byLizzy Youngling| Sep 22, 2017
This week, the equestrian community at large lost an icon of the horse racing world: Penny Chenery, the first woman to breed and own a Triple Crown Winner. At 3 years old, her stunning chestnut colt, Secretariat, galloped through the finish line at the Belmont Park Race Track 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. In doing so, he not only won the 1973 Triple Crown—becoming only the 9th horse to complete the feat at that time—he also won a lasting place in the hearts of the American public.
Cheering him on was the woman who would herself go on to become a pioneer for women in the sport of horse racing, though for the first half her life, she seemed an unlikely candidate. The youngest of three children, Penny’s life changed forever when her mother died and her father became ill in 1968. With little knowledge of the sport, the then-housewife and mother of four took over the management of her parents’ racing facility, Meadow Stable. Her goal: to fulfill her father’s dream of winning the Kentucky Derby—but she and “Big Red” would do far more than that.
As one of the fastest racehorses to ever live, Secretariat shot to stardom and graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and Time. His life story was later documented in the Disney film, Secretariat—a feel-good movie that inspired non-racing and racing fans, alike.
Although Penny sadly passed away on September 16th at the age of 95 at her home in Colorado, she will be remembered not just for her accomplishments, but for her strength, dignity, and incredible spirit. Here are four lessons we can all learn from Penny’s long and illustrious life and career.
1. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Penny bred Secretariat after losing a coin toss to Ogden Phipps of Wheatley Stables. The coin toss between Penny and Phipps determined who would have the first choice of foals from two Meadow mares, Somethingroyal and Hasty Matelda, which were both bred to Phibbs’ renowned stallion, Bold Ruler. Held in the fall of 1969, Phipps won the coin toss, and Penny was left with the Somethingroyal x Bold Ruler foal born on March 30, 1970. Although Penny lost the coin toss, she was the winner in the long run: that foal was Secretariat.
2. Never forget your roots.
Penny developed a love for horses from her father, Christopher Chenery. Chenery bought Meadow Stable in 1936 and developed it into a racing and breeding operation. After graduating from Smith College, Penny lost touch with her equestrian side and worked for the Red Cross in Europe during World War II. After marrying John Tweedy in 1949, the couple moved to Denver, where they raised four kids. Once her father became incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease in 1967, Penny, along with her brother Hollis and sister Margaret, were determined to maintain Meadow Stable’s financial stability.
For this week’s Throwback Thursday, here are a few photos (swipe right) from the BloodHorse Library of Penny Chenery, the First Lady of Racing, and her Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Click the link in bio to see more and order prints from the BloodHorse Photo Store. Additional 📸 by Anne M. Eberhardt/@takechargelady and Churchill Downs/Kinetic Corporation
3. Always push the limits.
Penny challenged gender norms by achieving great success in the male-dominated industry of horse racing. She became the first female to breed a Triple Crown winner and was given the nickname, ‘The First Lady of Racing’. In 1983, Penny became one of the first women to be admitted as a member of the Jockey Club, the breed registry for Thoroughbred horses in the United States. As a result, in 2006, Penny also became the first woman to receive the Eclipse Award of Merit, the highest honor in the Thoroughbred racing industry.
4. It takes a village.
Behind every great racehorse, there’s an even greater support network. Although Penny was the voice of Secretariat, there was an even larger team behind the colt supporting his career. Lucien Laurin trained Secretariat to run at his best, while Ron Turcotte jockeyed Big Red through the finish line towers. Behind the scenes, Eddie Sweat, Big Red’s groom, took care of the chestnut gelding after his grueling workouts and races. Each person involved with Secretariat had a large impact on his career and was a part of the reason why he was so successful.
-Photo collage credits (clockwise from left): Charles LeBlanc/flickr.com; the Chenery family; Banamine/flickr.com.
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