Farewell to a First Lady

Tributes have been pouring in from around the globe following the passing of America's First Lady of Racing, Helen "Penny" Chenery, on Saturday. She was 95 years old.

Through her ownership of the 1973 US Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, Penny became a household name and paved the way for female participation in the Sport of Kings, not only in her home country, but around the world.

*Image courtesy

Born Helen Bates Chenery on January 27th 1922, Penny developed a love for horses from her father, Chris Chenery. A passionate horseman, Chris had been building a racing stable, Meadow Stud, since the 1940s but due to his ill health, Penny took over the management in the late 1960s.

In 1971 under trainer Lucien Laurin, the stables' Riva Ridge dominated the juvenile races and was named Champion 2-year-old Colt. As a 3-year-old, 'Riva' won the Kentucky Derby, fulfilling Chris Chenery's life-long dream to win that race, not long before his death. That same year, Secretariat also burst onto the scene.

Secretariat was a champion racehorse with near perfect conformation. His 1973 Triple Crown series win (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) was the first in 25 years, with three record-setting performances that still stand today. His 31-length victory in the Belmont really made him a celebrity and thrust Penny (Mrs Tweedy as she was then known) into the spotlight. She represented her equine champions with poise, dignity, and with her keen business sense, quickly grasped her role as the voice of the silent equine hero. As she put it, "The horse can't talk—but I can."

In his short career, 'The Big Red Horse' won 16 of 21 races, amassed US$1.3m in prizemoney, was named Horse of the Year two years running, as well as graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated magazines. He was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm, Kentucky, in November 1973.

Secretariat's Triple Crown campaign and Penny's meteoric rise in the sport were featured in the 2010 Disney Studios film Secretariat, in which she was portrayed by Diane Lane.

*Image courtesy BloodHorse Library.

Following Secretariat's retirement from racing, Penny became an ambassador for the racing industry and remained so, even after the champion's death from laminitis in 1989. She was the first female president of the USA Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation - her love of the thoroughbred led her to advocate improvements of equine care within USA racing and she was one of the instigators of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

Penny was honoured with the 2006 Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime contributions to the thoroughbred industry, and in 2003, created the Secretariat Foundation. The Foundation has provided thousands of dollars of support and assistance to individual organisations and charitable efforts that benefit the Thoroughbred community. Such benefits include the key areas of equine welfare, retirement, rescue and retraining, laminitis and veterinary research, therapeutic use of the Thoroughbred, and initiatives that promote thoroughbred racing and celebrate it’s place in history.

"Keeneland joins the Thoroughbred community worldwide in mourning the passing of Penny Chenery," Bill Thomason president and CEO of Keeneland Racecourse said this week.

"Mrs. Chenery exemplified the very best of our sport, serving as one of its most beloved and passionate ambassadors. She was a generous owner, tirelessly sharing the legacy of her great Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, with generations of fans that extended far beyond racing. Keeneland is honored to have played a role in the movie Secretariat, and to remember her 1972 Blue Grass Stakes winner Riva Ridge. We are thankful for her extraordinary contributions to racing, and we extend our deepest condolences to her family and friends."

Penny is survived by four children, one stepson and seven grandchildren. Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom, died in 1998, and his trainer Mr. Lucien Laurin died in 2000. Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s jockey, now 76, has been paralyzed since a race fall at Belmont Park in 1978.

For details on the work of the Foundation or to find out more about Penny or her champion racehorse, visit

Claiborne Farm, where Secretariat stood as a stallion and is buried, issued the below statement on their Facebook page:

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