A Centennial to Remember

A new and revised edition of Penny Chenery’s 100th birthday celebration. And you’re all invited. ~ Steve Haskin

A Centennial to Remember

By Steve Haskin

The party is about to begin. The guests, both two-legged and four-legged, are arriving to celebrate Penny Chenery’s 100th birthday. The room is decked out in blue and white balloons, and hanging on the walls are dozens of racing photos, including the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. It is a time for nostalgia, for remembering a great lady, who in 1973 was The Queen in a sport of kings and later became its greatest ambassador.

One by one, the guests arrive and present Penny with a birthday card, inscribed with their birthday wishes.

“Dear Penny, first off, thanks for losing that coin flip and for being the greatest press agent a star like me could ask for. And thanks for all the comforts in life you provided, especially supplying me with the most dazzling harem a handsome stud could ask for. I know I rewarded you and helped make you famous, but it only equals what you did for me. Yes, there were some mistakes made with me and Riva, but this was all new to you and you learned from them. All in all, it was a magical journey and we should take great pride in knowing that we raised the equine genus up a notch and created the standard by which all others are measured. It’s amazing that half a century later I still hear my name mentioned on TV by non-racing people as a symbol of greatness. And I never told you this, but I did see you flailing your arms wildly as I came down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. Heck, I had nothing else to do. What a moment that was. I’m sorry I left you so soon, but, unlike the racetrack, there are things in life we have no control over. I did leave three amazing daughters and mothers who changed the face of the breeding industry. A brief thank you to my girls Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame for keeping making my – and your dad’s — bloodlines so dominant. In closing, hopefully, one day they’ll find a cure for laminitis. And I do miss those Certs breath mints at Claiborne Farm and all those wonderful visits from my fans. Now that we are reunited on this day, and I see my name in the pedigrees of so many top-class horses, I want to take this time to wish you a very Happy 100th Birthday and thank you for the legacies we both left.”

— Your number one glamour boy, Secretariat

“Dear Penny, it gives me great pleasure to return to wish you a Happy 100th birthday. I remember those early days when you had that funny-looking hairdo and no one knew who you were. I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about being cast aside and living in the shadow of you know who (I still can’t say his name), but deep down we both know who always remained number one in your heart and who really helped bring Meadow Stud back to national prominence. I even forgive you for allowing the Disney people to cut me out of that movie, as if I never existed. But I understand why they had to do it. If they hadn’t, the movie would have been about me. You and Lucien learned a lot from the admitted mistakes you made with me after the Triple Crown, and I’m glad at least for that, although I would have loved to go out a winner after the Stuyvesant Handicap and not have to slog those two miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup again. But I’d rather concentrate on those glory days of 1971 and early ‘72 when I was The Boss and America’s sweetheart. With my lop ears and narrow frame I wasn’t the movie star that a certain big red horse was, but I was a kind, gentle soul, and it is with all sincerity that I wish you the happiest of birthdays.”

— Your first love, Riva Ridge

“Dear Penny, we had some rough times and some stressful times, but mostly loving and joyous times together, and through it all you were one classy lady, and I don’t even mind you telling the world about us after all these years. You plucked me out of retirement and a sedentary life of boredom and thrust me onto the national stage and gave me fame and fortune at a time when I thought I had saddled my last horse, never to be remembered in the history books. We had a great run together, sharing all the ups and downs, mostly ups, and for that I will remain eternally grateful. Happy Birthday, and I have to say, you still look damn good.”

— Your admiring trainer, Lucien Laurin

“Dear Penny, Well, although I somehow am the only primary member of the team left, we’re all in a way still around after all these years. I certainly have no regrets, despite the unfortunate twist my life took. But that was many years ago as well. Thanks to you and Big Red, and, yes, Riva, I still have been able to keep busy all these years doing autograph signings and attending major events and meeting the fans, old and new when I am able. I thank you for two days in particular – August 2, 1971, when you put me on Riva Ridge for the first time in the Flash Stakes, and July 31, 1972, when you and Lucien allowed me to get a leg up on the greatest horse of all time in an allowance race, when no one had heard of the name Secretariat. I had ridden many top horses before that, but my career was launched into orbit that day at Saratoga. I often think that the incredible energy and power I felt through Red has stayed with me all these years. Have a wonderful birthday and I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

— Your favorite jockey, Ron Turcotte

“Dear Penny, how great it is to see you and all the old familiar faces again. I see Big Red over there and have a burning desire to go over and take the brush to him and give him the brightest shine he’s ever had. But I think I will go over and wrap my arms around his neck one more time and tell him what a champ he is. And how about ‘ol Riva, still lookin’ as laid back as ever, with those ears floppin’ all over. Boy, do I miss those days, and I have you and Lucien to thank for allowing me to spend every day of my life during those unforgettable years taking care of legends. Always remember, you made racing a better sport, and, boy, wouldn’t it love to have you now.”

— Your faithful groom, Eddie Sweat

“So great to see you again, Penny. Man, what a ride!  My buddy Billy Silver and I want to thank you for making us the most recognizable horse and rider team in the country not named Secretariat and Ron Turcotte. I can’t even describe what it was like leading Red to the racetrack in the morning and to the post in the afternoon through that magical 3-year-old campaign. Oh, wait, yes I can: “Oh, baby! Oh, baby! Oh, baby!” I know I kept saying those same words, but with Red you had to speak from the gut. No long sentences were needed. That said it all. Billy enjoyed it even more than I did because he probably thought all those cameras were for him. Look, we had one job only, and that was stick to Red like barnacles to the hull of ship. I just want to conclude by saying that I apologize for hitting that bottle of champagne Churchill Downs sent to the barn after the Derby. It was a time for celebration, and even though you hadn’t gotten back yet, I wasn’t about to wait for you to celebrate. To tell you the truth I can’t even remember much after popping the cork. So, for your 100th birthday, here is that bottle of champagne I owe you.”

—  From Secretariat’s sidekicks, Charlie Davis and Billy Silver


“Dear Penny, exercise riders as you know do not get much recognition and must be satisfied and thrilled just to get on the back of top-class horses every morning. There is an old Arabic saying that goes: “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” Well, thanks to you and Lucien I got to feel that heavenly wind in my face every time I took Big Red out for his morning spin around the track, whether in a work or a gallop, even if it was just as a 2-year-old. So speaking for me and Charlie, thank you for providing us with the thrill of a lifetime; we will always be grateful to you. Hope you have a wonderful 100th birthday.”

                            Your faithful morning servant, Jimmy Gaffney

“Dear Penny, although I felt badly that Ronnie was unable to ride Secretariat in his career finale, and in Ronnie’s native Canada, I could not have been more thrilled when I was asked to replace him. I knew the pressure would be enormous, making sure Red went out a winner, and was well aware what the repercussions would be if I messed it up. But, if I didn’t know it then, l certainly was convinced down the Woodbine backstretch that the only way I could mess it up was to fall off. All you had to do was stay on and leave it all up to him. So thank you for allowing me to share in Secretariat’s final hurrah and being part of his historic journey. All the best on your 100th Birthday.

                                                             From the most grateful pinch hitter in racing history, Eddie Maple

“Dear Penny, this special occasion is the proper time to tell you what a joy and honor it has been working with you and keeping Secretariat’s name alive and in the hearts of racing fans from 9 to 90. We have built Secretariat’s brand name, his merchandising, and his website into something everlasting, as well as the creation of the Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award, and you can rest assured I will continue to keep that connection with the fans alive. And thanks for allowing me to share the Meadow Stable legacy with the fans and keeping yours and Red’s memory alive at all the festivals and celebrations. Here’s to all the wonderful special moments we have shared over the years and all we have built together. I’m sure Red would have been proud.

— Your keeper of the flame, Leonard Lusky

“Dear Penny, I know we had our differences and you and your horse robbed me and my horse of our immortality, and I do have to tell you that regardless of how they portrayed me in the movie, I am not a loudmouth and a bully, and deep down was a great admirer of you and Secretariat. I did get in the Hall of Fame, so there is something to say for that. I still would love to get another crack at that big red horse with my beautiful Sham, but that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just accept it and think about what might have been had Sham come along in a different year. But my boy still has a loyal following and had a couple of books written about him. They say a warrior’s greatness is measured by his opponent, and I am proud that ‘ol Sham bought out that greatness in Secretariat. See, I told you I’m not a bad guy. I’m so glad you were able to stay around for so long to tell everyone about those days and of two very special horses.”

— Your one-time antagonist, Frank “Pancho” Martin

“Dear Penny, all I can do is echo my trainer’s words and wish I hadn’t bloodied my mouth and lost a couple of teeth hitting it against the gate at the start of the Derby. Who knows, right? Hey, I did finish ahead of you guys in the Wood Memorial, abscess or no abscess. That’s’ something. It was a good fight overall; I just came out second best even with running the second fastest time in the history of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. They said I had an unusually large heart, but Red’s heart was even larger. Some luck, huh?”

— Happy Birthday from your equine antagonist, Sham

“Dear Penny, it’s great to see you again. I’m happy to say that Big Red’s old home, Claiborne Farm, is back on the upswing thanks to Arch, Blame, Pulpit, War Front, Run Happy and many other new and exciting stallions. Things are going well here, and on your 100th birthday I would love to give you the world’s biggest cake, so that it could hold six million candles. Well, 6.08 million to be exact. You helped make my career when I was just a mere youngster and trying so hard to fill my daddy’s shoes and impress Mr. Phipps and the other board members. It was so great working with you in putting together a deal far beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. We rewrote the book on syndicating horses. We made history, and we will share that bond for all time.”

— Your one-time partner, Seth Hancock

“Dear Penny, bet you didn’t think we’d make it here, but there was no way we were going to miss seeing you and all our old friends. We remember those old days at The Meadow and you as a little girl growing up, and the apple of your pappy’s eyes. Man, it’s good to see Big Red and Riva again after helpin’ raise them as babies. We remember the day we put Red in that first stall in the yearling barn, so we knew then he was the special one of the bunch. Man, he was strong. He was so different from Riva. Red would test us, but Riva was just a kind soul. We all still shudder thinking about the time baby Red escaped from the farm and ran out onto route 30, where a truck driver had to go out and get him. Or the time when Red took off from his mama and decided to go swimming in the North Anna River. Yikes! It was sad to see The Meadow go, and we never did go back again, even though we passed it all the time. We remember bein’ picked up every mornin’ in Duval Town, that was built after the emancipation to house freed slaves. They’d pick us up and bring us to the farm. We sure did love workin’ for Mr. Chenery. He always treated us so well, as you did. Oh, by the way, Aunt Sadie and Magnolia say hi and Happy Birthday. And so did ‘ol Wilbur (Bill) and Harry Street, who vanned Red to Hialeah as a 2-year-old, and Howard Gentry, and Olive Britt, who still regrets not gettin’ to the farm in time to take Red out of Somethingroyal. But she remembers Mr. Gentry telling her, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for for 35 years.'”

— Happy Birthday from the boys at home — Charlie Ross, Howard Gregory, Bannie Mines, Lewis Tillman, Raymond “Peter Blue” Goodall and the rest of the gang

“Dear Penny, all I can say is thank you for allowing me to name Secretariat, even though it took six tries to get it. It was my honor and privilege working by your side during those years. You were indeed your father’s daughter. A very Happy Birthday.”

— Meadow Stud secretary Elizabeth Ham

“Dear Penny, what can I say, I got damn lucky. Right place at the right time.

— The Giant Killer (I hated that name) Allen Jerkens

“Hey, Penny, you remember that young kid you and Lucien took in, and then gave him a shank and told him to walk Secretariat and Riva Ridge around the shedrow? Well, how in the world am I ever going to forget that thrill and being within arm’s length of greatness every morning. These two amazing superstars became my buddies and I still have a couple of old photos to remind me of our special times together. Then you had me work at The Meadow for a while, so I became part of the racing and breeding family before becoming a trainer for many years and ultimately in charge of the NYRA holding barn. And just look at where it all started. Thank you so much for your kindness.

                                                                  — Happy 100th from that now 70-something kid Steve Jordan

“Dear Penny, I was just a writer for Newsday when Jimmy Gaffney told me about a big red colt I should keep an eye on. Well, I sure did keep an eye on him, and thanks so much to you and Lucien for opening your door to me, so I could write what many believe to be the greatest equine biography of all time, certainly by first-hand account, and forever linked me to the greatest horse ever. Like all of Red’s team, when he died, a piece of me died with him, which inspired me to relive the magic in my sports illustrated article “Pure Heart.”

– Big Red’s biographer, Bill Nack

“Dear Penny, I’m sure you don’t remember us, well, maybe you do, but although we were a big disappointment to you, not living up to our brothers’ reputation, we did try, but we just weren’t blessed with their talent. But we do want to thank you for at least putting us in the spotlight for our maiden races and having all of racing following us and rooting for us. They are moments we’ll never forget. Have a wonderful birthday and we’ll go over now and try to renew family acquaintances. Thanks again for the 15 minutes of fame.”

— Happy Birthday from Red and Riva’s brothers, Capital Asset and Capito

“Dear Penny, I had so much fun playing you in the Secretariat movie. I have to admit I hadn’t been to a racetrack since I filmed ‘A Little Romance’ at Longchamp when I was 13. It was inspirational becoming you and just being with you at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day and seeing the admiration people still have for you. I have to admit my favorite moment in the movie was telling our shady trainer to pack up and take a hike. So, thanks for letting me into your world and for making this such a fun role. I hope I look as good as you in my ‘90s.”

— Happy Birthday from the other Penny, Diane Lane

“Dear Penny, I am honored, not only to be a descendant of the great Secretariat, but the last horse you ever bred and to carry the Meadow Stable silks. Also, being inbred to Native Dancer and Dr. Fager ain’t exactly chopped liver. I had so much fun greeting visitors at the Secretariat Birthday celebrations in Virginia and then at Old Friends in Kentucky. Just think, with all the great horses at Old Friends, people actually came to see me. One of my biggest thrills at Old Friends was when Michael Blowen introduced me to Silver Charm. He still looks like a stud, but I realized he was just too old for me. Thank you for deciding to breed Cotton Anne to Quiet American, and a Happy 100th Birthday.

— From an “Old Friend,” Groundshaker

“My Dear Penny, thank you for being there when I needed you and for keeping the name of our beloved Meadow alive. You gave up the life you had built for yourself and your family to return to your roots and help save what we built up over so many years. I’m so proud of you for what you accomplished and the self-confident, strong-willed person you became. I didn’t live to see Secretariat, but I was there with you all the way. I hope you’re aware of that. It is so reassuring to know that it was from our blood, passed on through the generations, that a legend was born; perhaps the greatest of all time. And, yes, I was well aware at the time that we finally won the Kentucky Derby with Riva. It gave me a great deal of comfort knowing that. To see what you have accomplished, even after Secretariat, warms my heart. The Meadow is gone, but it will never be forgotten thanks to you.”

— Your loving father

So, let’s light the candles and cut the cake and celebrate a life well-lived, and remember a very special time, not only in racing, but in America. It truly was a time for heroes, and like Secretariat, Penny Chenery was a hero who raised the sport of Thoroughbred racing to a different plateau.


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