Penny Chenery spoke to a packed house of more than 300 Sept. 30 at the Keeneland Entertainment Center as the honored guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America. The 90-year-old grande dame of racing received a rousing ovation to open and close her remarks at the 81st testimonial dinner of the TCA.
Chenery was quick with her charm and wit to lighten the mood of the evening by noting she was just the third woman to be honored.
"All I can say is, 'Come on, guys,' " she said after being introduced by her good friend Charlie Stone.
Other female honorees of the TCA have been Isabel Dodge Sloane in 1951 and Alice Headley Chandler in 2005.
"I knew Isabel Dodge Sloan," Chenery said "I was scared of her. I saw her at the racetrack all the time and I never saw her open her purse. Alice Chandler and I have led parallel lives. We've had accomplishments, travels, and travails."
Chenery is best known for running her family's Meadow Stable in the early 1970s while racing mighty Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown. She also raced Riva Ridge, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1972. She was the face of racing at the time, lending her charm and grace to a generation of horseracing fans.
"Penny, you were exactly the right individual to be the face of the Thoroughbred industry at that time," Stone said in his opening remarks. "The early '70s were a real mess and you came along and took center stage. It was your good fortune to have Riva Ridge and Secretariat, but it was racing's good fortune to watch you and the team at the Meadow. People know, admire, and respect you for the way you have conducted yourself."
Chenery has continued to put her stamp on the sport. She served as president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association from 1976-84 and was among the first women elected to The Jockey Club. She has served as president of the Grayson Foundation and has been a champion for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. She was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2006.
"I'm being honored for doing something I've had a wonderful time doing, which is watching my colors flash across the finish line," Chenery noted.
Turning a bit more serious, Chenery told her audience it was the horsemen's job to keep the industry going.
"It is our job as owners to promote the horse," she said. "If you are lucky enough to have a good horse, make that horse available to the world; create a website, send out e-mails. If you love the industry, promote it. Help people understand our life, our fascination with racing, and our characters."
Chenery, who now lives in Colorado, has been in Lexington over the weekend and took part in the Secretariat Festival in Bourbon County the day before.
"Yesterday I signed 280 autographs at the Bourbon County festival," she said. "And yesterday 300 tourists went through Claiborne Farm. That is what we have to do to keep the industry going."
Chenery also introduced Charlie Davis, a former exercise rider for Meadow Stable and exercise rider for Secretariat. He noted that during the Triple Crown run of 1973 Secretariat was at his peak for the Preakness.
"He wasn't a 747, or a DC10, he was the Concorde," Davis said of "Big Red" at Old Hilltop.