Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
-excerpt from Lord Byron
Racing has lost its First Lady. Penny Chenery passed away Saturday, September 16th, 2017 at the age of 95. It is being reported as complications from a stroke, but does it really matter how she died? What matters was how she lived and that she made sure that, by the time she left us, racing was finally starting to become more inclusive and fair for the women she fought so strongly for in the industry.
Mrs. Chenery was an icon; a beacon of progress in a sport that (even now) falls back toward what is comfortable and what always worked when things become sticky. Change is not something that the racing world likes and one can imagine the disgruntled attitudes she was met with when Mrs. Chenery took the reins to her father’s farm in the 70’s. But she made it work and thanks to her, women the world over saw that you can be a tough and successful woman in a male dominated industry. That you can be graceful and elegant without letting someone walk all over you behind the scenes. That you can campaign one of the greatest horses the world has ever seen and make an impact no matter how humble (or varied) your beginnings in the industry were if you were willing to put in the work. That is her legacy: the family she raised, the women she inspired, the leader that she was, and the changes that she was able to get accomplished.
No matter where she went, Penny Chenery was always warmly welcomed. Her opinion, respected. Her voice, heard. She knew the importance of the public for racing, and she knew that racing would be in a never-ending story; trying to always attract the next younger generation out to the tracks. She created the Vox Populi award for that reason: so that fans could feel that they were heard. Even if the industry didn’t give their favorite any formal accolades at the end of the year, at least the people got to crown their own champion. The first recipient, Zenyatta, was the picture of Mrs. Chenery’s hope for the award. A horse who, much like her beloved Secretariat, had so much overwhelming ability and personality that it brought fiercely loyal fans and they took their overwhelming support with them no matter where they went to see her race. The “Voice of the People” indeed.
Penny Chenery was not only a keen observer of what needed to be done; she was also one of the first women in racing history to be put into a position where she could actually impact if and when it could be done. She served as the first female president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) and as the president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. It doesn’t end there:
- One of the first women admitted to The Jockey Club
- Helped found the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
- Created the Secretariat Vox Populi Award
- Created the Secretariat Foundation; it assists and supports various charities within the racing community
In 2006, Mrs. Chenery received the Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime contributions to the Thoroughbred industry, and in recent years, advocated laminitis research and care advancement as well as being a vocal supporter of the efforts to ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racing.
If anyone deserved the title “First Lady of Racing”, it was Penny Chenery. A woman who put her words into action and made sure that the industry had a working knowledge of how to improve and that it had the voice it needed to guide them in the right direction.
However, in her passing, this influence will not have died with her. Women that did not have generations of family in the sport (like myself) or ones that had been far removed for some time, are finding their feet and the courage to move forward. They are not settling for traditional or safe jobs in the industry; they are taking life by the reins and proving that they can be just as successful as the men when they put the work into their passions. Young men and women alike in the sport are not only demanding change but they are becoming that change.
So, today and in the future, we mourn the loss of Penny Chenery.
First Lady of Racing.
A woman that the sport desperately needed to come along.
We mourn Mrs. Penny Chenery: a legend, just like her Big Red superstar.