A Horse-Racing Phenom

Helen (Penny) Chenery ’43 reflects on her famous horse, Secretariat, the movie, and what it was like to watch her life unfold on film

by Jane Falla

penny chenery

The story of Secretariat is one of the biggest in horse racing history, so it’s hard going into the recently released movie of the same name without already believing you know the full story. But what’s wonderfully surprising about the film, which opened across the country earlier this month,is the attention it pays to the personal story of Secretariat’s owner, Helen (Penny) Chenery ’43.

When Chenery entered the world of horse racing in the 1970s, it was still a male-dominated field. She followed the trail blazed before her by a few other women who worked as jockeys, trainers, owners, and sports writers, and found the courage to challenge naysayers in an effort to save her family’s farm. Her instincts paid off.

In the nearly forty years since her prize-winning horse set records and took the title of the first US Triple Crown winner since the 1940s, Chenery has quietly earned worldwide recognition for her contributions to Thoroughbred racing. She was president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association from 1976–84, and she was one of three women to become a member in the previously all-male Jockey Club. In 2009, she was honored with a Smith Medal for her accomplishments that embody the ideals, community spirit, and reflection of Smith’s mission.
Following the release of Secretariat, we spoke with Chenery.

After I saw the movie, I found myself racing home in my car; I was speeding and passing people.
Lucien Laurin, the trainer, and Ronny Turcotte, the jockey, both lived on the southern part of Long Island, and I lived in the middle. When we would leave the racetrack, if one of us found the other we’d race each other home. You get that feeling.

You seemed to have a great relationship with them.
That was a great pleasure. We were a team.

What was your reaction when you learned there was interest in turning your life story into a movie? Was this the first time you’d been approached?
This idea had kicked around for at least a dozen years. But either the person didn’t have enough money or a script that was ready to go.

What finally made it come together?
The president of Walt Disney Studios was a Secretariat fan. Dick Cook really wanted to bring this to the screen, and unfortunately, in the course of Disney events, he was fired before the movie started filming. He lost out in a power struggle, but the movie was far enough along. Of course, it was rewritten to suit the tastes of the new director. I’ve learned so much about filmmaking. It’s a miracle that anything gets done.

The responses to Secretariat have been very positive. How does it feel? What has this experience been like for you?
It has been exciting. It pleases me so much that people genuinely like the film. The downside is now people want to call me and tell me so. I had a woman call me at 10:30 last night asking, “How can I get a hold of Ms. Chenery?” I asked what she wanted, and advised her to go to the Website because “Ms. Chenery is a tired old lady!” The worst part is that five minutes later, she called again and asked how to get a hold of my kids.

What, if any, have been some of the biggest surprises for you about seeing your story brought to life on film?
I’ve loved watching the whole process. It can take a whole day to film one scene. But being on location in Louisiana, there were 200 people working, and everyone knew his job. That was just amazing to me.

Were there particular sacrifices you made, especially as a working mother? This is an ongoing conversation for women—finding that balance between a career and family life.
Well, I was fortunate in that the two phases of my life didn’t coincide. My children—three were in college, and the youngest was 12 when my mother died and I took over running the stable. But it meant that I spent a week out of every month back in either New York for the races or Virginia at the breeding farm, and that was hard on my family. I hope the movie will show girls and women that they can do whatever they set their minds to, and you can be both wife and mother and still go on to your career.

Were there other differences in the film, such as your children being younger in the movie than what was actually the case?
There were some discrepancies in the movie. I didn’t have any script control. What has been interesting for me is that I’m now back living in Denver, and my friends say to me, “We never knew what you were doing.” I feel a bit vindicated that this shows that this wasn’t just all peaches and cream in keeping my family relatively happy. My friends didn’t realize the responsibilities that I had and the decisions I was making.

The movie shows that you had to take risks, and I was impressed how you played a role in a traditionally male-dominated world. You stood your ground.
Well, I’m a Smithie! I took on the big boys. I do think Smith women—and I’ve tried to analyze where this comes from—are can-do people. It didn’t occur to me to back down. I really believed in the horse. I believed in my father’s dream, and no one was going to deter me.

Looking back, do you have any regrets?
No, I really don’t. The regrets I had stemmed from earlier experiences; my brother, my sister, and I always competed. . . . One big regret is that Secretariat retired at four. It would have been amazing to see him race again.

Aside from taking over the Meadow for your family, you also became a goodwill ambassador for racing and an advocate for Thoroughbred causes and foundations. What inspired you to get involved?
My dad was horse crazy, and racing gave him a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction, and of course he contributed to racing. Racing in New York was failing, and they had five different tracks and no central authority. He and two other men bought all the tracks, consolidated, and got a reasonable racing calendar. He was a member of the Jockey Club and was well regarded. And I grew up with the expectation of giving back what I received. My father would say grace before meals. He would say, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” That was his philosophy, and having Secretariat and Riva Ridge had given me such pleasure that I wanted to help racing. I became a goodwill ambassador; I’m naturally friendly. I felt duty-bound, and it was something I felt obligated to do.

It was amazing watching Secretariat at Belmont, thirty-one lengths ahead.
Secretariat was based in Belmont; he went over that track every morning. The first two races, Ronnie more or less limited his margin of victory because he didn’t want to blow it all on one race. Then, as the movie shows, there was the decision to train him hard, so come the Belmont, Secretariat was so fit he was about to jump out of his skin. And so Ronnie finally turned him loose. He passed Sham, and Ronnie knew that he was winning; Secretariat then was running for the joy of running. That was an extraordinary moment for me, not only the physical accomplishment, but what it showed about Secretariat being proud of himself. It was as if he were saying, “Well you want me to run, I’ll show you how to run.”

What do you think humans learn from horses?
Horses are so generous. They are these huge animals. If they wanted to they could be very destructive. But they want to please us. I grew up with horses. I always had my own horse, and I took my horse to Smith. Horses are great solace.


Jane Falla is assistant editor, alumnae communications