01/03/2003 12:00AM

A living Penny Chenery merits reward

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is with a heavy heart and fingers of lead that these words are typed:

Penny Chenery did not win the Eclipse Award of Merit. Again.

Once again, a committee comprised of representatives from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form chose to overlook the woman whose name has been synonymous with quality and integrity in horse racing for the past 30 years.

As Secretariat's owner during those magical seasons of 1972 and 1973, Chenery lent an articulate, accessible humanity to the unfolding equine drama. Then known by her married name of Tweedy, Chenery was Secretariat's passionate advocate, his staunchest defender, his source of unconditional love. It was hard to share him with an entire culture, but she did. Basically, she was Secretariat's mom.

Recognizing that, sports fans flocked to the Secretariat story. Never before had both a horse and its owner transcended the narrow bounds of racing to become a celebrity pair. It was Big Red and the Lady wherever they went, charming crowds, seducing sportswriters, and inspiring song.

"Please Mrs. Tweedy/saw him on the TV/send him out to run in the California sun," begged folksinger John Stewart in "Let the Big Horse Run."

In the years since Secretariat's retirement, Chenery has kept his legacy alive and thriving. At the same time, she has embraced and helped nurture the efforts of such horse racing causes as the Grayson Foundation, the Kentucky Horse Park, and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Chenery has been a tireless ambassador for the sport, and a woman of strong convictions who can still fill a banquet hall. When Chenery walks into a room, the aura of Secretariat always follows.

It would be easy to blame the white male establishment of horse racing for failing to recognize the merits of Chenery's contributions over the past three decades. Certainly, the record has a distinct chromosomal tilt. Since the Eclipse Award of Merit was first presented in 1976, there have been 24 men honored and one woman, Beverly Lewis, who stood beside her husband, Robert, to accept the award in 1997.

In addition, there have been 14 men (plus a beer company) recognized with the Eclipse Special Award, two men honored with Eclipse Awards for outstanding achievement, and four men named Eclipse Award Man of the Year. That last one doesn't count, though, since Chenery clearly was not eligible.

And while there can be very little argument with the names - most of them giants of the industry - adorning these lists, it is a curious fact of the game that the first six years the Eclipse Awards were presented, 1971-76, the Horse of the Year was owned by a woman (either Greer Garson, Martha Gerry, or Penny Chenery), that the only five-time Horse of the Year was owned by a woman (Marion duPont Scott), and that such meritorious candidates as Patrice Wolfson, Alice Chandler, Virginia Kraft Payson, and Charlsie Cantey also have been ignored through the years.

The ultimate insult, however, now has occurred. As announced on Friday, the Eclipse Award of Merit for 2002 is not going to one guy, but two. And not just two ordinary guys, either. This time, folks, for the first time in the history of the Eclipse Award of Merit, it's two dead guys.

Now, this is not to be confused with honors heaped upon anonymous firemen, or faceless soldiers, bestowed in the wake of their ultimate sacrifice.

More than anything else, such monuments provide catharsis for the living as much as tribute for the dead.

This is definitely different. In this there is something tasteless and downright morbid. These awards are going to two dead guys who enjoyed long and successful careers in the eye of the racing public. One an owner and a breeder, the other a racing secretary, they presumably had ample opportunity to earn the respect of their peers and the everlasting gratitude of their industry along the way.

So what did Ogden Phipps and Howard Battle do in 2002 that was deemed worthy of an Award of Merit? What did they add to their considerable list of accomplishments that they had not achieved by 1999, when neither they nor anyone else in horse racing was deemed worthy of an Eclipse Award of Merit?

They died.

Well, so did John Mabee, Laddie Dance, Ahmed bin Salman, Jerry Botts, Verne Winchell, and Bob Lee, the owner of the Wishing Well restaurant in Saratoga Springs. Why not them, too?

The sport had plenty of time to honor both Phipps and Battle over the past 20 years, while they were living, while they were still able to stride proudly across the stage on Eclipse Awards night and bask in the applause of an appreciative crowd. But the sport blew it. And now comes this embarrassing gesture, this cynical back filling, serving only to deprive other industry luminaries who are just as worthy, just as honorable, and very much alive.

Sorry, Penny. Maybe next year.