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“Awwwwwww,” 22 tour participants collectively exhaled after learning that Christopher Chenery never got to see Secretariat win the Triple Crown.
The group—a neighborhood “lunch bunch” of friends from Chesterfield County—was participating in a Secretariat Birthplace Tour at The Meadow Event Park in Caroline County last November. Led by Leeanne Ladin, co-author of Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend, the tour offers a behind-the-scenes look at the historic property and the Thoroughbreds raised there.
“Meadow Stable had very famous horses long before Secretariat came along,” Ladin explained to the group. She said Chenery bought the property in 1936 to raise racing Thoroughbreds. He had several national champions such as Hill Prince, First Landing, Sir Gaylord, Cicada and others. But after 1962, Meadow Stable began to decline, along with Chenery’s health. In 1967, “everything came to a crashing halt,” Ladin shared. “Mrs. Chenery died, and Mr. Chenery went into the hospital and never came out.”
Their daughter, the late Penny Chenery, was asked to take over the business. And although she had a bachelor’s degree from Smith College and was only three months shy of earning a master’s at Columbia Business School, Chenery was a Denver housewife. Despite her family’s doubts about her running the farm, Ladin noted, Penny Chenery was determined to keep alive her father’s dream of breeding a Triple Crown champion.
The lunch bunch learned that Riva Ridge entered the picture in 1969 and in 1971 won $500,000 as a 2-year-old. “He saved this farm and united the family,” Ladin exclaimed. “In 1972, Riva Ridge became the first Meadow Stable horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Mr. Chenery’s dream. His nurse had the TV on in his (hospital) room, and when she told him that Riva had won the Derby, tears streamed down his face.”
The next year, Secretariat won the Triple Crown, breaking track records in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. “Those records still stand today,” Ladin noted.
That kind of insider information is one of the draws of the tours, which have attracted everyone from local 4-H clubs to visitors from as far away as Germany. The tours are offered six days a week year-round.
Phyllis Jenkins of Chesterfield was one of the lunch bunch participants and had seen Disney’s Secretariat film but said she learned new things about Secretariat’s origins and his legacy. “I very much enjoyed the tour and have recommended it to others,” she noted.
Ladin has spent the last decade gleaning information about Secretariat and The Meadow’s history. She has met and interviewed Penny Chenery; Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s jockey; Charlie Davis, his groom; and other former Meadow employees. They’ve all shared stories that have enriched the tour narrative.
The State Fair of Virginia bought The Meadow Event Park in 2003 and stabilized the remaining historic barns. Tours and Secretariat-themed events began on a small scale, then Virginia Farm Bureau Federation bought the property in 2013 and hired Ladin to manage the Secretariat tourism program.
Historic designation boosted tourism
Ladin immediately began the daunting process of obtaining state and national historic designations for Secretariat’s birthplace. After almost three years of work, the Meadow Historic District obtained coveted listings on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. The district includes Secretariat’s foaling shed and the farm’s yearling and stallion barns, horse cemetery, well house and pump house.
“That was definitely a turning point, because more people stood up and took notice,” Ladin said. “The designation helped with the validation, visibility and momentum of the program.”
Also in 2015, Meadow Vice President of Operations Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe came on board. One of her goals has been to increase the significance of Secretariat to the property and to expand the tourism program. Part of the proceeds from the Secretariat tours goes to a historic barn restoration fund operated by the Museum of the Virginia Horse, of which Ladin is vice president.
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