Chenery and Jarboe: I Lost Two Role Models This Week. I’ll Wager That You Did, Too.

It is with great emotional difficulty that I report that I just found out that indeed, Mike Jarboe–veteran handicapper; gifted writer and Shred-itor Extraordinaire–died on Monday.  I’d learned only recently that he was in home Hospice care, following a year of pain and seeming victories.    His death on Monday followed that of my Mentor, my heroine, Penny Chenery.  Two losses in 48 hours is almost-more than a soul can bear.

But I didn’t come here to talk about their deaths–rather about their lives.  And not even, their lives–actually, about the ways in which they lived their lives that blessed and influenced so many people.  I am just one of the many beings (including horses and humans) whose existence is better because these two magnificent (and wildly different) souls lived on this Earth for a period of time.  In the scope of Eternity, their 158 total years is but a blip on the radar.

But those 158 short years, when multiplied by all the humans’ and horses’ lives who were bettered simply because these two people walked among them–numbers more than the stars in God’s infinite Universe.

 Penny was a horsewoman who came into the sport of Thoroughbred racing because of immediate necessity:  her family farm was threatened with closure, so the Smith College Alumna took her brilliance back East from her Denver home to resurrect a family legacy.  Her Father, Christopher, meant the world to her–so it was unthinkable, that she should live a cushy life in Colorado while The Meadow was sold from out under her Father’s feet.  I’m sure that she couldn’t even consider allowing her beloved Dad to be stripped of his treasured, hallowed Virginia ground.  As Gerald O’Hara told his scheming daughter, Scarlett, in the opening lines of Gone with the Wind,

“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Christopher Chenery may not have said or even felt those exact sentiments–but surely, the Virginia farm he loved so well was as close to his heart as his own children.  And Penny, who at that point had never bred nor raced horses–nor run a farm–was the perfect soul to bring together those two treasured entities.  Christopher’s children, and his Meadow.

So Penny became who she was destined to become, and in her God-given Wisdom, she loved and raced Riva Ridge into his role as savior of The Meadow.  With that huge responsibility on its healthy way to resolution, she took her Secretariat the same year, and turned him into a horse whose talents and uber-ness would catapult him into the stratosphere.  No mere coincidence, that God chose Penny Chenery to bring her Father’s dreams to fruition, for she was the only one with the vision, the grit and the love to achieve such a herculean task.  To call her, “chosen” would not be a stretch, for truly, her achievements had the mark of a life with the very Hand of God holding the reins.

What Penny achieved in 1972 and ’73 were not mere asterisks in horse racing record books–her decisions and leadership 40+ years ago became the stuff of legend.  Unintentionally, she wrote herself into history books, for today and all eternity.  Taking Riva Ridge and Secretariat to the fulfillment of their destinies was something she just did–she didn’t do it with an eye to becoming famous, or of being a name invoked for the next 200 years.  No, she did it for the simple reason outlined above:  to assure that her Father’s legacy of passion in Virginia was secured.  Anything that came after that was gravy.

But, while she did not seek the limelight for herself–and was not in any way a bombastic figure, demanding attention–Penny did take her renown, and used it to grow influence in the world of horse racing.  A world that was–and still is–dominated by males, some of them harsh.  Some of them Visigoths, in stark contrast to Penny’s own Father.  (Christopher was a man of great faith; a brilliant businessman and a gentleman to the Nth degree.)   Some of the men in whose apparent world Penny operated were no more than thugs–males who didn’t deserve to share oxygen (never mind, Clubhouse dining) with a woman of Penny’s stature.

She didn’t scream about women’s roles in horse racing.  She didn’t have to, because she had a huge role in racing–so obviously, there was room in the sport for our gender.

She knew that, all she had to do was live, and move, and have her being–just as she’d always done.  All she needed to do was look straight ahead, and do her life and business as she saw fit.  Her singlemindedness and insights, alone, were all that was necessary to lay the foundation.  Her legacy of egalitarianism, Wisdom and acumen weren’t forced, at any time:  if women (and men) gained encouragement and knowledge through Penny’s life and work–it was the byproduct of her authenticity.  That is…

She didn’t set out to become a role model–she just WAS.  And this is the purest heroine of all.  The lesson here, children, is that–if you’re going to have an example to follow–get your influence from someone like Penny Chenery, who didn’t try.  She didn’t set out to be an example–she set out to save the farm, literally.

Everything that came after that was simply a woman of great elegance; intense intellectual acumen; steadfastness and outrageous humor–just being. How many other people can you name, who–just by the fact that They Exist–become role models for millions of people–during their own lifetime, no less?

I’ll wager here and now, that Penny Chenery is one of a very few on this planet who–just by living–made the world a better place.  I know that my world was changed forever by her life and encouragement.  In ways that you may not even understand today–yours was, too.

And then there’s Mike Jarboe.  On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, and of the Clubhouse.  I could write reams about the ways in which Jarboe and Penny differed, but here are the highlights:

Chenery:  female.  To the Manor born.  (Literally, Pelham Manor, New York.)  Smith College  Alumna.  Profession:  Businesswoman’  horse breeder and owner.  Clubhouse box and coq au vin.

Jarboe:  male.  Bluest of collars:  Jersey Boy.  University of Life.  Profession:  Shred-itor Extraordinaire; gifted writer; insightful handicapper.  Press box and hot dogs.

As Stephen Wright might posit:  that Mike Jarboe and Penny Chenery were the same person.  The reasoning for this conclusion:

Did you ever see them together?

Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you.  For all I know, they slammed back tequila shots at the Gideon Putnam bar every Monday night during the Saratoga meet.  I’ve never seen a photo of the two of them together, or heard chatter about seeing them at a press conference.  And no doubt, at some point during their long and storied careers–they had to have been at the same press conference, at least once.

The bottom line is this:  for all their apparent differences, Penny and Mike had one great thing in common.  (A thing that, were Life actually one long, weird Hallmark Channel movie–the thing that would have caused them to fall in love and confound all their respective friends.)  That shared passion, that would have made for a really ill-conceived movie was that:  they loved horse racing.

But perhaps there’s a second thing that they had in common:  both influenced people, on a daily basis.  Both encouraged human spirits, just by moving through space and living their lives, doing their jobs.

 Jarboe was a wonderful, gifted writer.  (And if you know me, you know that I don’t toss out that compliment willy-nilly.  Like respect, my pronouncement that someone is a gifted writer–is earned.)  His writing inspired me, always–gave me joy–made me think.  His handicapping skills were formidable.  And as a Shred-itor Extraordinaire?  I absolutely adored him.  Just knowing that he was out there, working at the Times Union and hacking away at lousily-penned pieces helped me sleep at night.  There’s no excuse for poor writing, spelling and grammar–and Mike Jarboe, God rest his good soul, spent a quarter of a century of his life striving to make his newspaper the best-written on this (or any other) planet.

So many people were influenced by Jarboe, without even thinking about it all-that-much:  certainly, those who took his handicapping Wisdom to heart knew that they didn’t win that trifecta by their own merits.  Those who read his words and drank in his insights–whatever the topic–unwittingly incorporated his thoughts into their own body of knowledge.  And, in a very-real, scientific way–his readers’ DNA, itself, morphed in ways that would help them to grow, change and think in ways they may not have done, theretofore.

On the exterior, he reminded some of Man Mountain Dean, as my Grandmother would say.  A fiddler of some great renown and respect, when he wasn’t at his desk or the track–he was at a folk festival somewhere, not playing Bluegrass.  A burly man with white beard, he was the living epitome of Warm-Hearted Folkie.  One of those gentlemen who–until you got to know him–made you wonder every time he looked you in the eye, “Does he hate me?”  “Like me–or, oh, God–his eyes are twinkling.  Is he making fun of me, in his head?”

His eyes twinkled because they reflected the light of 1,000 stars.

Those judgments that people may have placed on him all came from a place of ignorant, non-understanding.  To judge Jarboe by his outward appearance would be to miss the sweetest apple because the skin’s color doesn’t match uneducated expectations.  Mike Jarboe was très kind-hearted, and I was blessed to be the recipient of that kindness many times, over the years.

That kindness always was expressed in the same way, in the same set of circumstances:  at the track,  or a press conference of some kind.

The first time I exchanged words with Jarboe was nine years ago.  For years, NYRA hosted  a wonderful press conference, one month prior to the start of the Saratoga meet.  The purpose of this of course was to get us all crazy, wired and ready to write about all the good things that would happen during the summer in Saratoga.  NYRA knew that, a media that’s treated well is your best ally.

In the mid-2000s, the conference was held at the Desmond Hotel in Albany.  Following the dog-and-pony show, a lavish buffet luncheon was laid out before us in the hotel’s ballroom.  Like so many Roman chariot drivers at a tent party, we were dined exquisitely.

In 2008, I walked into the ballroom.  My first NYRA press conference, I didn’t know anyone in the room–at least more than to nod.  

Mike must have seen my Inner Little Grrrl walk into that room with me, for, as I stood in the doorway, he called out, “Marion!  Hi!  Would you like to sit with us?”

I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him.  I was surprised–shocked, actually–that he knew my name.  And I was grateful, that he saw my fleeting look of,  I’m Lost–and, like a knight on a white horse–rode in to rescue me from my feelings of insecurity.  (In a roomful of media professionals, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re a fraud because there’s more posturing going on than at a convention of roosters.  Perhaps, all such posing pros are contestants for…a Pullet Surprise…?)  (Ouch. Sorry.  It just came to me, had to write it…) 😉

So!  Jarboe was the media pro who turned the tables for me that day in Albany.  A newsman and handicapper whom I’d admired for many years–he was the one whose powers of observation made him a great newsman–but also, a wonderful human being.  He observed that I felt uncomfortable–maybe even, unwelcome–in that ballroom.  And he determined not to let me turn on my heel, perhaps never to return.

Mike influenced me by his kindness to me, his acceptance.  He was the first horse racing media professional who made me feel like I belonged.  That’s a huge gift to give to someone:  the feeling of acceptance into a “club” that is viewed most-often as being–if not actually exclusive, at the very least–closed to outsiders.  Because of his acknowledgement of me as a racing media pro, he’ll always have a special place in my heart, and my memories.

Mike Jarboe, a member of horse racing media’s Inner Circle–treated me like a peer.  And so, I became a peer.

I think of that day, of that moment, often.  And always, I thank God for giving Jarboe the heart, the brain and the insight to see the situation as it was–and to help me transcend.  Every time I saw him in the years since then, he tapped me on the shoulder, smiled at me and made a point of saying, “Hi, Marion!”  I know in my heart that he did that as a way of letting his colleagues know that I was all right–that he approved of me, and maybe even liked me.

Mike gave me a present that day, and every time he tapped my shoulder:  the ability to walk into a roomful of racing media people and know that I am among peers.   What a powerful gift to give to someone, the acknowledgement of their life’s work, as being meritorious.

So now both the dear, talented Mike Jarboe and my beloved Mentor, Penny Chenery–are physically dead.  (I wrote, “physically” dead–because I believe in the Afterlife.)  I believe that they are in Heaven–and they’ve met, if somehow they hadn’t met in all their shared time on Earth.

  And this is a caricature that I’d love to see PEB draw:  Penny Chenery, looking as beautiful and whole as she did the day she waved her arms after the Belmont Stakes, and Mike Jarboe–sawing merrily away at his fiddle.  As he plays the Music of Heaven, Penny is dancing, merrily.  Jarboe’s winning ticket–Riva Ridge and Secretariat, a heavenly exacta box–sticks out of his shirt pocket.  

Needless-to-say, his exacta came in.   We all won this one–for we were graced by the earthly presence of these two great, albeit different, members of our horse racing community, if only for 158 Earth years, total.

God rest their souls. God comfort us.  God, thank You for Your gifts, blessing us though Penny Chenery and Mike Jarboe.



Photo Credits:

Penny Chenery and Secretariat, courtesy of

Mike Jarboe, courtesy of Times Union.

Penny Chenery in the throes of joy following Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory, courtesy of AP Photos.

NYRA program, Mike Jarboe race at Saratoga Race Course, courtesy of Times Union.