Christopher Tompkins Chenery was born on September 16, 1886, the son of James Hollis Chenery, a merchant, and Ida Burnley Taylor Chenery. His five siblings included William Ludlow Chenery, who edited Collier’s Weekly from 1925 to 1943, and the writer Blanche Chenery Perrin. Born in Richmond, he grew up in Ashland. When he was not working odd jobs to augment the family’s limited finances, he rode horses belonging to a cousin, Bernard Doswell, at a Hanover County farm a few miles away. Chenery was educated in local public schools and attended Randolph-Macon College from 1902 to 1903, when he surrendered his place to a brother, who in return gave Chenery his job surveying for a railroad in. The brothers sent part of their salaries to their family to pay for an indoor bathroom and other improvements to their Ashland residence. Chenery entered Washington and Lee University in 1907 and graduated with a BS in engineering in 1909. During his final year he taught engineering to undergraduate students.
From 1909 to 1914 Chenery was an engineer in Alaska (where he surveyed the interior for potential rail routes), Oregon, and Washington. He worked for the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations from 1914 to 1915 and then became an executive engineer with a Chicago firm. On January 18, 1917, he married Helen Clementina Bates, of Forest Grove, Oregon, a graduate of Smith College who died in November 1967. Their two daughters and one son included Hollis Burnley Chenery, an economist who was vice president for development at the World Bank from 1970 to 1983.
Stationed at the officers’ training camp at Camp A. A. Humphreys (later Fort Belvoir), Virginia, during World War I (1914–1918), Chenery taught riding to cavalrymen. From 1919 to 1920 he worked in Washington, D.C., where he conducted a study of the organization of the federal government’s engineering and construction work. He returned to the Chicago engineering firm in 1920 and then worked as an independent engineer in New York City from 1923 to 1926.
In June 1926 in New York City, Chenery founded the Federal Water Service Corporation (after 1941 the Federal Water and Gas Corporation) and served as president and chairman of the board until 1948. The holding company, incorporated in Delaware, originally comprised water companies from several states, including Alabama, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, but later specialized in gas interests. After Chenery and other directors purchased preferred stock on the open market in order to retain control of the company during a reorganization, the Securities and Exchange Commission refused to approve the reorganization plan and argued that the principals should not have been acquiring stock during the negotiations. The case of Securities and Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corporation was twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately decided in 1947 in favor of the SEC.
In September 1948 the Federal Water and Gas Corporation was superseded by the Southern Natural Gas Company, which operated a natural gas pipeline in the South. Chenery was chairman of the board until 1965 and then chairman emeritus until 1968. From 1948 to 1956 he also served as chairman of the board of the Southern Production Company, Inc., which produced oil, natural gas, and gas distillates. In 1954 he formed the Offshore Company, a Southern Production Company subsidiary conducting deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He was chairman of the board and chief executive officer until 1965.
Chenery’s passion was breeding thoroughbreds. He helped found the Greater New York Association in 1955 to promote racing and remained a driving force in the Jockey Club, the National Museum of Racing, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. In 1936 Chenery bought the Caroline County farm that had once belonged to his Doswell relatives, lovingly restored the property, and established the Meadow to raise and train racehorses. He chose blue-and-white racing silks to honor his alma mater, Washington and Lee University. Among his many fine horses were the blind broodmare Hildene, whose colt Hill Prince won the Preakness Stakes and was the 1950 Horse of the Year; Hildene’s colt First Landing (named for theof ), who sired another Chenery horse, Riva Ridge, winner of the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes; and the broodmare Imperatrice, who gave birth to Somethingroyal, dam, or mother, of Sir Gaylord, another leading stallion. Between 1939 and 1972 horses Chenery raced won more than $8.5 million on the track.
In 1965 Chenery entered an unusual business arrangement with Arthur “Bull” Boyd Hancock, proprietor of the Claiborne Farm, in Paris, Kentucky, and Gladys Livingston Mills Phipps, owner of the famed racehorse Bold Ruler (which stood at Claiborne). Each year Chenery would send two Meadow broodmares to Claiborne for breeding with Bold Ruler. The first mating would usually produce two foals, and the second mating soon after their birth would result in two more foals within a year. After the birth of the first pair but before the birth of the second, Phipps and Chenery would flip a coin. The winner received first choice of the first pair, while the loser had first choice of the second. By 1968 the ailing Chenery had ceded many of the Meadow’s business operations to his daughter Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery Tweedy. She sent Somethingroyal and other mares to Claiborne for breeding to Bold Ruler. In 1969 Tweedy lost the coin toss with the Phipps family and ended up with Somethingroyal’s yet-to-be-born second foal.At the Meadow on March 30, 1970, Somethingroyal gave birth to a big chestnut colt with three white feet and a white star on his face. Chenery’s secretary, Elizabeth Ham, suggested his official Jockey Club name, Secretariat. Of twenty-one races in less than two years, the colt won sixteen and placed second in three, third in one, and was unplaced once. He won more than $1.3 million and was named 1972 and 1973 Horse of the Year. In the latter year he won the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes), set blistering records (including victory at the Belmont by an astonishing thirty-one lengths), appeared on three national magazine covers in the same week, and gained international celebrity. Even before completing the Triple Crown, the stallion was syndicated to stud for the then-record sum of $6.08 million to offset inheritance taxes on Chenery’s estate. Late in 1973 Secretariat retired from racing to Claiborne Farm, where he stood at stud until his death on October 4, 1989.
Chenery divided his time among the Meadow, Pelham Manor in New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. He chaired Washington and Lee University’s bicentennial celebration in 1948–1949 and served on the university’s board of trustees from 1950 until 1970, when he became a trustee emeritus. Randolph-Macon College awarded him an honorary LLD in 1964. Chenery suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his last years and died at a hospital in New Rochelle, New York, on January 3, 1973, four months before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery, in Hanover County. In 1985 he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. The Atlantic Rural Exposition, Inc. (later the State Fair of Virginia), purchased the Meadow in 2003, with plans to use it as the new site of the annual fair and to preserve the farm’s history.