by Gary Spina
Editor’s Note: Miss Penny is now gone and we would like to remember this very special lady and the most wonderful racehorse that ever lived. This is a great interview and one of her last. She died in 2017 but was a very private person. Her horse, Secretariat or Big Red, won the Belmont Stakes and became a Triple Crown winner fifty years ago on June 9, 1973. The race is widely considered the greatest performance of the twentieth century by a North American racehorse. Secretariat became the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, and the first since Citation in 1948, a gap of 25 years.
by Gary Spina
On Saturday, May 3, 2014 – the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby – was the greatest two minutes in sports, as the racing crowd would tell you. Of course, so much goes into those two minutes, and all of it legendary. And you cannot think of the Kentucky Derby or the Triple Crown and legends without remembering Secretariat. Simply stated, there will never be another Secretariat.
In the spring of 2011, I had the privilege and honor of meeting Miss Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat and sitting down for an interview with her. The interview was published in the Caroline Progress and in Horse Talk Magazine.
I went into my old files and pulled out the article and realized that it read exactly as it happened – awkward at first and going nowhere, and me trying to capture an ending quote to wrap it up and get out of an interview I had no business being any part of. And then it suddenly changed, and I’m not sure why. But for the briefest of moments, with a hundred people partying and hovering around us, it was just the two of us alone, and Miss Penny going back in time to share a very special memory with me.
The other day, I met Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, at a fundraiser for the future Museum of the Virginia Horse. The museum will sit on what was once the Chenery family farm and stables in Doswell, Virginia. The Virginia State Fair also enjoys its prominence on the land the Chenerys called the Meadow, or the Meadow Farm – the birthplace of Riva Ridge, their first Kentucky Derby winner, and Secretariat, their legendary Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner.
But you can never bring back what’s gone — the tears and laughter, the struggles and losses, and the sweet, delicious victories too long in coming for the Chenerys who carved and scratched a glorious legacy from a backwoods wetland they cleared for paddocks, pastures, and Rolling Meadows.
Outside on the front grass, Rain Away, the great-grandson of the famed Secretariat was being paraded for a photo shoot. It was almost like watching a ghost of greatness-past. Rain Away was handsome and sleek with a big chest and big shoulders, though not the massive size and deep red color of his great-grandfather. He was eighteen years old, but he pranced like a spirited colt.
The fundraiser crowd were people of all ages – all horse lovers who had come mostly to meet Penny Chenery, who in 1973 had gambled on a big red horse to win the Triple Crown and save the family farm from bankruptcy.
It was a pretty fancy affair. Horse people are not known to do things by half. There was a cocktail hour with marvelous Hors d’Oeuvres and wait staff coming and going with trays of drinks and food. I didn’t actually see the open bar, but my contact person there kept bringing me vodka martinis. There was a fabulous dinner afterward. Great food, great people. It was all nice. But I was there to interview with Penny Chenery for a story.
Penny Chenery is 89 years old, and she gets around with the help of a cane now. And maybe it was the Jersey wise-guy in me, but as she walked by me into the reception area, I showed her I, too, walk with a cane, and before I knew it, the words came out of my mouth: “Wanna race?”
And just for a fleeting half second, Penny Chenery was a young girl again. She looked at me and her eyes came alive and a pretty smile crossed her face – pretty and ever so slightly wicked as my challenge awakened a fighting spirit that still languishes just below the surface. As far as she was concerned, the race was on! I had to beg off.
“No, no,” I said quickly, trying to smile away the challenge. “I concede. I know you’d win the race — no matter how you had to do it!” I said the last part under my breath, but I suspect she heard me.
Penny Chenery granted me an interview, and immediately I could sense the warmth and generosity of a lady of good southern stock. It was just the two of us sitting quietly near the wall, and she gave me her undivided attention. Old friends would come up and hug and kiss her and gush their enthusiasm, and of course, she was happy to see them. But to each it was always the same: “I am so happy you’re here. Thank you so much for coming. But just let me finish interviewing with this gentleman – and then there’s so much I want to talk to you about.”
Wayne Mount came by. “Remember me?” he asked her. After a quick jog of her memory, of course, she did. Wayne had been the exercise boy who was the first to break and ride Riva Ridge. With Riva Ridge, the Chenerys had their first Kentucky Derby win. That was in 1972. Even then, every breeder aspired to the Triple Crown – The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont – but in 1972, no horse had won the Triple Crown in twenty-four years, and back then it was beginning to look as if no horse could ever do it again.
Wayne Mount jogged another memory – a name from the past.
“Mert would always say of Secretariat, ‘You will read about this horse someday.’ He said it repeatedly,” Mount said.
“I had never heard that,” Penny answered. You could see a renew pride swell in her.
“Who was Mert?” I asked.
“Mert. His name was Meredith Bailes, but they called him Mert. He was our farm trainer, and he was the first to break Secretariat.”
“Was he the trainer you fired?”
“No, he was our farm trainer. I fired the racing trainer.”
I was learning, and she was graciously patient – or patiently gracious. I learned there was a farm manager named Howard Gentry who foaled all the mares. From the very beginning, Gentry was impressed with Secretariat.
Mark Atkinson came by to greet Penny. Mark’s father was Ted Atkinson who had ridden both Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal – Secretariat’s sire and dam. It was Ted Atkinson who in 1946 was the first jockey whose mounts won over one million dollars. It was Ted Atkinson who was inducted into the Virginia Jockey Hall of Fame, the National Jockey Hall of Fame, the United States Horseracing Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Horseracing Hall of Fame.
Penny was obviously happy to see both Wayne Mount and Mark Atkinson, but they could see she was interviewing and they stepped back. Both men had been as conversant with me, both as affable and polite with me as they were with Penny, and I was beginning to get a sense of the genuine warmth and camaraderie of these “horse people.”
Again and again, old friends and acquaintances came up to greet Penny Chenery, and always she was cordial, but always first and foremost she was attentive to me – gracious always even when my questions bordered on the foolish. Old friends had come from New York, Houston, Colorado – from near and far, and I was beginning to feel like an intruder in what was surely one of Penny Chenery’s last hurrahs. Still, my poor old Jersey heart so very much appreciated the courtesy and consideration she reserved for me, and I appreciated her time.
“I guess, without you, there’d have been no Secretariat,” I heard myself say to Penny. It was a foolish lead, but I was feeling the need to wrap things up, and I was searching for a good quote.
“No, there’d be no Secretariat without Riva Ridge,” Penny answered. “For thirty years my Dad had been breeding horses. His goal was to win the Derby. We had two thousand acres of land worth only about $350 thousand. I mean we were so far out in the country with no real roads in or out, so our land was not that valuable.
“Riva Ridge was our first Derby Winner. Now, for the first time, we had some real profit. Riva Ridge saved The Meadow and broke trail for Secretariat to come along after him. And every day I watched Secretariat grow in size and strength and experience. There was an excitement, a promise of great things ahead. Only Daddy never lived to see it.”
On January 3, 1973, her daddy, Christopher T. Chenery died in the 87th year of his life, leaving an estate tax of $11 million. It was a figure the “revenue” folks in Washington came up with, and I guess they were rubbing their palms together in anticipation. But $11 million dollars was money the family could not pay. Their beloved Meadow would be lost unless they sold Secretariat, not yet a three-year-old who had won most of his races in impressive fashion and was named Horse of the Year. But Penny would not sell her big red horse, not with the Triple Crown ahead.
“Where did you get your fighting spirit,” I asked her.
“From my daddy,” she said.
The rest is history and legend. For champions are born to run the great races. And there are legends among the champions. The legends run with the sun, and then they’re gone beyond a far horizon. And when they’re gone all that we have of them are the memories we hold close and deep, somewhere safe from death itself and oblivion. And that’s why they’re legends.
Finally, I asked Penny her fondest memory of the Meadow. Only now I wasn’t fishing for a quote. I loved this woman, and I just wanted her to take me back with her to “how it was.”
“Oh, I suppose one among many memories was the broodmare barn where there was perhaps twenty mares and their foals,” she said. Her eyes were opened, but Penny Chenery was looking inside herself and going back through the years.
“We always sat down to a formal dinner in the evening, and after dinner, as the day was softening into darkness, Daddy would love to take a walk down to the broodmare barn. And I’d walk with him – and as we walked, maybe we’d talk, or there were times we wouldn’t say a word because as the shadows spread across the Meadow there was nothing that needed to be said. Even now I can see just the two of us walking together. We’d go down to see the mares and their babies – and I remember the smell of the sweet hay and the sound of the mares munching away – and everything so peaceful in the quiet evening – like time standing still.
“And the barn had Dutch doors and the top of the doors would be open and the new foals – once in a while you’d see one of them just stretch his neck and get his nose over the door. It was special. It was our moment, just my daddy and me – an owner’s moment.”
I leaned close to her and said, “You just painted a picture.” I spoke in almost a whisper because the moment was too pastel soft to speak otherwise.
“I guess I did,” she said, and she smiled to herself, soft and pretty and lonesome.
Now, I’m a tough old Jersey boy — down here in Virginia close to twenty years. I’ve seen the Southland’s elegance, charm, and grace, but I’ve never seen it so tender and so beautiful and so real.
I will forever be grateful, Miss Penny, for your time and your memories.