09/30/2010 1:18PM

Penny Chenery's life, unscripted

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Penny Chenery (left) with Diane Lane, who portrays her in Disney's "Secretariat." "There are some omissions," Chenery said, "but by and large, I think it's a wonderful picture."

I have known Penny Chenery for almost 40 years, not as far back as the Kentucky Derby year of Riva Ridge, but all the way back to the early days of Secretariat as a 3-year-old.

I know Chenery well enough to know that chamber music is one of her favorite sounds.

I know her well enough to know that she would never marry anybody from Los Angeles. She tried L.A. twice, and it didn’t work.

I know her well enough to know that she used to complain about the name of her second husband, which was similar to the late William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “The marriage aside, [Ringquist] was not a very good name,” Chenery told me after the divorce. “Nobody could spell it. And everybody thought we had something to do with the Supreme Court.”

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So when I went to a recent screening of “Secretariat,” the film from Walt Disney Pictures, I didn’t expect a five-minute scene in which Diane Lane, who plays Penny Chenery, goes into rapture over a string quartet. Chamber music, like satire, is what closes on Saturday night.

Nor did I expect Disney to shoot any scenes from divorce court. Disney? Divorce? Incompatible, through and through.

What Diane Lane, as the owner of Riva Ridge and Secretariat, gives the popcorn crowd is something borrowed, something new. The film, scheduled for release Oct. 8, borrows heavily from Penny Chenery’s remarkable life, now in its 88th year, but for dramatic purposes also throws in scenes just shy of the kitchen sink.

“There are some omissions, some contrivances,” Chenery said when I asked her about the film, which has been criticized for being too much Chenery and not enough Secretariat. “But by and large, I think it’s a wonderful picture. Working with the Disney people was a complete pleasure. They couldn’t have been nicer. I realized going in that this was Hollywood, and to keep a movie going, you have to disturb the facts and enhance things here and there. So the things in the film that didn’t really happen don’t bother me at all.”

Chenery said she would have liked to have seen her sister, Margaret Carmichael, included in the film. Incredibly, there is no mention of Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1972, in effect saving the Chenery farm before Secretariat even got the chance with his Triple Crown sweep the next year.

“Margaret was right in the middle of the family talk that we had about the future of the farm,” Chenery said.

This was late in 1967. Christopher T. Chenery, the octogenarian lord of The Meadow, a 2,600-acre spread in Doswell, Va., had hardening of the arteries and was in failing health.

Inexplicably, he had sold away three mares who had been stakes winners. Maybe it was the money – Meadow Stable and Meadow Stud had been national leaders in racing and breeding, but there were no longer any Hill Princes, any Cicadas, any First Landings in the barn. More than likely, it was the initial ravages of senility. Doctors were saying that non compos mentis was only a matter of time.

Chenery’s wife had died, and the responsibility for the future of The Meadow fell to his three children – Hollis Chenery, Margaret Chenery Carmichael, and the youngest, Penny Chenery Tweedy. None of them was a horse person, per se. Hollis was an economist who was a professor at Harvard. Margaret, who lived in Arizona, was not enamored with her father’s business. Penny, while a member of the board of Meadow Stud, had ridden horses most of her life and years before had followed her father to polo matches and fox hunts. “I can read a balance sheet,” was one of her famous quotes, based on her study as a post-graduate student at Columbia University’s business school, but she knew that if she took over the breeding and racing operation, it would be a work in progress, with a lot of on-the-job training.

Penny Chenery Tweedy, who was then 45, was far removed from The Meadow. Married to a Denver lawyer, she was rearing four children. She said the lone discussion about her taking over the farm was businesslike and cordial. She became a minority of one. Her brother and sister wanted to sell the farm and the 130 breeding and racing stock their father owned.
“If you run the farm,” Hollis Chenery said, “you’re going to be the only one having the fun. We ought to sell everything and make some investments that will involve all three of us.”

Penny Chenery chuckled as she told the story. “It was time,” she said, “to play the daddy card.”

She told them that they should do what their father would do, were he still healthy. “The land has supported the horses, and the horses have supported the land.”

Reluctantly, her brother and sister agreed and put Chenery on a short leash. The first year, during a time when the farm’s new mistress pared the racing and breeding stock from 130 to 68 horses, The Meadow lost a little less than $100,000. The second year, there was a profit of about $65,000. The farm – and Penny Chenery – needed a boost, which came with the arrival of Riva Ridge, who was voted best 2-year-old male in 1971. A son of First Landing, who had won the 2-year-old title for Meadow Stable 13 years before, Riva Ridge won the front and back of the Triple Crown and by the time of his retirement in 1973 had earned $1.1 million.

Riva Ridge was trained by Lucien Laurin, who had been trying to quit training when Penny Chenery hired him, in the wake of the firing of her father’s longtime trainer, Casey Hayes, and the quick departure from Meadow Stable of Roger Laurin, Lucien Laurin’s son. The younger Laurin got an offer he couldn’t refuse, to become the private trainer for the vaunted Phipps family stable.

“Lucien was not a hands-on trainer,” Chenery said during the recent interview. “He wouldn’t spend a lot of time at the barn. But when he was there, he was a great observer. He picked up on things very quickly. He was a better trainer than his son. I don’t want to be critical of Roger, but he didn’t have the intuition that his father had. He trained every horse alike. Lucien had a different regimen for every horse. That’s why he worked Secretariat so hard, because he knew he needed it.”

Chenery, a great observer herself and not afraid to ask friends such as Bull Hancock the most basic of questions, had her testy moments with Laurin over the years. Their relationship was the most strained during Secretariat’s Triple Crown season in 1973, when Laurin also trained another top 3-year-old, Angle Light, for a fellow Canadian, Edwin Whittaker. As a foal, Secretariat had come Meadow Stable’s way in what is inarguably the most propitious coin toss in the history of sport – a flip that both sides wanted to lose, and Chenery did lose.
Chenery had inherited a quirky deal between her father and the late Ogden Phipps, an arrangement she wanted to discontinue as soon as it ran its course. Bold Ruler, the Phipps stallion, would be bred each of two years to a set of mares. The winner of the toss would get first choice of those foals the first year, which was 1969, and the loser would get first choice in 1970. But by the time of the toss, in August 1969, it was known that one of the mares, the champion grass horse Cicada, had come up barren for 1970. So the winner of the toss got first choice of the two 1969 foals, the loser got what was left, and in 1970 the loser got the only remaining foal. The loser of the flip would wind up with two of the three horses.

The flip took place at Saratoga. Bull Hancock tossed the coin, and Phipps called it correctly for his pyrrhic victory. Phipps chose a filly out of Somethingroyal, the Chenery mare, who was named The Bride. The Bride raced only four times, never finishing better than sixth. What Penny Chenery got wasn’t much better, a Hasty Matelda colt, Rising River, who was unsound and eventually sold for $50,000. At the time of the flip, Somethingroyal was more than six months in foal to Bold Ruler, and the colt to be named Secretariat was dropped at Meadow Stud in Doswell, Va., on March 30, 1970. As loser of the toss, Chenery was left with Secretariat, since he was the only foal remaining in the second year.

“I’ve never really thought about what would have happened in my life had that flip gone the other way,” Chenery said. “I’m not the kind of person who looks back on things that much. But I knew better than to ever discuss it with Ogden Phipps. He wanted no part of it. Maybe he was embarrassed about the way it turned out. He was a shy person, not very warm, and that could have been part of it as well.”

Chenery’s marriage of 24 years to Jack Tweedy ended the year after Secretariat’s Triple Crown. When Riva Ridge was on the cusp of winning the Kentucky Derby, the Tweedys moved from Denver to New York, Penny to be closer to her Triple Crown candidate and The Meadow farm operation, Jack to work at a new job. In 1974, Jack Tweedy’s work entailed a transfer to Los Angeles. “I helped him set up a home out there, in Pacific Palisades,” Penny Chenery said. “But it didn’t work out.”

Nor did Chenery’s second marriage, to Lennart Ringquist. In the six-degrees-of-separation department, Ringquist was a Disney executive, living in Los Angeles. They were married five years.

“I would go out with Lennart in L.A., and people wouldn’t know who I was, or what horses were about,” Chenery said. “And I could never figure out what any of them were up to, either.”

Ringquist is now married to May Britt, the former actress. Not long removed from her native Sweden, Britt had a brief marriage to the late Eddie Gregson, a 19-year-old fledgling actor, in the late 1950s. In 1982, Gregson trained Gato Del Sol, winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Christopher Chenery, 86, died the first week of January in 1973, before Secretariat embarked on his 3-year-old season. The Chenery heirs were faced with paying a huge estate tax. Secretariat was syndicated for breeding purposes for $6.08 million.

“That saved the day,” Penny Chenery said. “But if my father had died just two months sooner, it would have been even worse. There would have been nothing we could have done but sell Secretariat outright.”

In Secretariat’s race to the Triple Crown, the Disney film falls down the most in its portrayal of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. After losing in the first race of his life, Secretariat finished first in his next 10 starts and, running as an entry with Angle Light, was a 3-10 favorite in New York. But he ran third, beaten by four lengths, as Angle Light barely outfooted Sham in a duel to the wire. The movie strongly suggests that Sham was the winner of the Wood.

“The movie barely mentions Angle Light in the race call of the Wood,” Chenery said. “That, Riva Ridge, and my sister would be the three major omissions in my estimation. It was Riva Ridge who really saved the farm, but that would detract from the story, wouldn’t it?”

There was an exchange between Chenery and Laurin as they watched the finish of the Wood from their box seats. The sawed-off Laurin, a former jockey, was blocked by other spectators and couldn’t see much of the stretch run, which stunned the crowd. After the horses crossed the finish line, a confused Laurin turned to Chenery and said: “Who won it?”

“You won it!” she shouted, and she could have added, but with the wrong horse.

Somebody else nearby shouted: “Angle Light won it!”

Laurin seemed disoriented. “Angle Light?” he said. He must have felt like the man who saw his mother-in-law drive over a cliff, but in his own Cadillac. In Bill Nack’s book about Secretariat, which is the basis for the movie, he wrote that the owner of Angle Light was also conflicted. “I just buggered up the Kentucky Derby,” Edwin Whittaker said.

Chenery said she chewed out Ron Turcotte for his ride. She thought he had misjudged the pace. Laurin was also not exempt from her wrath, although she says now that her problem was with the jockey, not the trainer. Turcotte says now that he never feared he might lose the mount. He had ridden Secretariat 10 straight times – nine of them wins – since Paul Feliciano had been on the colt for his first two races. The week of the Kentucky Derby, Turcotte finally found Secretariat’s excuse – he was told the horse ran in the Wood with an abscess on his lower lip.

There were reports that only Laurin and Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat, knew about the abscess before the Wood. Both are dead. Turcotte said recently that the late Jim Gaffney, Secretariat’s exercise rider, also knew. “Lucien swore to me that he didn’t know,” Chenery says now. There was another time, another Secretariat loss, when he ran without being 100 percent. Onion beat him in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August 1973.

“He had a low-grade fever going into that race,” Chenery said. “That was our fault. We shouldn’t have run him.”

Chenery had a barnful of not-so-silent partners by the time Secretariat began his 3-year-old season. Her brother Hollis estimated the tax on their father’s estate would run to several million dollars. Bull Hancock had died in 1972, but his 23-year-old son, Seth, worked with the Chenerys to put together the breeding syndication – 32 shares at $190,000 each. What might seem like chump change in later years was a record for a stud package at the time.

“The syndication was all handled by Seth,” Penny Chenery said. “He did all the work. I didn’t have one thing to do with it, except to check with him from time to time to see how things were going.”

Chenery herself retained two shares, and the Chenery family, including Penny, received two additional shares. The $190,000 bought an investor the right to breed one mare a year to Secretariat for the stallion’s lifetime. Chenery was obligated to retire him after the 1973 season, but all money earned during the colt’s 3-year-old season would go into the coffers of Meadow Stable.

When Secretariat ran in the Derby, he was carrying 126 pounds, same as the other horses, but had the added impost of the syndication subscribers. The pressure on Chenery and Laurin was tremendous. The press began to question whether Secretariat could win. There was the loss in the Wood, word of the horse’s abscess, and besides, wrote Dave Feldman in a Chicago newspaper, “Sons of Bold Ruler are not supposed to be able to go a mile and a quarter.” Even Bill Nack, Secretariat’s unofficial biographer, picked against him. He liked Sham to win the Derby.

Laurin was looking at a Hobson’s choice. Whittaker, the owner of Angle Light, kept saying he wouldn’t run his horse in the Derby, that he couldn’t beat Secretariat again and he was in Louisville just to sell his colt. But Whittaker was also carrying around in his pocket a check to pay for the entry fee.

The Wednesday of Derby Week, and the day before entries would be drawn, Penny Chenery and Laurin were having dinner at a hotel dining room near the track when Whittaker walked in and came over to their table. All that was bottled up inside Chenery came out. Laurin looked like he wanted to crawl under the table.

“That whole conversation did not go well,” Chenery recalled. “I should have been bigger than that to say some of the things I said.”

Whittaker ran his horse, Angle Light finished 10th, and Secretariat won in a record-setting cakewalk. When the press walked into the jockeys’ room after the race, Turcotte was sitting on a bench, with a white towel across his knees and smoking a cigar about as long as his whip. “Hey, Dave,” he shouted to the naysayer Feldman, “still think Bold Rulers can’t go a mile and a quarter?”

The Disney movie made very little of the Preakness, two weeks later, and instead of trying to have Keeneland or Evangeline Downs impersonate Pimlico, the filmmakers were smart enough to settle for a replay of the original national telecast of the race. Baltimore was where Chenery, were she superstitious, would have thrown in the towel. While Chenery & Co. ate breakfast at the old Pimlico Hotel, which was not really a hotel but a restaurant almost on the track grounds, a valet parking daredevil totaled their car. They forgot their track credentials and paid their way in. While the horses were being saddled in the infield for the race, a careless smoker burned Chenery’s arm with a cigarette. Leaving the saddling area, Jack Tweedy had his pocket picked. These untoward incidents would have made nice stuff for the movie but added about 30 minutes to the running time.

“I remember all that happening,” Chenery said. “One thing after another. But I wasn’t worried, because our horse was ready to run. What I remember is my husband, who was miffed because none of us made too big a deal out of him losing his wallet.”

Secretariat’s electrifying move around horses on the clubhouse turn presaged another tour de force. Chenery had three weeks to wait before they tried to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

The morning of the Belmont, Chenery slept till almost 11 o’clock. “The worst part of the day,” she said, “was waiting for them to run the race.”

Chenery didn’t arrive at Belmont Park until almost 3. She was drinking Jack Daniels and water then and had one of them with her lunch in the trustees’ room.

She has watched the replay, the 31-length win, the shattering of the clock by 2 3/5 seconds, countless times. “We knew we had a horse who on his best day was 10 lengths better than any other horse in the race,” she said. “He and Sham were together on the first turn, but you never had the feeling that our horse was pressured. Secretariat was running just for the joy of it that day.”

She remembers standing next to Lucien Laurin as he shouted, “Don’t fall off!” to Turcotte through the stretch run.

I have run into Penny Chenery often through the ensuing years. She is a tireless supporter of the game and has given back at least all that it gave her.

“Got any good 2-year-olds?” I would ask.

“They’re just horses,” she would say with a shrug.

She lives in Boulder, Colo., near her children and six grandchildren. She is still not much for hypotheticals. She said I was the first one to ever ask her about a match race of the mind between Man o’ War and Secretariat. “Secretariat might have trouble catching him,” she said.

“But how could you ever know? All the variables. For one thing, what kind of shoes would they be wearing?”

If Secretariat came out of a time machine and won another Triple Crown, that might jump-start the struggling game “temporarily,” she said, “but a lot would depend on whether he went on to race at 4 and 5 and kept the enthusiasm going.” She didn’t have that choice with the real Secretariat.

Chenery sold The Meadow in 1988, then leased its training facilities for five years. She owns three horses — two broodmares and a filly, Cora Mariah, who is learning the ropes at Calumet Farm. Cora Mariah might be just a horse. But Penny Chenery, still looking for rainbows, will wait to see if she turns out otherwise.