Penny Chenery may or may not be the most important woman in the history of American horse racing but she surely is the most symbolic. The world largely knows her as the brave and graceful owner of the late Secretariat, the fastest, most sublime racehorse most of us will ever see. The racing industry gratefully recognizes her as a valuable link between itself and its mainstream dreams. And generations of young people, who weren't even around to see Big Red run in 1973, find in her famous story inspiration for their own happy futures around horses.
Now 90, Chenery is watching this spring's Triple Crown procession as closely as she always does, as she always has, since even before her fast colt Riva Ridge won both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1972. That was the spring before Secretariat became immortal, which means that over a two-year period the same owner, a heroine then and now, won five of the six classic races. There may be another Triple Crown winner in two weeks. If not it will come soon enough. But there will likely never again be a run like Chenery's 40 years ago.
From afar, Chenery is watching closely this spring as I'll Have Another, worthy winner of both the Derby and the Preakness, tries to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the big prize. Chenery promises that she will, as always, root for the horse which has a chance to win the Crown. "Oh yes, absolutely," she told me late last week during a long and productive phone call. "Because I like to see a good horse achieve its goals. Also, it's good for the industry. We really need something to cheer for." Why she thinks this is so is worth a closer look.
A conversation with Chenery begins with the concept of integrity (which in racing is often like morning-line odds-- long on speculation, short on specifics). "Our own integrity," Chenery told me, "is not restricted to horse ownership. If you value yourself as a trustworthy person, then you protect your integrity in whatever you do." Owning a race horse, she says however, creates the special and specific obligation to behave "in the cleanest possible manner" at all times. This is important, she says, because:
I think people like to believe that horse racing is fixed. I think there's a little something that's naughty, that if you know someone you can find out if the fix is in, and I don't think we should fall for that. Or let that image be true.
From image to reality. I asked Chenery, the greatest Thoroughbred owner of the past half century, whether all horse owners should take more of a role, and therefore absorb more legal and financial responsibility, for ensuring that horse racing is clean, fair, honest, and transparent. Her response was emphatic. "I think owners should be held responsible for their choice of trainers," Chenery says. "If they tend to send their horses to 'dirty' trainers this should be be a suspension of their right to ownership."
She acknowledges that this might generate legal issues. But of course no judge has ever ruled that an owner or trainer or driver or jockey has a constitutional right to make a living in horse racing. That's why they call them racing licenses, the very name connoting the temporary nature of the privilege bestowed by the state. Here's what Chenery says when the topic turns to horse doping:
Drugging horses is so far from my frame of reference that it is hard for me to identify. But I am sure there are owners who say "Do whatever it is you got to do." I think the saddest thing is to see a horse that is drugged up. The owner and trainer make their score. And then the horse is claimed and breaks down. And we know this is true.
And from the general to the specific. I asked Chenery what she thinks of the connections of I'll Have Another, including owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill, who last week was given a 45-day suspension in California (conveniently tolled to begin July 1st) for a 2010 doping violation in the Golden State. Her response was so pointed that she felt the need to reiterate immediately afterward that she wanted to be publicly quoted saying this:
I think it is regrettable. And it isn't the horse's fault and this is probably a very good horse. I don't know Mr. Reddam personally but I think he should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record.
This sentiment, coming from the mouth of the sport's beloved grand dame, is the mess Thoroughbred horse racing has to contend with for the next two weeks-- and long afterward if I'll Have Another wins the Belmont. There's no ignoring it. The industry-- and regulators and state judges-- have for decades enabled and tolerated a "justice" system around the sport which is neither just nor swift, one in which all sides have evident motives for resolving cases at the slowest possible pace.
There are many reasons why Chenery still has street cred in horse racing. But let me start and end with this one: It's so obvious that she treasures the horses at the heart of the sport. And that she has thought deeply about them and their meaning in our lives. "The big thing for me," she says, "is admiring our horses for what they have and do for us. I used the word ''nobility' before but I really believe they are noble. They are so darn big, and they are so patient with us, and you can lose yourself in your horses..."
And there are many reasons why Chenery's opinion is still sought after beyond the sport. This is the 1970s mother and housewife, remember, who outfought, outlasted and outwitted racing's boys' club, who gambled her financial future that Big Red would win the Triple Crown, who stared down the critics and the cynics, and who did it all with the sort of aplomb Americans love in their heroes. She's been bigger than the sport for 40 years and why not? Her story is better than the stories of Black Beauty or National Velvet, combined.
I asked Chenery how it felt, decades after the glory, to get so many requests for advice from young men and women. She said:
I did all the things I did out of instinct... I was not trying to be a role model. I was not trying to do anything special. It just turned out that I had the opportunity to make some important decisions and my father had always brought me up to believe that you can achieve anything you wanted if you worked hard enough for it.
The truth is that horse racing isn't fighting nearly hard enough to achieve the success it says it wants on integrity issues. Penny Chenery knows it. The connections of I'll Have Another surely know it. And deep down inside the rest of us do, too.