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Posted by Tom Eblen
Dr. Todd Breeding didn’t recognize the woman who came to his Lexington clinic to follow up from heart surgery. It was the Tuesday before the 2005 Kentucky Derby, and people kept calling her cell phone to find out which horse she liked in the race.
“I didn’t know if she was a bookie or a professional handicapper or what,” Breeding recalled. “So I said, ‘You seem to know a lot about horse racing.’”
Penny Chenery allowed that she and her late husband had raised horses. The cardiologist wanted to know more: Did any of her horses ever race at Keeneland? Did any of them do well?
“We had one pretty good horse,” he said Chenery finally told him. “Secretariat.”
Only then did Breeding realize that his patient was one of America’s most accomplished horsewomen, breeder of the 1973 Triple Crown winner and the 1972 Derby winner, Riva Ridge. Actress Diane Lane portrays Chenery in the new Walt Disney movie “Secretariat,” which was filmed in Lexington last fall and will open in October.
That day in the clinic, though, Chenery was her usual friendly, unassuming self. And, like too many Kentuckians, she had heart disease. Kentucky has the nation’s sixth-highest death rate from heart disease, which is America’s biggest killer. Cardiovascular disease claims nearly 13,000 lives in Kentucky each year, more than half of them women.
Chenery is one of the lucky ones — a survivor — and she will be honored Feb. 27 at the American Heart Association’s Central Kentucky Heart & Stroke Ball, presented by the Nurses Registry. The 22nd annual black-tie fundraiser will be at Lexington Center’s Bluegrass Ballroom.
“She’s a wonderful person,” said former Keeneland President Ted Bassett, a longtime friend. “For four decades, Penny has been the smiling face of the Thoroughbred industry, always enthusiastic about life.”
Chenery, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., near her four children, said in a telephone interview that she doesn’t know why the Heart Association wants to honor her. But she is happy to help raise money for heart and stroke research — and to convey two important lessons to others with heart disease.
The first lesson is to seek medical help immediately if you think you may be having heart trouble. That’s what Chenery did in the wee hours of Sept. 6, 2004.
“I just felt weird,” she recalled. “I didn’t have pain; just an overall unease. Finally, about two in the morning, I drove myself to the emergency room.”
When Chenery woke the next morning, doctors told her she had had a heart attack. Breeding said she had a blocked artery in the back of her heart, requiring angioplasty and a stent. “She is a good example of what you should do,” he said. “If you wait even four or five hours, pardon the phrase, the horse is out of the barn and we’re not able to save a lot of the heart muscle.”
Since then, Chenery said she has had “recurrent cardiovascular incidents” and nine more stents implanted to keep her arteries open. A mini-stroke affected her balance and she now uses a cane to steady herself.
“I’m 88, you know, so you can assume that things are going to go wrong,” she chuckled.
But age hasn’t stopped Chenery from heeding a second important lesson for people with heart disease: proper diet and exercise. Chenery went through cardiac rehabilitation at Central Baptist Hospital. “That was kind of fun,” she said. “The more you go, the stronger you get and the less you worry. It was really very useful.”
In Colorado, she said, “I go to exercise class four days a week. I make sure I don’t get too tired or too hungry.”
Chenery figures she will need her strength when “Secretariat” opens in October and media attention is once again focused on her. She said having a movie made about her story has been “weird” but fun. “The script writer was a very nice, intelligent man,” she said. “He spent a week out here. When he (later) sent me the script, he said, ‘Penny, this is not a documentary. It’s a Disney movie.’ So it’s a little sappy.”
Chenery said she visited the set several times during filming and became good friends with Lane. “She’s warm, intuitive, intelligent and has great respect for the character she plays, which happens to be me,” she said. “John Malkovich is an interesting man. He’s nothing like my trainer, Lucien Laurin, but he’s a very strong character.”
Chenery said the movie “is very kind to me and my family. The best possible outcome is that … the movie will get more people aware of Thoroughbred racing and to see it as a glamorous and exciting sport and not just gambling.”
Racing has never been about gambling for Chenery; she said she doesn’t bet. “I hate to lose, so I don’t gamble,” she said.
Racing was her father’s love, and when Christopher Chenery fell ill with Alzheimer’s disease in 1969, the youngest of his three children decided to try to save his money-losing Meadow Farm in Virginia rather than sell it.
After breeding and racing Riva Ridge and Secretariat, Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery became one of the first women admitted to the Jockey Club and was president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
Chenery said she has tried to overcome heart disease the same way she has tackled every obstacle in her life, and she recommended that others should do the same.
“Find out what your situation is and deal with it … go to rehab, or whatever,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is sit in a chair and feel sorry for yourself. There’s lots you can do, and you’ll find you have lots of company. Life is what you make of it.
“You would think that I’ve had an easy life … all my life there was enough money in the family,” Chenery said. “But there were so many other challenges. Having a health challenge is just one more thing in a lifetime of having to rise to occasions.”