AP photo/Ed Reinke
Penny Chenery, owner of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, looks on at left as actress Diane Lane speaks during a news conference Thursday about the movie based on the story of the legendary horse.
By Jim Litke
The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby goes off late Saturday afternoon and for two glorious minutes and change, horse racing will be back at the center of the universe. And then, like a hangover, the sport of kings will have to confront its grim prospects all over again.
Declining revenues, smaller purses, shorter fields, less wagering and even the biggest track operators in North America in bankruptcy — the odds for renewal are so depressingly long that even mighty Secretariat likely couldn’t make a dent.
That won’t stop Big Red from trying.
At least at the movies.
Coming this fall to a theater near you, “Secretariat” is a retelling of the greatest Triple Crown campaign ever, this time through the eyes of his owner, Penny Chenery, who took the reins of her ailing father’s stable against the advice of her husband and turned the old-boy, old-money, bourbon-fueled network that dominated the game on its ear.
“Seeing yourself in a movie is really weird,” Chenery said with a laugh.
Now 87 and living in Boulder, Colo., she returned Thursday to Churchill Downs, where Secretariat’s saga began. Chenery walks with the aid of a cane, but her wit remains as sharp as ever.
“They told me, ‘Penny, it’s not a documentary, it’s a Disney movie,’” she added a moment later. “I’ve adjusted to a revised version of my life.”
Then she paused again, looked to her left at actress Diane Lane – who plays Chenery in the movie — and beamed.
“I’m younger and prettier.”
Racehorses have struck the national nerve before for all kinds of reasons, but not for a long time. Secretariat ended a Triple Crown drought of 25 years by widening margins during the torrid summer season of 1973, giving a country numbed by the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal something, finally, to cheer about. The feat put Big Red on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.
Long before Seabiscuit, too, became a movie star, his rags-to-riches-story regaled an audience suffering through the cruelest years of the Great Depression. And harkening back to a time when racing dueled only baseball and boxing for the sporting public’s attention, Man O’War’s funeral was broadcast on the radio, an honor in his day accorded only to popes and heads of state.
Chenery knows only too well those days are gone forever.
But she insists the same qualities that made Secretariat the most celebrated athlete of his day — a desire to take his game to a level where only history can provide a proper context for judging — never go out of style.
“He loved to run,” Chenery said, “and it was a passion I got caught up in.”
People around the state, where many of the scenes are being filmed, know the feeling. Director Randall Wallace recalled residents gathering to watch the crews work, bringing them chocolate-chip cookies laced with bourbon. All around the backstretch at Churchill Downs, horsemen who share that same passion — for horses, and perhaps, bourbon as well — remember the brief buzz the movie “Seabiscuit” generated a half-dozen years ago.
“Anything that promotes the sport is really cool,” trainer Nick Zito said. He recalled having two horses in the 1973 Belmont, only to forget about them entirely as Secretariat drew away in the stretch and won by a record 31 lengths.
“I got lucky enough to be one or two boxes away from Penny and I saw her raise her arms in celebration. The next thing I remember is walking back to the barn and all anybody could talk about was the horse. It was just an amazing, amazing thing,” Zito added. “That’s why we always compare everything to Secretariat.”
But no one still in the game is fooling themselves. They can’t say with certainty when there will be another Triple Crown winner — the last was Affirmed in 1978 — let alone whether there will ever be another Secretariat.
A trailer for the film shown for the first time Thursday ran roughly three minutes, but makes that point over and over. In one scene, Chenery is in the barn shortly after Secretariat has been foaled and watches him struggle to get his feet underneath him.
When he does, a wide-eyed groom turns to her and says, “I’ve never seen a colt stand up that fast.”
Nor has anyone seen a colt run so swiftly. Watching a replay of the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Secretariat’s name isn’t mentioned until late in the first turn and even then, he’s running well behind the lead pack in seventh. He makes his move on the outside coming out of the second turn, then takes the lead heading down the stretch.
When Lane was asked what she planned to see during her visit to the Derby, she said she was open to just about everything.
Alongside her, Chenery offered a knowing smile.
“It’s a helluva day,” she said.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
And to think, it was almost Shecky Greene that ruined everything from the start: