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.