In 1973, the great Secretariat propelled horse racing onto the covers of national magazines and on the evening newscasts as "Big Red" rolled through the Triple Crown, highlighted by his impressive 31-length Belmont Stakes romp.
Now, 37 years later, Secretariat is again giving the racing industry a much-needed jolt as the horse’s exploits, as well as those of his connections, are thrust upon the big screen in the Disney movie "Secretariat."
Inspired by Bill Nack’s book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," the movie is scheduled for national release Oct. 8.
But on Oct. 3, several hundred individuals from within the Bluegrass horse industry walked down the red carpet outside the Kentucky Theater in Lexington for a special presentation of "Secretariat." In addition to a veritable "who’s who" in racing and breeding circles, the sold-out crowd included actress Diane Lane, director Randall Wallace, paralyzed jockey Ron Turcotte, and others who were involved in Secretariat’s career and are portrayed in the movie. The screening was a fund-raiser for the Secretariat Foundation.
Of course, also in attendance was 88-year-old Penny Chenery, whose tenacity and business acumen in running her family’s Meadow farm and racing stable is as much a part of "Secretariat" as is the horse’s exploits. At the screening, Chenery did not address the audience but was given several accolades as others paid tribute to her from the stage prior to the showing of the movie.
"The whole family loves it ("Secretariat"), and I think you will too," Chenery’s daughter Kate said.
"I’m very proud of the film," said Lane. "I adore her and it’s just a joy to bring her to the screen."
"Secretariat" opens with Chenery, a housewife in Denver, receiving word that her mother Helen had died at the family farm in Virginia. There, emotional scenes of Chenery, played by Lane, spending time with her ill father, Christopher, and then staying behind to assist him as her husband and four children return to Colorado.
Chenery takes charge of Meadow Stable, first firing the trainer (for allegedly selling Meadow Stable horses to another of his clients for a fraction of their value) and then taking an active role in planning the farm’s matings. In one of the early scenes in the movie that sets the tone for what would become a story of a strong-willed woman facing doubts and obstacles from others in the industry, Chenery is involved in a coin toss with Ogden Phipps (played by James Cromwell) to determine which party gets Secretariat.
In another scene, Chenery is shown perusing a copy of The Blood-Horse magazine, stopping to review the list of leading sires that shows Bold Ruler in top.
Among the film’s more humorous moments involves Chenery visiting a golf driving range in an effort to hire then-retired trainer Lucien Laurin (played by John Malkovich). Disney’s exaggerated portrayal of Laurin and his eccentric personality adds a light touch that continues throughout the movie.
As Chenery takes on even more responsibility following the death of her father, she encounters sexism, doubts about the ability of a housewife to run a high-profile stable, and estrangement from her family as she continues to reside in Virginia.
Another example of Chenery’s determination to restore Meadow Stable to its once prominent position comes when her husband and brother inform Chenery that in order to pay $6 million in estate taxes the heirs will likely have to sell the Meadow horses, including Secretariat, who had been honored as Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old. Chenery promptly summoned Christopher Chenery’s long-time assistant, who informed them that Penny’s late father had five years earlier selected his daughter to be executor of the stable.
In order to raise enough money to pay the estate taxes while keeping the horses, Chenery conceives a plan under which Claiborne Farm would put together a 32-share syndicate at $190,000 per share for the future breeding rights to the horse. With the deal universally rejected by the leading breeders of the day, Chenery meets with Phipps to get his support, telling him that his stature within the industry would inspire other breeders to buy in if he were part of the syndicate. Initially, Phipps also hedges and offers to buy Secretariat outright, starting at $6 million and increasing it to $8 million.
Chenery rejects all the offers and Phipps took her up on the syndication plan.
And the rest is history. Chenery, Laurin, jockey Ron Turcotte (played by retired jockey Otto Thorwarth), and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) embark on a fairy-tell journey with Secretariat as "Big Red" becomes the first horse in 25 years to sweep the Triple Crown.
Not surprisingly, Disney takes some artistic liberties in its historical representation of Secretariat. For one, there is no mention of Meadow Stable’s Riva Ridge, who with his Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes victories of 1972 likely eased some of the stable’s financial burdens.
Also, all scenes leading up to the Belmont Stakes and the classic itself were not filmed on location but instead were among scenes in the movie filmed at Keeneland in Lexington. The track is obviously not Belmont Park, but it does not detract from the overall effect of a major horse race taking place. Only horse racing fans and participants will notice the difference.
The consensus among those attending the Lexington screening was that the release of "Secretariat" is a feel-good event for the industry at a time when there has been little to cheer about. Indeed, some of the movie’s scenes were met with enthusiastic applause from the obviously partisan crowd.
Nack, who was first approached five years ago about the possibility of a movie based on his book and was an advisor to the project, said he was glad to finally see it on the screen.
"I think it is going to be a huge box-office success," Nack said. "It’s going to be great for horse racing. I think it will give the Triple Crown some focus and help some people see what it is all about. But I’d like to see the real thing again. It’s been a while."
"I think it is going to be great for the sport of horse racing that is struggling right now," said retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day.
Director Wallace said he sees "Secretariat" as "one of those films that pleases viewers and critics."
Wallace said some of the filming techniques utilized for the movie allow the viewer to "feel Secretariat’s heart beat and hear him breathe. It speaks of horses in a way that admires their majesty."