October 24, 2016. It was a Monday, around 11am. I sat at my desk— my favorite old leather chair beneath me— my coffee with one creamer just the faintest reach away. I picked up my cell phone, searched for her phone number in my contacts, and without allowing myself to overthink the moments looming ahead, I pressed the emerald green “Call” button.
The phone rang… and it rang… then it rang some more. With each passing ring, came senses of urgency and nervousness, just before the machine picked up. There was the faintest hint of static, as if tiny crumpled papers danced on the other end of the line— and then I heard her voice— “This is Penny’s phone…”
It was surreal, as well as somewhat a relief. I had worked myself up so heavily, preparing for this phone call for the past 20 years of my life— “Perhaps, I thought, this is a blessing. Now, I can collect myself and wait for her to return my call.” But, before the recording could play the remainder of her sentence, there was an abrupt “Click”.
“Hello, this is Penny,” she said— her voice both weathered and bright, simultaneously. She had been expecting my call, and laughed about just how close I came to missing her; her afternoon nap had gone a just a tad longer than expected. She was thoughtful in apologizing for the delay, all the while unknowing just how many years I had truly waited for this moment.
We exchanged pleasantries, and of course, I explained to her just how much she had been the inspiration behind much of my life, before getting down to brass tacks— we were here in the moment to discuss, not me— not even Penny, herself— but her beloved Riva Ridge— the colt who saved her ailing father’s stable decades ago— the horse who was all but forgotten when his God-like stablemate, Secretariat, came along before Riva’s legacy was solidified.
As she began to speak of the horse she loved dearly, it was clear. I was not speaking with a then- 94 year old woman who had been deemed the First Lady of Horse Racing, or the woman who had inspired young ladies everywhere, to push beyond barriers that had been instilled by men. I was instead listening to the voice of a woman who simply loved deeply, a horse whom she had carried with her all this time. Her voice, not of a woman who had been around for nearly a century, but a voice jovial and abundant in childlike wonder.
She spoke of Cicada, and of course Secretariat. But, the unbridled joy with which she spoke when discussing Riva Ridge told me everything I needed to know— that rare brand of joy she exuded had kept her young, these many years.
Following our discussion about Riva Ridge— his birth, life, and untimely death— the conversation gradually travelled to me… Penny wanted to know about me. It was in this moment, that I realized the kind of person she was. She was so much more than a woman who changed a sport or an industry alike; she wasn’t the legend she had come to be because of the accomplishments of her great horses. Sure, those horses brought to light the story of a woman owner because there were not many of her kind, in years of yore. But Penny Chenery was the woman we remember her to be— because she was a good human being to her very core.
She wanted to sign every autograph. She granted every interview. She learnt the names of backstretch workers— only passerbys to most. She made a difference in the lives around her, by standing for what she believed in, never surrendering to a challenge, and for doing what was right and just.
After explaining to her a little bit about myself, Penny treated me as a friend. She gave me advice— telling me to “Never accept the word ‘no’ when pursuing the impossible,” and I will hold that in my heart of hearts, for the rest of my time here.
The news of her passing has brought me to my knees. Penny being 95, I knew this day would come— sooner than later. But, nonetheless, it is the end of an era in Horse Racing, for so many people just like myself. I will dearly miss the very knowing that a woman like Penny Chenery exists— let alone her beaming smile, still attending racing events in the ninth decade of her life— a life which will never be forgotten or matched— one which will carry on through people like us, long after we too, are gone.
Thank you, Penny— for all you did, and will continue to do through the people you inspired.
I hope your beloved Riva was waiting for you.
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