Disney Magic - By Kate Tweedy

 (Originally published in the October 9, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Our family, and especially Mom (Penny Chenery), frequently get this question: What is it like to have a movie made about you? The answer depends largely on how good the movie is. Fortunately, “Secretariat” is great. We’ve seen it three times now, and each time it gets better.

Here’s Mom’s take on it:

“I know, I know. There are inconsistencies here that will bother horsemen and fans who know the story well and some scenes that would never occur in real life. But the bond between Thoroughbreds and the people involved with them is real and readily apparent. I don’t suppose there is a horse that looks exactly like Secretariat, but the four stand-ins make the story believable enough to work for me.

“The film is enhanced by having a real rider, Otto Thorwarth, a bona fide jockey, playing Ron Turcotte’s role. John Malkovich is head and shoulders taller than the real Lucien Laurin, but he displays the trainer’s fiery temperament and intensity. I liked the fact that as we gained notoriety, Malkovich gave up the tacky wardrobe and became a more dapper member of the Meadow team. Incidentally, the line where he says, ‘I train the horse; you handle the media’ was just what Lucien said to me. It got both me and the media out of his hair. We all had our roles in life as in the movie’s fictionalized story. But showing the bond is crucial to telling this story well.” 

Ever the racing booster, Mom focuses not on herself but on the larger impact of the film. What she doesn’t say is how the film affected her personally. Having seen her watch it and react with others afterward, I can venture this: Having the story of her personal struggles in managing our amazing horse told with empathy is supremely gratifying. At a recent showing in Denver, several old friends came up to her exclaiming, “We never knew what you were up to all that time. How hard that must have been for you! You were fantastic.” Who gets such praise in their lifetime? 

Director Randall Wallace and scriptwriter Mike Rich showed our family’s affection and conflict in nicely nuanced conversations that were far more articulate and succinct than they were in real life. My dad, Jack, didn’t come off as a villain, as we feared, nor did Uncle Hollis, both of whom serve as voices of reason against Mom’s decisions to take a scary—but ultimately successful—risk. Instead, Wallace shows them struggling with genuine and legitimate concerns. I am grateful for that.

The real star here is Diane Lane. She looks and behaves so much like Mother that it took my breath away. An instinctive actress, she came to Colorado for just one day to get to know Mom. Yet, in her “big hair” wig and classy, conservative costumes, she nailed my mother.

In truth, the film is so good that after the initial shock, I found myself forgetting this was a movie about my family. All the performances are engaging and the cinematography is outstanding. Wallace creates so much excitement and tension that I experience the story almost as if I don’t know what comes next. That says a lot.

Personally, I got a huge kick out of visiting the set at Keeneland, where I got to fulfill a secret dream—being an extra in the film. You can see me in a white hat and sleeveless dress cheering in the Belmont scenes in the box behind Diane Lane. All I had to do was remember how I felt on that unbelievable June day in 1973 and cheer like mad.

My film character, as played by the adorable Amanda (A.J.) Machalka, accurately shows me protesting the war, although I don’t sing a tenth as well as she does. But the implied romance at the end with Seth Hancock was pure Disney, even if the symmetry of such an alliance between Chenerys and Hancocks would have been a nice historical footnote. That intriguing aspect of racing history appears in my new book “Secretariat’s Meadow—The Land, the Family and the Legend.” Indeed, researching the book gave me so much new information on many people that I found myself passionately buttonholing the actors at the kickoff party, pouring out real details about their characters. I desperately wanted them to get it right.

I needn’t have worried. Disney did a great job with Mom’s and our story. Wallace’s philosophy of filmmaking is that you don’t have to tell the literal truth to convey the essential truth. He’s right. We can quibble about details all day, but in fact the film rings true—movingly, thrillingly, and deeply satisfyingly true. Just like Secretariat.

45 Comments

Leave a Comment:

sodapopkid

God bless your mom,  She was so inspring to see at the LS race alongside the MOsses and your mom wanting to be there in the company of Zenyatta.  IT brought back so many beautiful memories.  Just thinking about Secretariat brings emotions to surface.  He was the best.  

05 Oct 2010 5:14 PM
Slew

Thank you all for "the perfect horse" and your family's devotion to telling his story.  I can't wait to see the movie.

05 Oct 2010 5:38 PM
Abbie Knowles

Hi everyone!

I just can't wait for Secretaiat to open in the UK.  It sounds to be absolutely fantastic!  I love Disney films and i love Secretariat so it was always going to be a winning combination for me!!!!

I am so thrilled that the Chenery family love the film so much.  That is wonderful!

Let us hope that the film brings many new people into racing, that they may come to love the horses and all involved in our great sport.  Racing has it's problems but none of that is the horses' fault - they are all such wonderful animals!

God bless all horse lovers and horses everywhere!

Best wishes

Abbie

05 Oct 2010 6:31 PM
Ida Lee

I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Secrertariat was the first great love of my life. I remember him as if he were still with us. I loved him so much I couldn't stand it. He was so beautiful, he was like a dream to me. One of the sadest days of my life was when I heard about his passing. Actually, I was quite sad yesterday thinking that he died on October 4th. I have some beautiful photos of Big Red both at my home and in my office and they always bring a smile to my face. He will always be one of the most treasured "people" in my life. Again, thank you for your article and say hello to your Mom from Ida in North Carolina. She's great!!!

05 Oct 2010 7:13 PM
txhorsefan

Dear Ms. Tweedy, thank you very much for sharing your feelings about the film with us!  Because of the love so many of us feel for Secretariat and knowing some of the storylines from the times, I do appreciate your taking the time to let us hear your side of the story.  Having been a homemaker with small children back in the 70s myself I can relate to the things your mom had to go through and she lead the way for so many women of our generation - she was able to accomplish so much in a male dominated world - she deserves all the respect and all the accolades.  I'm so pleased to hear that she likes the movie, but I still can't wait to see it for myself.

05 Oct 2010 8:02 PM
Paula Higgins

Thank you for posting this! Really enjoyed reading it and your Mom's reaction to the film. I have been a fan of your mother's for years. I have always admired her courage and determination in a man's world. She was, and is, an amazing person. It was so heartwarming to see her on t.v. at the Lady's Secret race. She looks wonderful and was gracious and charming as always during her interview with TVG. I am sure it meant alot to Jerry and Ann Moss since she is a Zenyatta fan.

It is great you were all happy with the film. I was looking forward to seeing it Friday, and now, even more so. Secretariat was a force of nature unlike any other. Thank goodness he had the right "family" to guide him.

05 Oct 2010 8:32 PM
nina

Being a Secretariat fan since his early days I found that your book explained a lot missing facts about Secretariat's background that have never been told. It makes his story more complete.A great book. Confratulations

05 Oct 2010 9:26 PM
Brian Russell

From reading Steve Crist's review of this movie, the main problem appears to be that much of it is not true.  Why was a fiction movie necessary here when a non-fiction one would have probably been better?

05 Oct 2010 10:12 PM
christy tate

so glad you liked the movie Kate. hope your mom is doing well. wasnt around to see the real Secretariat. wish i had been. have seen fotage of his amazing Belmont win. horses like him (and Zenyatta)are once in a lifetime.

05 Oct 2010 11:40 PM
MGM

WELL DONE!!!

06 Oct 2010 12:29 AM
Bellwether

JUST BEAUTIFUL TIME N...LONG LIVE VIRGINIA HORSE RACE N...ty...

06 Oct 2010 1:20 AM
Secretariat lover

Mr. Nack's book was very impressive in itself.  I don't see why they had to tamper with it.  I also think they should have used the real footage of Secretariat's 3 races - they were so exciting to hear & watch.

06 Oct 2010 6:27 AM
Rachel

I respect your Mom dearly ♥ To me she is a treasure as much as her beloved horses. I loved Secretariat, though I went through the TC as a Sham fan.

It's not so much they left out Riva..

it's the destructive liberties that Disney took in protraying Sham as evil, as well as Pancho Martin that makes this a movie I refuse to see or support.

Destruction of reputation is a very bad thing, very bad.

06 Oct 2010 6:56 AM
Somethingroyal

Thank you Kate for sharing your mother's life story. Without her, Secretariat wouldn't have been complete.I was 14 when I watched Secretariat race and Penney's  vision provided us a thrill of a lifetime. I've had mixed emotions about seeing this film. But, after reading your article. I can't wait to buy a ticket to see Secretariat run once again.

06 Oct 2010 8:36 AM
Darla Burton

I'm so looking forward to seeing this movie!!!!  Secretariat will live on in our hearts. He and those who were around him will always be "Champions!"

06 Oct 2010 8:49 AM
Fran Loszynski

Can't wait to see the movie. As an Afleet Alex fan-I hope his story is next! Your horse Secretariat was an awesome horse no other words to describe him. The statue at Belmont does him justice indeed.

06 Oct 2010 8:51 AM
peggy7

The sad part of the whole Secretariat story is that the farm his sale was supposed to have saved, wasn't. Can you explain this? I know the inability of anyone to keep out the horrible amusement park as a neighbor was an issue at one time, but was it the sole reason?

06 Oct 2010 9:47 AM
Oldie

Kate, thank you for sharing your perspective, I look forward to the movie and hope it will boost interest in the sport.  I admire your mother for thinking for herself and having the courage to do all she has done.  The recent rebroadcasts of the footage of Secretariat's Triple Crown races have brought me to tears every single time.  Photos of his amazing ground gobbling stride never fail to take my breath away.

06 Oct 2010 11:08 AM
Mike S

I saw your mom the other day at Hollywood Park, but I didn't get the opportunity to meet her or shake her hand. What a lovely woman.

06 Oct 2010 12:04 PM
MikeM

I hope the movie conveys the preternatural perfection and greatness of Secretariat.

06 Oct 2010 12:29 PM
Monty

I too can't wait to see the movie this weekend, looks really entertaining ! Hey, I heard about this other horse film coming out in a couple of years too, it's called "Zenyatta, Undefeated Champion", can't wait to see that one also ...

06 Oct 2010 12:34 PM
Delrene

I saw your Mother Sat. at Hollywood Park.  She looked well and was very gracious.  Look forward to the movie with the exception as to why Disney felt compelled to create an "evil horse such as Sham and his trainer".  Too bad, but hope it does great at the box office!  Wish I'd seen the real Secretariat when he was with us.

06 Oct 2010 1:11 PM
Cleone

Kate, thank you for giving us your and your mom's view on the movie, which I am very much looking forward to.

One of my regrets is never making it to Kentucky to see Secretariat before he died, so I made sure to make it to Hollywood Park this past weekend to see Zenyatta.  What a thrill, and then a second thrill when I looked over and saw this lovely, elegant white-haired lady in a blue and white patterned sweater slowly making her way into the paddock.  

"Two queens of racing in one day!" someone else was heard to remark, and I agree.  It was awesome.

06 Oct 2010 1:17 PM
Lauracrown

Ms. Tweedy,

I so enjoyed reading about your personal opinion of the movie and about your inside knowledge about Secretariat, your gracious mother, and everyone involved in Secretariat's story! I plan to see the movie and will be looking to spot you in the film.

I have always loved Secretariat and admired your mother. I saw him race at Saratoga and was so thrilled to watch his Triple Crown exploits on TV! He remains the greatest horse of my lifetime. I hope the movie does well so more horse racing movies will be made of high quality. I agree with others that Zenyatta and Afleet Alex would make great movie subjects. Also,if this movie succeeds, maybe Seattle Slew's and Affirmed's stories will be immortalized on film! Thank you for increasing my interest in seeing this movie, inaccuracies and all.

06 Oct 2010 1:29 PM
Soldier Course

I join everyone in thanking you for sharing your thoughts about the movie.

Movie director Mike Nichols once said that a movie is like a person, either you trust it or you don't.

A person doesn't have to be perfect to be trustworthy, and neither does a movie. The vote of confidence that you and your mother have given to "Secretariat" assures me that that the movie can be trusted to tune Secretariat's story like a grand piano, where even-temperament is preferred over mathematical precision.

06 Oct 2010 2:47 PM
Deb

Ms. Penny C. was one of the ladies that made it possible for women to have horses at the track and win the triple crown!

Thank you for showing us the way with your grit,great personality, and love of the horse.

Thank you to your family and friends that supported you in this quest for following a dream and thank you for the great red horse and his stallmate Riva.

06 Oct 2010 4:00 PM
wendyg

I saw the movie the other night in a special preview, and I agree, the movie is wonderful.  What a special group of people your family members are to have loved a horse like Secretariat so much, and to have endured some very hard times.  Thank you for putting your story out there for those of us who were around when Secretariat ran, but were quite young.  I loved the movie.  

06 Oct 2010 6:48 PM
WinngColrz

Being a 30+ year racetracker, it's a love-hate relationship with racing movies simply because of all the things that would NEVER happen in real life--and I have to remind myself that no matter the story line, whether it be medicine or police or baseball, it's Hollywood first and foremost. I get it. So with that said, I adored the message, loved the tenacity, strength and passion shown. There were some amazing shots and cinematography which can only help to entice people to give racing a 'go'.

I attended a screening last night in Oklahoma City, right across the street from Remington Park, which is coinciding with their Derby on Sunday. It was sooooo cool to be in the audience with Otto Thorwarth who played Ron Turcotte, as well as the first trainer to win the Ok Derby, Donnie Von Hemel, as well as Larry Jones. It was an honor to witness it with these people.

Sunday we will also get to see Mr Turcotte and Otto again for autographs and hopefully some photo ops for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Thank you Scott Wells and the Marketing dept at Remington for putting this all together.

Racing needs this on a regular basis.

06 Oct 2010 7:47 PM
smarie

Ms. Tweedy,

As I write this, I am in my office surrounded by 11 pictures of Secretariat on my walls. He was an incredible horse and I am so glad that I was of an age to see him run. Your mother was one of the most gracious owners ever. She had time for all the fans. She still does. Thoroughbred owners used to be a bit high in the instep years ago, and perhaps some still are. But your mother was kind and enthusiastic and seemed to really appreciate Secretariat's fans. I can't wait to see the movie. I don't care about the liberties the movie folks have taken. I just want to recapture some of the feelings I felt when Big Red was racing. God bless you and your family and thank you for still sharing Secretariat with all of us.

06 Oct 2010 10:30 PM
quarterhossgal

Being a very senior citizen I remember all of Secretariat's races.  We didn't have the TV coverage that is available today, but when we had a chance to see him run we were gluded to our little 12" TV screen. When Secretariat first began to win I remember people comparing him to Man of War (Big Red).  The story of his groom who so loved him is just another part of this great story. I can not wait to see the movie.Penny C. is an inspiration to women, she was way before the time of liberated women but from my experience with other horsewomen so are they.

As for Queen Z., she is a story that will be told for many generations.  I only wish all horses could be fortunate enough to get into the right hands.  People that challenge, care and love them.

07 Oct 2010 10:02 AM
Linda M

Hi all.....just want to share with you that many years ago, after Big Red was retired and siring his babies, I met Penny in a dept. store.  Of course, I had to stop her. I asked how Big Red and babies are, and just like a proud grandma, pulled a "brag book" out of her purse to show me the pictures of the foals.  The excitement she exuded and her love for these horses, touched me more than I can say.  Some lady.

I was so delighted to see her attend Zenyatta's 19th winning race.

Love you Penny and what you have done for this magical sport.

                  Linda M.

07 Oct 2010 12:37 PM
Dorothy Snowden

Having a horse, breed and  raised on our South Dakota ranch, appearing as "Big Red" in the "Secretariat" movie has been exciting, to say the least! But it doesn't compare to my memories of seeing Secretariat at Claiborne and the hospitality of Kentucky "Hardboots".

07 Oct 2010 10:57 PM
Soldier Course

I just saw the movie, and thought it was wonderful. I came away feeling that I had learned something new about Secretariat's story, something not necessarily factual but rather intangible.

I was glad that the movie called my attention to all the challenges Penny Chenery had to overcome on her mission. That aspect of the story often gets lost in all the glory about the horse. Diane Lane did a superb job.

The occasional factual errors didn't bother me like I thought they would. After all, it wasn't "Dragnet".

I give it an A440, tuned to the gold standard.

08 Oct 2010 3:00 PM
fred palmer

i was there.it was one of my greatest thrills of my life time.tears came to my eyes when chick lang said secretariat is running like a tremendous machine.i still have the program,ticket in my photo album.i am sure i will tear up again.

08 Oct 2010 4:21 PM
Anne Tweedy T.

Dear Aunt Penny, Kate and family,

I am going to see the movie tomorrow. Larry saw it today and thought is was very fair and well done.  What wonderful memories. I will never forget all us cheering the horse as he ran down the final stretch at Belmont as we watched this with Dad on tv. Leroy Neiman's painting of "Stretched Out" proudly hangs on our walls...I wish Jim could be here to see it with me.  

08 Oct 2010 9:58 PM
Aleine in VA

Hoping to see the movie today. I have several photos (reproductions) and other memorabilia, a small statue and a magazine from '73 (Time, the "Superhorse" article).

My brother used to work for Mr. Chenery in the 50's and remembered that everyone called him "C.T."  Any memories of John Snider, Jr.?

He was an exercise rider for Mr. Chenery here in our home state (VA).

I hate that the Meadow Farm is now the State Fair of VA venue, but at least the land isn't a concrete filled parking lot.

09 Oct 2010 4:38 PM
Fran Loszynski

To Ms. Chenery:

Thank you for the movie of Secretariat.  I discovered something I never knew about Secretariat's race in the Belmont. He "played with Sham" He knew the race would be long and hard and tired Sham so he wouldn't be a threat. That's exactly what he did and then like the powerhouse he was knew Sham and the other horses wouldn't touch him took off. Your brave and courageous horse was not only a fast horse but an intuitive horse.

12 Oct 2010 11:42 AM
Brenda

Saw the Movie yesterday..AN LOVED IT!! Your mom is right about the film. It might have had a few things that other horseman will be upset about...But all..in all the movie came together Beautifully. I am so Thankful to Disney for making a great movie. The only thing that bothered me, was the music when Big Red was coming home in the Belmont...I think seeing, feeling and hearing the horse and the people..Would of been so much better. But I still Loved It and plan on seeing it again.

13 Oct 2010 6:05 PM
MartaA

Soooo wanted to be you..wanted Penny to adopt me.  As a 9 year old watching my first Kentucky Derby and subsequent ,"triple crown" ,I was just floored by Big Red.  I didn't learn to ride until my 10th summer, but my family complains? that it was all because I was mesmerized by this big red horse.  LOVED the movie, have each of his races memorized, and was glad to see them portrayed accurately.  Would have been cool though, for the movie to have walked "Secretariat" pass "his" statue at Belmont.  

I remember where/what I was doing, that Oct. 4.  I had to pull my car over, and just sobbed.  For him, for your mom & family..what a loss, but what a legacy.

Glad to hear the movie met your approval.

Sincerely,

Marta A

Colorado Springs

15 Oct 2010 9:27 PM
luckylad

Kate,

 I really enjoyed your insights into the movie.  Your mother was/isincredibly charasmatic.  The legend that is Secretariat was elevated by her involvement in his career.  Plus, she made very smart decisions on the horse's behalf.

21 Oct 2010 12:30 PM
Hamilton

Kate,

hope the movie gets to Brazil soon.

Hamilton

02 Nov 2010 5:46 AM
JanTanton

Kate/Penny - Our family snuggled in last night and finally had a chance to watch the film. I want to thank you and your mother so much for sharing this story, and I know that much of it is "Disney-ized". I was 12 at the time that Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and I remember it like it was yesterday. As the only rider and horsey gal in our family, my grandfather fostered that love, and we watched Secretariat win together. It's a memory that I will always cherish. It's important to know how the stories of others connect with our own. I'm grateful for your mother's work at a very important time for women overall. Please tell her that she's an inspiration, and thanks to your family for rekindling some wonderful memories for me and sharing a deeply touching story.

06 Feb 2011 5:25 PM
red1

i love horse racing and i loved big red,ur mom and family. its 2011 and i have seen the movie many times hav got the dvd and just ordered ur book. we will never see a horse like BIG RED,it still brings chills to me when i think of watching him race. good luck to u and ur fantastic mom.

20 Feb 2011 8:16 PM
bipster

Hey mrs. tweedy if you read this im doing a report for a living museum project that my teachers making me do and i doing it on you! you are very inspering(i think i spelled that right:P) and you make me feel like anyone can accomplish something if they really try. After watching the movie i knew it wasent in full deatail and i started some reasearch and you are a very amazing person. i also love horses and hope to be as great as youare when i grow up.  

09 Mar 2011 8:27 PM
Cecilia estrada

I havent seen the yet But i Had the Great luck of havIng met (and touched) Secretariat thru my friendship with Kate, who was as Nice and friendly as the champ But Never ran so fast. Hi Kate!                                                                     Cecilia                                      

14 Mar 2011 3:45 PM

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