Penny Chenery could have lived a quiet, privileged life.
Instead, she lived a life of moxie.
Penny was well settled into life as a wife and mother in Denver, Colo. She filled her days with charity work, skiing and riding her horse.
All that changed when her father, Christopher, became too ill to run the Meadow, the family’s farm in Virginia. Meadow Stable was the fulfillment of a dream for Christopher. After a successful career as a business executive, he’d purchased Meadow Stable in 1936. It had been owned by the family generations before, but had been lost in the years after the Civil War. Christopher bought it back, and began rebuilding it as a successful thoroughbred racing and breeding operation.
When Christopher began to succumb to Alzheimers in 1967, it was up to his children to decide what to do with Meadow Stable. Her brother and sister were inclined to sell. Penny wasn’t.
Penny had been educated at the finest schools, including Columbia Business School, she was on Meadow Stable’s board, and had long enjoyed riding.
Despite all of that, she didn’t have the knowledge, experience and training required to successfully run a racing and breeding operation.
What she did have was a large dose of moxie.
She convinced her brother and sister to empower her to carry on her father’s dream, and dove into learning everything she could about breeding, racing, and the horse business.
The rest, as we say, is history. Chenery ended up with Secretariat as the result of a (lost) coin toss. Secretariat went on to win horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973. He was the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter century, and his sweep sent shockwaves of excitement through a country struggling with the “malaise” that characterized the early 70s.
Penny Chenery passed away just a few days ago at the age of 95. If I’d had the chance to interview her, I’d probably be indelicate enough to ask how much of her desire to take the helm of Meadow Stable was driven by a need to break out of the “malaise” of her own life. Her marriage to her first husband and the father of her four children dissolved in the glow of Secretariat’s victory, just a few short years after she took the helm of Meadow Stable.
I expect she’d answer in her cool, straightforward way. She was a clear, honest communicator who seemed to hold little back. She seemed remarkable unsentimental, too, not given to romanticizing herself, her horses or her circumstances.
That kind of moxie is the truest kind; the ability to see oneself unflinchingly, and tell the truth, and not shrink back. She had that kind of moxie, wrapped in impeccably tailored frocks, topped with impeccably coiffed hair, and graced with an impeccably honest smile.
She considered herself Secretariat’s voice, and she represented him well. She also became the voice of women in the horse industry, and a champion for the industry itself. All of that took moxie.