THE POWER & GRACE OF SECRETARIAT
FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In an era defined by a dispiriting war and a surreal Washington scandal, SECRETARIAT gave Americans and their bruised psyche something to cheer about when the big thoroughbred captured the TRIPLE CROWN in 1973.
The race horse considered by many to be the best ever and the female breeder who soared in a male dominated sport are now coming to the big screen.
SECRETARIAT has begun filming in Kentucky with DIANE LANE portraying owner PENNY CHENERY and JOHN MALKOVICH cast as trainer LUCIEN LAURIN.
MAYHEM PICTURES, with the backing of DISNEY, is producing SECRETARIAT. A fall 2010 release is expected.
Unlike SEABISCUIT, the 2003 movie based on the undersized thoroughbred who buoyed the spirits of a Depression era nation, SECRETARIAT will focus on PENNY CHENERY’S improbable success in the old money, bourbon swilling world of horse breeding and the chestnut stallion’s stirring, record shattering run for the TRIPLE CROWN.
But in striking similarities to SEABISCUIT, the nation’s mood – in this case, the era of Watergate and Vietnam – is key to the storytelling.
“Really, it’s Penny’s story,” producer MARK CIARDI
said of Ms. Chenery, who left her life in Denver to take over ailing father CHRISTOPHER CHENERY’S faltering horse breeding farm 20 miles north of Richmond in Doswell.
“She was learning and rekindling this love she had of horse racing. She’s this woman in a man’s world, just doing what she has to do.”
Ms. Chenery, currently living in Boulder, Colorado, is characteristically low key about the challenges she faced running MEADOW FARM, now the home of the State Fair of Virginia.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was a woman in a man’s field. I just thought that I had the best horse.”
SECRETARIAT was unquestionably that.
Besides his iconic 31 length win in the BELMONT STAKES, he set records there and at the KENTUCKY DERBY that still stand 36 years later.
Others – including THE DAILY RACING FORM – insist he broke the track record at the PREAKNESS. The disputed official time ultimately was upheld in arbitration.
“He’s the best horse I’ve ever seen – and not just close, but by lengths,” said WILIAM NACK, the retired SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer who penned SECRETARIAT: THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION, the book upon which the movie draws heavily. He is a consultant for the film.
WILLIAM NACK, who primarily covered boxing and horse racing during his career, called SECRETARIAT’S BELMONT win “the greatest sporting event up to its time. It’s a hell of a story and I’m glad it’s being told.”
While women could be found on the sidelines of tracks in the 60s and 70s, the sport was still dominated by larger than life men like BULL HANCOCK, who ran Kentucky’s CLAIBORNE FARM, the top thoroughbred farm of that period.
PENNY CHENERY turned to BULL HANCOCK when she needed help. But in keeping with the sensibilities of the era and the sport, she would not be allowed in the breeding pen at CLAIBORNE.
“There were certain cultural barriers she had to break down,” KATE TWEEDY said of her mother. “She had to establish herself as the boss. She had to understand all the breeding terms.”
At MEADOW FARM, WILLIAM NACK said, “She ran the show. There was nobody else to do it. She was the only one in that whole outfit to take a strong hand and protect the interests of her dying father.”
SECRETARIAT wasn’t MEADOW FARM’S only star. In 1972, RIVA RIDGE won both the KENTUCKY DERBY and the BELMONT – two jewels of the crown.
Ms. Chenery, who graduated from SMITH and nearly completed her studies for an MBA before her marriage to John Tweedy, relished the opportunity to return to Virginia. She didn’t view it as a burden.
“I was always pretty well organized and a strong minded person,” she remarked. “I was just waiting for a chance like this to come along. I was bored stiff being a housewife.”
The arrangement, however, didn’t sit well with Tweedy.
“He really was part of the generation that basically thought the man should be making the money and the woman should be staying at home,” KATE TWEEDY said.
The marriage ended one year after SECRETARIAT’S historic TRIPLE CROWN run.
PENNY CHENERY said the divorce wasn’t based on her running MEADOW FARM. “Marriages don’t break up because of external things,” she stated.
MARK CIARDI said the wrangler who worked on SEABISCUIT is casting several horses to play
Once filming is completed in the Lexington and Louisville areas, the crew will move to Louisiana to reproduce the TRIPLE CROWN infields at EVANGELINE DOWNS.
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