VAIL — It’s Kentucky Derby Day, so relax with a mint julep and watch the race as we explain how the bloodlines of the world’s greatest racehorse run through Vail.
Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy, was a Vail original.
Diane Lane played her in the 2010 Disney movie. Look quickly and you’ll spot Penny near Lane during the bits with Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes.
But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.
Penny Chenery Tweedy was married to Jack Tweedy, the Denver attorney who did much of the legal work for Vail Associates and the fledgling ski area. They were in the process of living happily ever after, lawyering and helping launch the ski area, and generally having a pretty good time.
But Penny’s father, Christopher Chenery, developed Alzheimer’s and Penny was the only one of his three children in a position to take care of him. So back to Virginia she went.
Christopher founded Meadow Stable in the 1930s. His granddaughter, Kate Chenery Tweedy, said her grandfather was “frugal.” He had an eye for mares, and for 40 years he bought as many promising mares as he could. He bred them to the best stallions he could find and raised racehorses.
It really is all in the breeding, and Christopher’s horses won all sorts of races. But he lost in three runs at the Kentucky Derby crown.
By 1968, Christopher was in his 80s and developed Alzheimer’s. He had three children, and Penny headed back to Virginia to run the stable. She could run the business, but knew nothing about breeding or training horses, so she taught herself, reading everything she could get her hands on and talking with anyone with something useful to say.
She got the hang of it quickly and in 1972, Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby. You’ll recognize the name from the ski run in Vail and the epic World War II battle fought in Northern Italy by the famed 10th Mountain Division.
But it was the following year that enshrined Penny Tweedy and her super horse among horse racing’s greatest.
Secretariat was a 3-year-old chestnut stallion who ran away with the Triple Crown. His Kentucky Derby win was followed by record-setting performances in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
“I’m certainly more nervous than he was,” Penny told ABC Sports as Secretariat took the track before the Belmont Stakes.
Secretariat became a national hero and was even named Man of the Year. Over a picture of Secretariat, Time magazine’s cover proclaimed, “The Man of the Year … is a horse. Secretariat.”
Tweedy became “The First Lady of Racing.”
Secretariat ran 21 races and won 16. He retired to stud in 1974.
Christopher Chenery is recorded as the official breeder of Secretariat. Racing columnist Bill Nack wrote in his book on the racehorse that in 1968, Penny Chenery made the decision to breed their mare Somethingroyal, to Bold Ruler. The first breeding produced the filly The Bride. The second breeding, in 1969, resulted in Secretariat.
When Secretariat died in 1989, we learned that he really was a lean, mean running machine who was mostly all heart. His heart weighed 22 pounds, doctors learned during the autopsy, twice what most horse hearts weigh.
Penny Tweedy’s nonprofit foundation is www.secretariat.com.
She’s 91 and lives in Boulder, near her children.
Information for this story came from author William Nack, The Denver Post and recorded interviews with ABC and CBS sports.