On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Secretariat Winning the Triple Crown

Secretariat & Pelham

Following the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness last month, the 2023 Triple Crown concludes today with the running of the Belmont Stakes. This marks the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s famous win of the Triple Crown in 1973.  Secretariat’s win is the stuff of legend.  The chestnut-colored horse born as “Big Red” was acquired through a coin toss won against Ogden Phipps by Penny Chenery Tweedy, representing her father, Christopher Chenery and his “Meadow Farm” in Virginia.  Penny stubbornly refused to sell Secretariat when under pressure to raise money to pay huge estate taxes due after the death of her father in January 1973.  Five months later, Secretariat took the Triple Crown, winning the Belmont Stakes race by 30 lengths and setting the record for the fastest 1.5 miles on dirt, a record that still stands today. It is a story that is fabulously told and which many know through the 2010 Disney film, Secretariat, where Penny Chenery makes a cameo appearance at the end. But the movie has one glaring historical inaccuracy: many of the scenes that are shot as taking place at Meadow Farm, actually took place in Pelham.

“We told Disney that the movie should also be shot in Pelham,” Kate Tweedy, Penny’s daughter, recalled in a 2018 conversation with the Pelham Town Historian at the time the Pelham Preservation Society held its annual fundraiser at the former Chenery House.  “They just felt that it made for a better story to place it in Virginia.”   In fact, all of the opening scenes involving Christopher Chenery would have taken place in Pelham where he and his wife Helen had lived for almost half a century.  While the film suggests he passed away at Meadow Farm, in fact, he died at New Rochelle Hospital. 

Left: Portrait of Christopher Chenery that hangs in the library at Washington & Lee University. Mr. Chenery graduated from W&L in 1909 and served on its Board of Trustees.  The blue (azure) and white checkered racing colors of Meadow Farm were inspired by the school colors and Mr. Chenery's fraternity, Phi Delta Theta.  Secretariat's silks are displayed in the W&L University gymnasium. 

The Chenery House at 1357 Park Lane, Pelham Manor

Chris and Helen Chenery first lived in Pelham on Ridge Street (which no longer exists and is subsumed within the Hutchinson River Parkway).  By 1930 they resided at 1357 Park Lane, where they were likely the first owners of a large “Tudor Revival” home built in 1926 and designed by architect, Phillip Resnick.  They raised three children there, including Penny.  Private family photos show the full range of life events at the house: Chris and Helen in a roadster parked in the circular driveway and Penny in her Red Cross uniform during WWII, descending the grand interior staircase on her wedding day in 1949, and dancing with her father at the reception held in a tent outside.  In the 1930s, the Chenerys extended the house with a large, cathedral ceiling den clad with antique pine paneling, and in the 1950s, installed an elevator.

The house was sold about six months before Mr. Chenery’s death to the O’Reilly Family. One of the O’Reilly children recalls that a growth chart from the Chenery Family had been drawn onto the door molding of an upstairs room and the height of the O’Reilly children were documented right alongside the markings for Penny and her siblings. (Sadly, it was painted over by another owner.) 

Penny Chenery Tweedy with Secretariat.  Photo courtesy of Virginia  Equine Alliance, Virginia Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

In addition to Christopher Chenery, his brother, William and family, lived right next door at 1353 Park Lane, and another, Charles and his wife, lived at 414 Monterey Avenue and later at the “Pelham Arms” apartments at 620 Pelhamdale Avenue. 

All of the extended Chenery Family were active in Pelham, particularly at Christ Church, where Christopher Chenery served on the vestry.  Perhaps for that reason, it was long an urban legend that he had given Secretariat’s winnings as a special endowment at the church.  While the Chenerys were extremely generous to Christ Church, the myth about Secretariat’s winnings was dispelled in a 2012 conversation between Penny and a member of the vestry (now the Town Historian).  In fact, Secretariat had been syndicated to raise money for the estate taxes, so very little of the winnings went to the Chenerys, and Mr. Chenery was very ill before Secretariat began racing; in fact, he died before Secretariat even won the Kentucky Derby.   But in that conversation just five years before she passed away, Penny Chenery talked about 1357 Park Lane and attending Prospect Hill School and wistfully but emphatically said, “I had a wonderful childhood growing up in Pelham.” 

Besides the Chenery Home and the legacy they left through their generosity and involvement in the Pelham Community, Secretariat is also remembered at the Huguenot Church Columbarium where one of his shoes is embedded on top of the Timberlake Family niche.  Shelby Timberlake was a good friend of Mr. Chenery and, starting about 1950, handled all the insurance for his many race horses, including Secretariat.

Secretariat leaves his own legacy at the Belmont today:  in addition to still holding the record, every one of the nine horses racing today has a pedigree that descends through at least one bloodline, from Secretariat.

Shelby & Mary Timberlake niche at Huguenot Church Columbarium with horseshoe from Secretariat.

In a 1990 interview with then Town Historian, Sue Swanson, Mr. Timberlake explained how he came to become the insurance agent for Secretariat:  “Chris Chenery called me up on the phone one day and said ‘how would you like to handle [the insurance for] my horses?’ Just out of the blue he said, ‘I never can get a hold of my [insurance] broker.’   So I ran all the way down to his office, which was about three or four blocks away."

Arthur L. Scinta, Town Historian

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