Just north of Ashland, right off I-95 near Kings Dominion, lies The Meadow, one of the best-kept secrets of central Virginia.
A mecca for horse fans all over the nation, The Meadow is the birthplace of a Caroline County native who has been celebrated in a popular Disney film, at least six books, and countless TV shows and documentaries. If you know horses, you’ll know immediately who I mean: Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown Champion, still acclaimed as the fastest horse of the 20th century. Born and raised at The Meadow in Doswell, Secretariat’s fame has spread far beyond Caroline County and has endured over four decades.
The Meadow belonged to my grandfather, Christopher Chenery, and my mother, Penny Chenery (Tweedy), Secretariat’s owner. Diane Lane did a star turn as my mother in “Secretariat,” closely capturing her trademark style with a blonde bouffant wig and chic 1970s-era tailored outfits. In the movie, I appear as a hippie rebel – an apt characterization, given that I was 20 when our horse made racing history in 1973. His thrilling wins served as a hopeful antidote to the quagmires of Watergate and Vietnam.
Why did Grandfather choose central Virginia and not Kentucky with its vaunted bluegrass? He knew the land and its history. In colonial times, Caroline County was considered the “cradle of American racing” for raising and racing outstanding Thoroughbreds. In nearby Hanover County, the Doswell family’s stable, Bullfield, drew acclaim from New York to New Orleans before and after the Civil War.
As a boy exercising racehorses for Bernard Doswell, my grandfather soaked up the lore and glory of horse racing. He also recognized the value of Piedmont terrain as good pastureland. When he returned from New York a rich man in 1936, he took a risk on The Meadow in “the middle of nowhere,” as skeptics sniffed, to begin his horse-breeding adventures. The gamble paid off over the next 30 years with four national champion racehorses—but no Derby winner. That would not happen until the late 1960s, when my mother assumed control of the declining stable from her ailing father.
Mother may have been a housewife, but she inherited a head for business and a passion for horses from her father. She rescued Meadow Stable with a string of track triumphs by her homebred Riva Ridge, including the 1972 Kentucky Derby, a fact Disney strategically omitted from the script. But it was our stunning chestnut colt, Secretariat, who really brought fame to The Meadow and secured its place in racing history.
Secretariat is remembered today for two unparalleled achievements. First, he set track records in each of his Triple Crown races, with margins of victories still not approached by any other Triple Crown winner. Second, he won the Belmont race by an astounding 31 lengths, a feat considered by many to be among the top athletic performances of any sport in the last 100 years. On top of that, he was a charismatic rock star of a champion who has inspired devotion in legions of horse fans for the last 44 years.
Since its 2010 release, regular airings of “Secretariat” on cable have brought a new generation of fans to Big Red. Those who are curious have discovered the pleasure in watching the real footage of his races on YouTube. And now they and their parents can come to The Meadow as modern-day pilgrims to see where he was born, where he learned to carry a rider and where he learned to race.
As a college student during Secretariat’s reign on the track, I was blown away by what the beloved horse achieved. But I couldn’t really put his feats into perspective until much later. In 2007, in an effort to understand how this amazing animal came to our family, I joined Virginia writer Leeanne Meadows Ladin to write the history of the farm, the stable and the horse. Dementi Milestone Publications published “Secretariat’s Meadow” in 2010, to immediate success. This fall, the history-memoir coffee-table book will release a supplement along with its fifth printing to catch readers up on all that has happened since 2010 in the Secretariat story.
Now called The Meadow Event Park, the farm is the site of a vibrant, year-round Secretariat tourism program. My co-author Leeanne Ladin lives there and serves as program manager and resident historian. She also takes care of the star tourist attraction, Groundshaker, a great-great-granddaughter of Secretariat. This big bay mare was the last Thoroughbred my mother bred and raced. In 2016, the 80th anniversary of the founding of Meadow Stable, Mom retired Groundshaker to The Meadow, bringing our racing legacy full circle.
Tour guests can enjoy special time with Groundshaker and her companion, Mia the miniature horse. They will also see the original barns built in the 1930s – the stallion barn, yearling barns, training barn and, most iconic of all, the foaling shed where Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970. Our family was very proud that those historic barns obtained coveted listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The tour also features the galleries and exhibits in Meadow Hall, including the Chenery Collection of family memorabilia on loan from my mother. Visitors can even ring the starter’s bell from the Meadow Stable training track where Secretariat first learned the fundamentals of racing.
We are pleased that Meadow Event Park, now owned by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, has become a thriving venue for an array of activities. It is the permanent home of the State Fair of Virginia, which boasts its own storied past. The event calendar also features horse shows, weddings, festivals, corporate functions, trade shows and sporting events. The venue’s continued success helps preserve the equine heritage that produced “America’s Super Horse.”
The legacy of the big red horse in blue-and-white checkered silks didn’t end when he retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in 1974. His offspring—over 650 in all—have changed the theory and practice of Thoroughbred racing. In my grandfather’s day, breeding was all about the sire, and the female was merely a useful vehicle for transmitting the characteristics of the male. But my grandfather believed in mares and in fact founded his stable on a few well-bred ladies that carried potent genes of their own. We discovered what those were at Secretariat’s death. The autopsy revealed one more unbelievable statistic about our amazing horse: His heart weighed 22 pounds, more than twice the average size for equines. It was healthy and enormous—as Mother said, he just had a bigger “power pack.” Where did it come from? We now know it came on one of the X chromosomes from his mother, the aptly-named Somethingroyal. “The mare done it,” was the motto of our farm manager Howard Gentry, who learned his trade in the Shenandoah Valley.
Today, Secretariat genes course through the veins of many of the top horses on the track. Fully 15 of the 20 entrants in the 2017 Kentucky Derby descended from Secretariat, including the winner, Always Dreaming. Other recent top horses are his descendants too, including California Chrome and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
For more information on the Secretariat birthplace tours, visit meadoweventpark.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, to get the full scoop on the rich history of Secretariat, order your advance copy of the fifth edition of “Secretariat’s Meadow,” available this fall. This updated material pays tribute to my mother and Secretariat’s legacy, recognizing the significant developments since the release of the book’s first edition in 2010. It also features a new 24-page insert entitled “The Tremendous Machine Rolls On.” Visit dementimilestonepublishing.com to get your copy.