The “Secretariat’s Meadow Tour”…Following the Hoofbeats of History

Christopher T.  Chenery, the founder of Meadow Stable, visionary breeder of Secretariat, and horseman extraordinaire,  enjoyed riding his favorite saddle horse, Granite, all over the sprawling lands of his beloved Virginia farm, The Meadow.  He was “a bold rider who went bold places.” If you  were  fortunate enough to ride with him, you’d better be able to jump the eight-foot ditches in the Cove, the fertile bottom land land down by the North Anna River where the broodmares and foals grazed.

We make it much easier for you to see The Meadow today with our new narrated tram tours of this historic property.  You’ll see not only the Cove where Secretariat romped beside his dam, Somethingroyal, but also the original foaling shed where he was born on March 30, 1970; the stalls where he and The Meadow’s first Derby winner, Riva Ridge, stayed in both the yearling barn and the training center.  You’ll also see  the stallion barns and the horse cemetery where Secretariat’s “grandmother” is buried, as well as the site of the original 1805  home of  Chris Chenery’s ancestors, the Morrises,  and their  family cemetery. 

The original barns  and structures built by Chris Chenery have been carefully restored by the SFVA, which purchased The Meadow in 2003. Visitors can walk over to the stalls and other sites and take photos on the tour.

So hop aboard our tram and get ready to learn more about “the land, the family and the legend.” We’ll be describing various points of interest in each blog post as we follow Secretariat’s hoofprints across his native soil.   We’ll start with the Cove, which was essentially Secretariat’s nursery. It is also the source for two never-before-told stories about Secretariat and Riva Ridge, which you will hear on the actual tour.

 THE COVE – It was said that Chris Chenery created “an empire built on broodmares.”  But before he could start that empire, he faced the herculean task of rebuilding the farm, his ancestral homeplace which he had bought in 1936.  A casualty of the Depression,  The Meadow was in a such a sad state of disrepair that Mrs. Chenery called her husband’s project “Operation Rathole.”

The fields where Chris Chenery hoped to raise fine Thoroughbreds had been depleted by continuous tilling, and what should have been rich bottom land by the North Anna River was a weedy, brambly, impenetrable thicket .  The dikes built by the enslaved workers of the 1805 plantation had not been repaired after the Civil War, so the river easily overran its banks.  

But Chris Chenery, applying  his indomitable will (and behemoth-sized  bulldozers)  literally reshaped the land of The Meadow into his vision of a first-class Thoroughbred farm.   Then he began to use “his good eye for a mare,” acquiring what would prove to be some of the most influential matriarchs of the time.

This included the $750 bargain, Hildene, who gave him his first  major champion, Hill Prince, Horse of the Year 1950 and then First Landing, who would sire Riva Ridge.  Another great mare was  Imperatrice, who became the dam of Somethingroyal. 

 In addition to her Triple Crown son,  Somethingroyal gave racing  Sir Gaylord.  He was Chris Chenery’s third Derby contender in 1962.  Though he didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, Sir Gaylord would sire Sir Ivor, who won the Epsom Derby and took the Meadow Stable bloodlines to an international level.

By the time she had Secretariat in 1970, Somethingroyal was 18, “an old lady” as Penny Chenery called her. A sweet-natured mare, she undoubtedly exerted  a positive influence on her high-spirited chestnut colt.

Chris Chenery believed the mare was as important in the breeding equation as the stallion. His faith in the female contribution would find concrete scientific validation when it was discovered that Secretariat’s famous large heart came from the X chromosome of the broodmare. That large heart, which Penny called his “bigger power pack,” helped propel Secretariat into the record books and  the realm of legend. The iconic champions Eclipse and Man O’ War  had the large heart as well.    This genetic alchemy  also made Secretariat a great broodmare sire, allowing his daughters to pass his greatness onto their sons, such as A.P. Indy, Storm Cat and Smarty Jones.

Thus, the  once-brambly Cove of The Meadow became a lush oasis for the broodmares and their babies and a prolific nursery for future Thoroughbred champions.  It proved to be greener pastures for Chris Chenery, who had defied the skeptics and founded his Thoroughbred farm well off the traditional bluegrass path to success.  

You can view the sweeping vistas of the Cove from the tram.  And if you peer closely through the mists of time, maybe you’ll see a bright red colt frisking alongside  a patient bay mare, the dowager queen who gave racing an immortal son.

   The Cove, circa 1960, home of  “the empire built on broodmares”


 The “Secretariat’s Meadow Tours” are sponsored by the SFVA. Private group tours are available for groups of 30 or more at $10 per person.  Tours are also offered to the general public on certain dates.  The next public tours are on July 23 and September 10, 2011. For more information about the tours, see  Tours are narrated by Leeanne Meadows Ladin, co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend.”  Proceeds from the tours benefit the future Museum of the Virginia Horse to be built at The Meadow.

Leeanne Meadows Ladin

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