As Secretariat’s birthday approaches, we wanted to share this heartfelt tribute to him and his owner Penny Chenery, written by Laura Dowdy Smith of Middleburg, VA. Laura’s story, especially the part about her future husband’s license plate, illustrates how Big Red and “the first lady of racing” have touched lives in many ways.
Secretariat—More than a Horse by Laura Dowdy Smith
A great Virginia lady and a great Virginia horse have forever touched my life—I will never underestimate the power of either.
It was some 20 years after Secretariat’s legendary Triple Crown victory that I met Penny while working for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA). She was a Trustee Emeritus at TOBA and would attend all the social functions that supported the Thoroughbred industry– even lending her name to causes she believes in like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF, which finds homes for retired racehorses) and anything associated with supporting women in racing. As I helped host some of these functions, I did get to visit with Penny and I felt a special kinship with her as I too was a native-Virginian transplanted to Lexington, Kentucky for the love of Secretariat.
Where many equestrian endeavors are associated with women—riding in particular—Thoroughbred racing and breeding is still an industry dominated by men. Penny has opened a lot of doors for women like me and I will always be grateful to her for that. She also represents the heart of racing—believing in the motto to “ always do what is right—by the horse” and otherwise. She is the conscience of the industry. Giving women opportunities and taking care of retired racehorses were very progressive ideas that the industry has gradually come to embrace—largely as a reaction to public scrutiny. The world has come to Penny’s way of thinking.
What has always amazed me about Penny and the influence she has —is how she has conducted herself. She is a true Virginia Lady who didn’t arrive on the scene kicking down doors and screaming for equality. She stood firmly and with grace and dignity that put her on equal footing with any man. Diane Lane deserved an Oscar for her apt portrayal of this very sharp and regal lady.
Her polite and kind manner is not an act. I watched her meet and greet countless fans of Secretariat—20 years later—and she indulged every memory or anecdote they wanted to share—even my own. In 1973, I sat on my father’s shoulders at the finish line at Pimlico and watched Secretariat blow past us in the Preakness—a racing fan was born.
In April of 1991, while in my last semester at the University of Virginia, I was on my second date with a handsome law student. We had dinner on the “Corner” and were getting ready to cross the street return to his car—when he pointed to his license plate “159N2” and asked me if I knew what it meant. I paused, “It sounds like a time,” I said. “I think its Secretariat’s time in the Derby.” With my response his face became ashy-white—I wondered how what I said could have affected him so. Much later I came to find out that before law school he had told his college buddies that he would marry the girl who could tell what his license plate meant. We were married in 1993 and moved to Lexington, Kentucky to follow our dreams and Thoroughbred racing.
When I told Penny this story, she sent my husband a signed poster of Secretariat for our anniversary that said, “To Bruce, who also remembers 159N2.” It is framed and hangs in his Virginia office today (We moved back to Virginia in 2002). That poster is a reminder to both of us that dreams do come true—great horses do exist—sometimes we’re caught living in between them—waiting for the next great horse. Hopefully, that horse will also be born in Virginia. I applaud the efforts of the VTA to pursue funding from the state to keep the dream alive.
Thoroughbred enthusiasts across the Commonwealth have a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Secretariat’s birthday, Sunday, March 27th at his actual birthplace at the Meadow, in Doswell, Virginia. Come see the foaling shed where he was actually born and visit with Penny Chenery.