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Unlikely Heroes Run Their Own Races in Secretariat

  • Laura MacCorkle Senior Editor
  • Updated Oct 09, 2010
Unlikely Heroes Run Their Own Races in <i>Secretariat</i>

"Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?" quotes Academy Award nominee Diane Lane in the prologue of Walt Disney Pictures' newest uplifting film, secretariat.

This powerful voiceover sets the scene and continues with the rest of the passage from Job 39:19, before telling the true story of the 1973 Triple Crown-winning racehorse Secretariat and his "housewife" owner Penny Chenery Tweedy—both becoming unlikely heroes while making their own marks in history.

"We shot the movie without the idea of a prologue," explains director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, screenwriter of Braveheart).  "And when we put together the first assemblage of the film, we opened as we always had in the script with Penny and her family, but there was a long gap between that and the first horse-racing [scene] and I wanted to remind the audience of that and that what was coming was something dramatic and physical and mysterious. … That passage spoke to the idea that life, if we open up to it, cannot only be as good as we hope it can be but better than we ever imagined."

To portray this remarkable tale, Wallace opens with a family mealtime scene in the Denver, Colo. home of Penny (Diane Lane), the daughter of a horse owner and breeder who is married and raising a family of four.  The phone rings, and she is unexpectedly summoned to help run the family business after her mother passes away and her ailing father, Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn), is unable to continue managing the Virginia-based Meadow Stables.

In a flashback, we hear Chris tell a young Penny to "run your own race" as he walks with his daughter hand-in-hand through the stables on their farm.  Little does Penny know what kind of race she will ultimately run as a woman who must navigate the male-dominated business of horse breeding and racing, and that she will one day foster the first Triple-Crown winner in 25 years.

Meeting a Legend

"I really wanted to stay present with this living legend and do right by her and earn her trust," shares Diane Lane upon first meeting the real Penny Chenery Tweedy. 

Known as "The First Lady of Horse Racing," Tweedy had held on to her rights for a long time despite having many offers to see the story of Secretariat on the big screen.  Not until Disney approached her, though—with a team that was already put together, including Wallace and Lane—did she give her consent and let it be told.  She was so supportive, in fact, that the 88 year-old appears as an extra in Secretariat and can be seen cheering in the stands when Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby. 

"We bonded on a couple of issues," continues Lane, "and I think the main one was that we're sort of daddy's girls who made good, you know?  … I think if you look behind the curtain of the life of women who are admirable, you'll find a father who instilled a sense of something to live up to in them."

In the film, Penny's love for her father is clearly alive and well as she rearranges her life and somehow makes time in her busy schedule as wife and mother to grab this opportunity by the reins and save the family business. 

But 1973 was another place and time.  "It didn't occur to me that I was in a man's field," reflects the real-life Tweedy.  "I just thought I had the best horse."

A graduate of Smith College, she also went on to the Graduate School of Business Administration at Columbia after her father encouraged her to do so.  "After college, I wasn't married and wasn't working in the horse business," she says, "and my father said, ‘Well, you need to go to school and learn something that will help you get a job.'"  And so she did, but afterward Tweedy took an 18-year break to raise her family. 

Getting Down to Business

The film picks up when Penny decides to get the family stables back on track, and reinvents herself—much to the disbelief and initial skepticism of not only her husband, but also to established movers and shakers in the horse industry who wonder what this "housewife" (an intentionally derogatory label that she repeatedly encounters) is doing in their world.

Surprisingly her lack of actual experience doesn't stop her, as she quickly takes care of some pressing "housekeeping" issues:  she first fires one shifty horse trainer who she suspects of fraud and hires another more eccentric veteran (John Malkovich) who comes highly recommended but has his own past failures—as well as "interesting" wardrobe choices—to overcome.

Penny then turns her attention to inventory and studies up on the bloodlines of Meadow Stables' horses, so she'll know what she's working with when it comes to breeding decisions.  She also consults with family friend and horse farm owner Bull Hancock (Fred Dalton Thompson) who gives solid advice to the ambitious novice.  Her common sense and natural business savvy serve her well as she prepares for an upcoming coin toss—a pivotal moment in the film.

In an earlier agreement before his health declined, Penny's father and another preeminent horse owner and breeder, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), had struck a deal that would rest on a coin toss:  whoever won would get first pick of two foals produced by Phipps' stallion Bold Ruler and Chenery's mares Hasty Matilda and Somethingroyal.

Because of her research, Penny already knows that even if she loses the toss, she will still win the better foal with the stronger bloodline and banks on the fact that Phipps will go with the most obvious choice. 

Her intuition is right, as the loss is a blessing in disguise:  a horse that would one day be named Secretariat and become what may have been the greatest racehorse of all time.

For the Love of Horses

Back in the early '70s, though, horse-racing was still more of a family sport and did not have the connotation that it has for many today. 

"I was 8, and I loved it," remembers Lane of Secretariat's win at the Belmont Stakes in 1973—the final "jewel" in the Triple Crown, a triumvirate of races which also includes the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. 

"I do recall very much that it was like smelling a rose after all of the complaining and bitterness and squawking of the cynicism of the day.  You know, Watergate and the Vietnam War and the disparity of the economy and the generation gap, gay rights, women's rights—everybody was up in arms about something.  And here I am this kid listening to everybody, and they all got quiet.  And they all were grateful for a moment for the simplicity for the gift of joy that this horse enjoyed about himself."

Lane's life-long love for horses and riding only brought a sense of authenticity to her role as Penny, and affected how she interacted with the horses while on set. 

"I love that moment [in the scene] where I have that look with Secretariat or Penny has that look with Secretariat, because it's wordless.  And people can infuse it with as much capacity as they have for being able to step into the shoes of Penny in that moment." 

In another scene, the night before the Belmont Stakes, Penny pays a visit to Secretariat in his stall.  The stakes are literally high at this point, as Secretariat is about to run the longest race (1.5 miles) he has ever experienced in his career.  Everyone in the racing community is doubtful that the three-year-old will have the stamina to maintain his speed over such a great distance.

But Penny believes in him, as she rubs his head and says softly, "I've run my race.  Now you run yours."

It's a quiet moment in the midst of all the nail-biting action, but it speaks volumes to the film's core message:  living the life that's ahead of you and becoming who you were meant to be.

Really Up Close and Personal

As the history books have maintained, Secretariat does indeed go on to win the Belmont (winning by 31 lengths—a record that still stands at 2:24 for 1.5 miles) and in filming these race scenes, the audience is given its own place in the saddle in which to ride (or grip tightly) along.  Hooves are pounding, legs are churning and dirt is flying at what feels like only mere inches from the screen. 

Only some unconventional filming could have captured these thrilling, "how did they do that?" moments—and Wallace attributes these efforts to Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, We Were Soldiers), whom he refers to as "the Rembrandt of cinematographers."

"We wanted the audience to be participants in the story and in the racing which necessitated that we shot these in an entirely different way than anyone had shot horse-racing before with camera technology.  It was not ultra sophisticated, but it was just brilliantly implemented." 

What has been deemed the "Ollie cam" brings the audience right into the jockey's perspective due to its close proximity to the action.  A small, lightweight camera was affixed to the end of a stick and positioned near the horses as they thundered down the track.  Amazingly, the footage matches seamlessly with footage that was shot with a bulkier professional digital camera, which was also sometimes hung outside trucks that raced alongside the horses while filming.  The end result is extremely realistic action sequences that are exhilarating for the audience and only inspire them further to become involved in what is happening on-screen.

"It amazes me and delights me to hear the audiences sitting there screaming at the screen, ‘Go, go, go!'" says Wallace after observing people in several preview screenings of the film.

But capturing real, live action didn't just stop with the horses, as the jockey who portrays Secretariat's jockey Ron Turcotte, is actually real-life jockey Ortho Thorwarth.  While he had never acted previously, the athlete won the hearts of filmmakers in his casting session and showed that he had a knack for all things thespian. 

"Otto became one of the most delightful finds of this whole film," Wallace reveals.  "He walked in and looked me in the eye, and I knew that minute he was going to be Ronnie Turcotte.  He was fearless.  And beyond that, there is a joy about that fearlessness." 

The Heart of the Matter

Wallace showed his own fearlessness as well, as he ably balanced both action and emotion in portraying the powerfully true stories of real heroes and real people. 

"In terms of the souls aspects of the story," he explains, "we were inside the characters' lives and their alone moments, their silences.  So the scenes where Penny can't make it back to her daughter's play, when she's there with her father when he's dying, when she's with the horse the night before [the race], or even when she's alone at the ball and surrounded by people and yes she's alone, and then she sees her family reconstituted in a new way—those were the scenes that moved me the most.  And I think they're the ones that get us caught up in the story as now rather than being able to associate [with history] and go, ‘Oh, well I know what happened.'"

In the end, the story of Penny Chenery Tweedy and Secretariat is one that history has already told and many already know well.  But in Secretariat, it has been given a new, cinematic life and will undoubtedly connect with audiences of today with its uplifting story of courage, determination and heroism—something that is always worth telling again and again.

Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Fred Thompson and Scott Glenn, Walt Disney Pictures' Secretariat releases wide in theaters on Friday, October 8, 2010 and is rated PG (for brief mild language).  For more information, please visit


© Walt Disney Pictures.

**This article first published on October 6, 2010.