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