Monday, October 11, 2010
Penny Chenery Tweedy got the news while she prepared dinner for her family. She dropped a bowl. Her mother died that afternoon back in Virginia, the voice said. Dad should be told. They would wait for her travel back home to deliver the news to him personally. That was 1968.
Christopher Chenery, Penny’s father, built the twenty eight hundred acre Meadow Farm Stable in Caroline County, Virginia from scratch. The sprawling southern white house with wide porches and shady oak trees, the rolling hills and the glassy ponds and the fields lined with white fences on the perimeter of broad lawns and gravel roadways would be home to a champion line of thoroughbred horses; home to Penny and her brother, too. They grew up in these expansive hills and grassy meadows, on horseback and in the big library; children of privilege. Dad’s dreams fueled the family business. Mom’s care prepared them for a world beyond. Penny went on to college and graduate school, and married a successful attorney. Her brother, Hollis, became a Harvard economics professor.
Dad’s failing health meant that Meadow Farm Stable suffered, too. Christopher survived his wife’s passing, but barely. His once laser sharp mind became clouded in by age and dementia. He barely acknowledges Penny’s arrival or the terrible news. She is not sure he comprehends the enormity of it all there in the office where he cut deals, trading and planning, analyzing meticulous records; filing cabinets filled with detail only he could assemble. She sat with him in the room from whence all the energy came, the command center for an enviable life, and her heart broke.
In those days, the business of thoroughbred racing was a man’s world. But Christopher raised an extraordinary girl. It all flooded over her as she sat there with her dad. It wasn’t just the loss of her mother and father; it was the passing of a way of life. She left that amazing home out of high school. She excelled in the classroom of a prestigious women’s college (Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts) and on to Columbia Business School. In the early years, she assisted her husband as a young attorney. They had three children of their own. She raised them as she had been raised. Tough. Independent. Fearless. Expansive. Literary. Witty. Principled. But now, sitting there with Dad, she looked at him. Still bearing that Southern gentleman’s charm, there in his favorite leather chair, his eyes were nearly vacant. In that office on that ranch, something stirred in Penny’s heart. It would not be denied.
The more she learns about the condition of the farm, the greater her determination. Already, the proverbial vultures circled overhead knowing this rich soil, the structures, the animals and all the accoutrements of racing would soon be auctioned off at estate sale prices. Penny steels herself, tapping into her business acumen, but more, her father’s heart, and resolves to protect the place her parents built. The odds pile up. Her brother wants out. Her family wants her home. She embraces a calling that will not let her go.
That calling leads her to “the greatest horse that ever lived.” I remember that June 1973 TIME Magazine cover: Superhorse – Secretariat. It was the summer after my second year in the seminary. Later that year, the oil crisis hit. Cars lined up at filling stations. In the first year of Richard Nixon’s second term awful revelations of lawlessness accelerated after the discovery of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. (I spent a good portion of my senior year pondering the fate of our Republican President. He resigned the August following my graduation the next year.) In 1973, the country needed a lift. They got it from Penny’s horse.
It had been twenty-five years since Citation won the Triple Crown (The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same season) back in 1948. But after Secretariat won the first two of those races against his nemesis racehorse – Sham, a thoroughbred owned by Sigmund Sommer, Peggy’s nemesis – the whole world took notice. The running of the Belmont Stakes of 1973 became a global event. Would Secretariat accomplish the impossible? The world sat spellbound for the entire mile and a half and the blazing average speed of 37.5 miles per hour. Two minutes and twenty-four seconds. A staggering record that stands to this day. Secretariat’s finish left no doubt.
Director Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) puts us in the race. The visuals are stunning, but the thunderous soundtrack, too. A thoroughbred at full speed in slow motion is a wonder to behold. Secretariat, the horse, inspired a nation back in 1973.
Secretariat, the movie, inspires me.
And if you go see it, watch for “O Happy Day.”
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010