'Secretariat' begins filming in Kentucky

Updated: October 8, 2009, 2:19 PM ET
Associated Press

DOSWELL, Va. -- 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.

[+] EnlargeSecretariat
AP PhotoThe film "Secretariat" will focus on the improbable success of owner Penny Chenery (left) as the Triple Crown champion's breeder.

The racehorse considered by many to be the best ever and the housewife-turned-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 Walt Disney Pictures, is producing "Secretariat." Mayhem's other uplifting sports-themed stories include "Miracle," about the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, and "The Rookie" and "Invincible," both Walter Mitty tales.

Randall Wallace, who directed "We Were Soldiers," is directing. 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 Chenery's improbable success in the old money, bourbon-sipping world of horse breeding and the chestnut stallion's stirring, record-shattering run for the Triple Crown. Like "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 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.

"Her coming into a man's world, learning and rekindling this love she had of horse racing," Ciardi said, shorthanding elements of Chenery's story. "She's this woman in a man's world, just doing what she has to do."

Chenery, now 87 and living in Boulder, Colo., 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," she said. "I just thought I've got the best horse."

Secretariat was unquestionably that.

Besides his iconic 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes, "Big Red" set records there and 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 William Nack, the retired Sports Illustrated writer who wrote "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," the book upon which the movie draws heavily. He is a consultant for the film.

Nack, who primarily covered boxing and horse racing during his career, called Secretariat's Belmont win "the greatest sporting event up to its time." He calls it the equal of Muhammad Ali's stunning knockout of George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

"It's a helluva story and I'm glad it's being told," Nack said.

While women could be found on the backside of tracks in the 1960s 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. In the film he is portrayed by Fred Thompson, the actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee.

Chenery turned to 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, 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 the 1972 Kentucky Derby and the Belmont -- two jewels of the crown.

Chenery, who graduated from Smith College 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 said. "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 John 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 said.

Ciardi, who is producing the film with Gordon Gray, said the horse wrangler who worked on "Seabiscuit" is casting several horses to play Secretariat. 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.

Asked how much is budgeted for the film, Ciardi said, "It's not as much as 'Seabiscuit' -- not nearly as much."

Secretariat died Oct. 4, 1989, at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press