stopped Secretariat from winning the Belmont in what turned out to be the tour de force of all tour de forces in modern American racing.

On the far turn, while Secretariat was in the process of opening a huge lead, Chic Anderson memorably described it during his call of the race on CBS by saying Secretariat was “moving like a tremendous machine.” By the time Secretariat reached the top of the stretch, it was obvious he was going to win. The only question remaining was by how far. All the way down the lane, Secretariat did not let up. Turcotte kept pumping his arms on the handsome chestnut colt to the very end instead of having Secretariat win under wraps.

Years ago, when I talked to Turcotte about the Belmont Stakes, he admitted that he did not ease up on Secretariat during part of the Belmont because he felt Secretariat had been cheated out of a track record in the Preakness. Turcotte said he did not want to take any chances of that happening again.

“Were you looking at the timer in the infield during the final furlong of the Belmont?” I asked Turcotte.

“Oh, I was,” he replied. “I was definitely looking at the timer. I was looking at the teletimer because I was not racing against any horse. All I was racing against was the clock at that point.”

The clock? Secretariat smashed it to smithereens, so to speak, with his 2:24 clocking shattering Gallant Man’s track record set in 1957 by 2 3/5 seconds. Secretariat’s 2:24 remains the fastest 1 1/2 miles ever run by a horse on dirt.

I, like many others, was extremely pleased when Secretariat in 2012 at long last was credited for having run the fastest Preakness in history. But I also am glad that E.T. McClean goofed in terms of Secretariat’s initial official Preakness time. Why? Because if Secretariat had been recognized with setting a track record at Pimlico, as he should have been, there is a very good chance that Turcotte would have taken him in hand during the last part of the Belmont. Secretariat merely would have coasted home to win by a considerably smaller margin than he did. McClean’s blunder was a key reason why Secretariat won the Belmont not by something like 15 or 20 lengths, but rather by a ridiculous 31 lengths, a performance that many regard as the greatest ever seen by a Thoroughbred at an American track.

As a result of the 2012 decision to change Secretariat’s official final Preakness time to 1:53 flat, he currently is credited with having run the fastest Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in history, a phenomenal accomplishment.


Tributes to Penny Chenery understandably came pouring out from the Thoroughbred racing community following the news of her death.

From Chris Kay, president and CEO of NYRA: “Penny Chenery was a true pioneer in our sport and, on behalf of the women and men of the New York Racing Association, we mourn her loss and offer our condolences to the Chenery family.”

From Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association: “Whether as the owner of Secretariat, the brilliant Triple Crown champion she campaigned nearly a half-century ago, or as a leader and ambassador for the sport she loved, Penny Chenery led an extraordinary life that touched Thoroughbred racing fans and others in a unique and personal way. Thankfully, her legacy will live on for many generations to come.”

From Kevin Flannery, president of Churchill Downs: “Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby family join all in Thoroughbred racing in mourning the passing of Penny Chenery. Fans embraced her as the owner of Secretariat, her legendary Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner and American sports icon, along with her ongoing role as the protector of his legacy and lifelong supporter of causes that promote the health and welfare of retired Thoroughbreds. We at Churchill Downs also fondly recall her 1972 Kentucky Derby victory with Riva Ridge and other occasions when horses carried her famed blue-and-white blocked silks in races beneath our Twin Spires. Mrs. Chenery’s wonderful life had a deep and lasting impact on all in Thoroughbred racing and to countless individuals beyond our industry.”

Secretariat and Chenery both touched countless lives.

I recently worked as a steward at Ferndale with Will Meyers and Paul Atkinson. I learned that one of Meyers’ fondest memories in racing had to do with Secretariat. Between races one afternoon in the Ferndale stewards’ stand, I asked Meyers what different tracks he had worked at during his career as a racing official. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he had worked at Arlington Park in the early 1970s.

“I was a placing judge at Arlington Park when Secretariat ran there in his next race after winning the Triple Crown,” Meyers said. “As a placing judge, I happened to be the one who put Secretariat’s number on the board as the winner of that race. I considered it an honor. I will never forget it.”

Amy Zimmerman was in grade school when Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Secretariat and Chenery inspired Zimmerman to seek a career in racing. Zimmerman has said that except for her parents, Chenery was probably the person who has had the greatest influence on her life.

Zimmerman, who through her involvement in racing would become friends with Chenery, currently is vice president of business development at Santa Anita. It was Zimmerman who built HRTV from the ground up. She has received numerous awards (including the Penny Chenery Distinguished Woman in Racing Award in 2011) for her work in network television. In recent years, Zimmerman would go to Colorado in the winter to tape a segment with Chenery in association with the Secretariat Vox Populi Award.

Chenery founded the Secretariat Vox Populi (Voice of the People) Award in 2010 to acknowledge the significant contributions that superstar mare Zenyatta had made to further the interests of racing following her historic and immensely popular victory in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Presented to Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, in a winner’s circle ceremony at Santa Anita on Feb. 5, 2011, the inaugural Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner was personally chosen by Chenery. In subsequent years, the winner has been determined by a distinguished panel of racing industry representatives in conjunction with an online vote.

The Secretariat Vox Populi Award has been won by Zenyatta (2010), Rapid Redux (2011), Paynter (2012), Mucho Macho Man (2013), California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015) and California Chrome (2016).

As for what yours truly was doing when Secretariat became a Triple Crown winner, I was a senior in high school. I wrote this about Secretariat in my high school newspaper, the Lewis and Clark Journal, on March 22, 1973:

“Going out on a limb and living dangerously, I dare say that 1973 will be a historic year as Secretariat will become the first Triple Crown winner since the great Citation in 1948.”

Twenty years later, while in my first year as a television commentator at Santa Anita, I interviewed Chenery between races at the walking ring. After the interview, I showed her what I had written about Secretariat while I was in high school.

“My goodness, you wrote that in your high school paper?” she said. “That’s marvelous.”

Then she added with a laugh, “I sure am glad you were right!”