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TrackNotes: The Immortal Penny Chenery

And then, on a beautiful Sunday, you get punched in the stomach.

Penny Chenery, the owner and elegant human representative of the magnificent Secretariat, passed away Saturday in Boulder, Colorado. She was 95. But immortal to me.

I learned a few new things about her today. Including an affair she had with Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin.

But her always honest reflections taught us once more.

"It may spoil my image," Ms. Chenery told the Lexington Herald-Leader in discussing her revelation of the affair with Laurin, who died in 2000. "I don't know, and at this point I don't care. It was a tremendous experience for me to go through the Secretariat years, and I just really wanted to let people know what it's like to have a top horse and no one to turn to."

That last part is so revealing, as everyone in the world fell in love with Big Red. I remember reveling in the horse, too, but I always got a kick out of seeing Mrs. Tweedy (at the time by marriage) as much at a loss of words as we were. The responsibility, and burdens, she shouldered with such a horse had to be so much a weight on her. The entire racing world, and fans, civilians in the saddle, knew he was such a phenomenon, multiplying every day, knew how special Secretariat was and it became her job to see that he fulfilled his tremendous potential. She did it.

I said it once before, and I can't say it any better today.

After his planetary victory in the Belmont Stakes, "Secretariat's owner, Penny (Chenery) Tweedy, hugged those around her, flashing the now-famous smile. She waved her arms to the crowd, as if to say 'This is great, isn't it?'"

I had the great pleasure to write about Secretariat for the Beachwood, tied in with the release of Disney's movie Secretariat.

I hated it, as you might have read, and I'm happy Ms.Chenery didn't like it much either.

The movie's director Randall Wallace, subservient to the fraudulent Disney, didn't shy away from his motives.

"Obviously, one can romanticize it all, but I think Penny Chenery had a sense that connected her to the horse," Wallace said when the movie was released. He turned it into a commercial, a Biblical parable.

Full of grace and diplomacy, Ms. Chenery pooh-poohed, the first four words saying it all. "Ms. Chenery dismissed the suggestion of a mystical tie. As she told The Times: 'It's a Disney movie. No, we didn't have a spiritual connection. We had a mutual respect, but he didn't stand still long enough for me to look in his eye and say a prayer.'"

But she knew what she had and what she had to do. From a bit of a distance for her, Riva Ridge in 1972 had cusped the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before defeat in the Belmont. She syndicated Secretariat for $6.08 million, a record at the time, in part to keep Meadow Stables viable.

She built the barn on the strength of broodmares. Secretariat sired a few good colts, but his strength in the shed was with extending the lineage of his mother, Somethingroyal. His progeny on the dam side were highly respectable.

As I researched the series, I couldn't help but escape the human aspect of the story. Laurin acted cool. Jockey Ron Turcotte acted like he didn't give a damn; just another horse. But he knew, too.

But Ms. Chenery, with all humility and honesty, stood out front, answered all the questions, an "I dunno" thrown in from time to time, reveling in the horse as much as we did. Watching his wins just like the rest of us fans - Secretariat was unbettable by then - seemingly saying "I don't know what he's going to do either."

Ms. Chenery said she never had a chance to look Secretariat in the eye, but I think she did. She once said that "He knows who he is and what he can do. He just loves to run, and we love to watch him run. He knows that."

Sounds to me like she knew him well enough. And knew about racing, and knew about racing fans.

There's a real old line: "She seen her duty and she done it."

That is life, achieved.

This one hurts.

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Tom Chambers is our correspondent on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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