William Nack Eulogy for Penny Chenery Memorial Service

Of the many remembrances that I’ve got hidden away in my Penny Chenery memory bank, the one that keeps insistently floating to the surface took place the first day I saw her in 1973—on March 14th to be exact—three days before Secretariat was to launch his historic charge for the Triple Crown by prepping in the 7-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct.

I had first gotten to know Penny at the Kentucky Derby of 1972, when her darling of darlings, Riva Ridge, galloped off to win that Derby as he pleased, and got to know her even better later that year as Secretariat rose triumphantly as a two-year-old.

Penny was already a figure of polish, eloquence and good humor in dealing with the media, accessible and cordial to reporters in the mornings and afternoons, a perfect spokeswoman for her pair of speechless, speedy colts. I was the racing writer for Newsday and The Thoroughbred Record in those days, following Secretariat into winner’s circles from Saratoga to Laurel to Belmont Park.

It was still dark when I got to the barn on March 14. There was a palpable sense of tension in the air. Just a month earlier, the golden chestnut had been syndicated for $6.08 million dollars, making him the most expensive horse in history, and she and Lucien were already feeling the pressure.

Groom Ed Sweat brought Secretariat from his stall onto the walking ring next to the barn and Lucien lifted Ron Turcotte into the saddle and we all started for the main track. “Three-Eighths, Ronnie,” Lucien said. “Let him roll!”

There was a chill in the dark air as we three gathered at the rail by the finish line at Belmont Park. Secretariat walked past us, tossing his head, doing a little dance. Penny beamed.

“Ooo, look at him,” she said. “He’s got a hump in his back. He must feel good. And he looks grand, doesn’t he? Kind of sexy. Like a big, well-stacked girl.”

Every thing she said felt fresh, new, quotable.

Secretariat fairly flew by us that morning, running about as fast as horses run, with Lucien catching him in a brilliant :33 2/5s seconds for three-eighths, only to discover moments later—in a quick call to official clocker Jules Watson—that the colt had actually blazed the distance a full second faster.

“You got him in :32 3/5s?” Lucien said. A shadow lengthened on his face. “Oh my God!”

Penny, by contrast, lit up like a sparkler at the news. “Well,” she said, “that ought to open his pipes!”

Helen Bates Chenery was clearly patrician in her appearance and bearing, always beautifully coiffed and smartly dressed, with her simple elegance attended by her striking good looks, but she also had a far earthier side, too, one that spoke to the masses, that revealed Secretariat as a sexy, red-head and described a blazing workout in words normally favored by members of the plumbers union: Open his pipes, indeed!

The public heard her. And liked her.

That Wednesday morning in March, 1973, was really the first time I began to appreciate why the press—TV cameras and print guys alike—were drawn to her.

Penny not only spoke in clear, complete sentences—with nouns, verbs and prepositional phrases arranged in logical order—but she often startled listeners with her aversion to evasion, her shoot-from-the-hip style of speaking.

For instance, during Secretariat’s charge to the Triple Crown, Penny was often asked if she felt intimidated being at the top of a sport ruled almost exclusively by men, many of them industry CEOs and financial moguls.

“Screw the men!” she would say. “I had the horse!”

That she did in 1973, the swiftest in the history of the game.

Horse racing had been a major American sport since the 19th century, even before, and at no time had a women risen to the top and so captivated the public as Penny did in 1973, when she gradually became the face and personality of racing across the land.

When the times called for it, she could be gracious to a fault. A few days before the Preakness, as we stood outside Secretariat’s Preakness stall, she asked me if I knew Frank “Pancho” Martin, the trainer of Sham, who had lost two teeth in a starting gate accident at the Derby but who had pushed Secretariat to that Derby record of 1:59 2/5s. I told her I did know him.

“If you see the chance,” Penny said, “please introduce me to him. I’d like to meet him.”

Pancho seemed delighted with the chance to meet her. So, a few moments later, I escorted her to his barn. He rose like a West Point cadet as she approached, all but clicking his heels, and reached out his hand.

“Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Tweedy,” he said, bowing his head.

“I have heard so many nice things about you,” she said.

Here he invited her to meet Sham, and showed her the two cavities left behind by the lost teeth. She reached out and patted Sham’s chocolate nose.

“What a nice horse you have,” she said as Sham nuzzled her palm. “and a kind horse too”

“Thank you!” Pancho said.

She turned to leave and said. “Let’s hope we both have good racing luck in the Preakness.”

There had been some bad blood between the Secretariat and Sham camps before and after the Derby, but her visit that day dissipated any lingering ill will. It was the perfect diplomatic touch.

Oh, yes, one last thing. Perhaps no one was more emotionally involved in Secretariat’s life than Penny, and she always had a certain proprietary feeling about his legacy, as the keeper of the memories he left behind.

In fact, she grew downright competitive about it. A decade or so ago, long after the horse had retired, Penny and I were serving on a Secretariat panel together at Emerald Downs up in Washington State.

When it came my turn to speak, I began regaling the audience with anecdote after anecdote about the horse, telling stories about his dazzling morning workouts about his playfulness, about his remarkable, record-breaking run through the Triple Crown, even about his speed-over-stamina pedigree, as I recall.

Midway though my stories, Penny leaned over to the panel host and whispered, “Did you know that Bill Nack thinks he trained Secretariat?”

I howled when the host later told me that story.

It was forever fascinating and fun to travel with this bright, complex woman, to swap stories with her, and to watch her interact warmly with her many fans.

She eventually brought her laughter, grace and boundless energy, not to mention her enormous cache of good will, to the role as First Lady of American racing.

Penny was an original. No one like her in the game, before or since.



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