What's a Kentucky Derby Without Penny Chenery?

On the 40th anniversary of her horse Secretariat's record-setting Derby win, the first lady of horse racing will be watching from afar.

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Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, and groom Eddie Sweat stand in paddock with Triple Crown winner Secretariat at New York's Aqueduct Raceway in 1973. (AP)

It is the third day of May, and the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, and someone and something is missing from the party. The first lady of horse racing, the celebrated owner of the most famous racehorse in American history, was not in Louisville, Kentucky, this week to enjoy the festivities and commemorate the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's record-setting win there in 1973. Instead, the matchless Penny Chenery, age 91, is recovering from a bacterial infection and laid up at her home in Boulder, Colorado, more than a thousand miles away from the bluegrass and the 139th edition of the Run for the Roses.

"I have very mixed feelings" about not being there, Chenery told me Thursday morning, as the snow from a spring storm began to melt along the Front Range. "I no longer go to the Derby itself because it is so crowded," she said. She likes to go instead for the events of Derby week and then "go home and watch on television." She last watched a Derby in person three years ago, she says, and had a wonderful time. "My habit was to go when I had a horse in it or a horse that I was particularly interested in." That said, she told me, "I lived there (in Kentucky) for many years and I have friends I wish I could have seen and partied with" this week.

It was not supposed to be like this. Chenery was supposed to make her way to Louisville on Monday to take part in a series of events designed to promote the great horse, the big race, the special anniversary, and a number of other projects to which she has lent her name, her prestige, and her considerable presence as a star who crossed over to the mainstream from the world of Thoroughbred racing. Four decades after her Big Red won it all, everyone still wants to meet Chenery—those who remember that magical spring like yesterday and those who weren't even born when Secretariat did this, for starters, on his way to a Triple Crown:

This year in particular, on the occasion of the special anniversary, the current crop of talented three-year-old colts will be racing against Secretariat's legacy as surely as one another on Saturday afternoon. (Wednesday's draw, for example, was held in the "Secretariat Lounge" at Churchill Downs, the naming rights to which are the subject of a dispute between the track and the family). It should be a very good race, more competitive perhaps than we've seen in quite a few years, and barring any last-minute scratches any one of six horses could win the mile-and-a-quarter contest without it coming as a shock to any racehorse mavens.

Storylines? On the jockey side, you can't swing a horse without hitting one. There is the likeable Kevin Krigger, on Goldencents, looking to become the first black jockey to win the Derby since 1902. His horse is partially owned by Rick Pitino, the University of Louisville basketball coach, and it's trained by Doug O'Neil, the controversial trainer whose horse, I'll Have Another, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown last year. Then there is Rosie Napravnik, the subject of a recent 60 Minutes segment, seeking to become the first female jockey to ever win the race. Calvin Borel? He's back. And he's got a good horse to ride near the rail. Look out.

On the trainer side, most of the usual suspects are there. Todd Pletcher, the New York-based trainer, has five horses in the race—one quarter of the entire field—including two of the pre-race favorites, Revolutionary (jockey Borel's ride) and the undefeated Verrazano. D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Derby four times, the last time in 1999, offers up OxBow. Shug McGaughey, the beloved trainer who has never won the Derby, this year has the morning-line favorite, a beautiful colt named Orb. Missing? Bob Baffert. For the first time since 2008, the California-based trainer will not have a horse in the race.

Hindsight allows us to see what Secretariat did in 1973 as some natural progression, as if it were preordained that he would win the Triple Crown with one remarkable performance after another. He was the Horse of the Year in 1972, after all, and then he got even better in 1973. But in the days before the 1973 Derby, no one—including Chenery herself—was certain that it would be so. Secretariat had just lost the Wood Memorial, and many smart people within the industry believed that he was overrated. "There isn't a standout horse in the field," the legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro had said in the weeks leading up to the race. One week before the Derby, for example, this piece appeared in Sports Illustrated:

Before the Wood Memorial the 1973 Run for the Roses was being conceded to Secretariat despite the fact that until last week he had never tried running beyond a mile and a sixteenth. He was the big, glamorous chestnut who could do it all on any kind of track. He could run on the pace or come from behind. He could circle his fields or bull his way through them. They gave him names like Sexy or Big Red II, for here was the second coming of Man o' War, another horse of the people like Native Dancer, Kelso and Carry Back. They considered him a shoo-in to become the first colt since Citation in 1948 to capture the Triple Crown.

Now, suddenly, all that has changed and there is going to be a Kentucky Derby after all instead of a one-horse walkover. It may not be necessary to start the race in rows, Indianapolis 500-style, but following Secretariat's defeat a lot of guys are going to be cranking up 3-year-old maidens from New England to Nevada and shipping them to Louisville.

On the Wednesday before the 1973 Derby, exactly 40 years before Chenery was champing at the bit in Boulder, she was in full throat in Louisville. Confident in her horse but worried about about all the things that can go wrong to a favorite in a big race, she actually mixed it up in public with a fellow owner, an episode she says she regrets to this day. There was drama that year. There is drama before every Derby. There is tension within every barn. (How would you like to be Todd Pletcher this week, juggling the neuroses of five different owners?) What was different about 1973, as it turned out, was that the big horse promptly rendered all of it moot—and, in retrospect, quite silly.

Chenery says there are a handful of horses whom she will be rooting for when the starting gate opens late Saturday afternoon. "I would of course love to see Orb do well," she says, because the horse was born and raised at Claiborne Farm, which is owned and operated by Seth Hancock, who helped Chenery syndicate Secretariat before the horse's three-year-old campaign. "I think Orb is a fine horse and it would be suitable if he were to win" on the Secretariat anniversary. She also likes Verrazano, she told me, because she grew up in New York near the bridge, "and the fact that he is undefeated is important." She also will be rooting for Palace Malice, another Pletcher trainee, because the colt is owned by friends.

Secretariat last raced 40 years ago and has been dead for nearly 24 years. His sons and daughters are mostly dead now, too. But he's still by far the biggest name in horse racing. Before I let her go, I asked Chenery what she wants people to know about the big horse after all this time has passed. "He knew he was a hero and had great confidence in himself," she told me. "If he didn't win he would go to the corner of his stall and not come over and see you, he would beat himself up." He had standards, she says, and he liked to show off. "Not only his accomplishments, but his attitude set him apart."

There you have it. Attitude and accomplishment—which explains precisely why Secretariat was the great American horse. Not just the one, not just the other, but both, in tandem. With those words, Chenery is describing herself, too, right? She accomplished a great deal in racing and did it with an attitude that has made her a hero to millions of women and young people all across the world—a symbol not just of success but of the pride in succeeding. Penny Chenery is staying home to watch the Derby this year, and she's not complaining. The race will do fine without her, even if the sport needs her now more than ever.