Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Secretariat: The Premiere

Marquee for the Secretariat premiere in Lexington on October 3, 2010 -- one day before the 21st anniversary of the champion's death.
In advance of the red carpet Secretariat premiere in the Bluegrass State, I bought a new dress, new shoes, and borrowed an old friend to take to the screening. My escort, Four Star Sales colleague Kerry Cauthen, was graciously on loan to me from his wife Julie.

The weather had turned cold and damp after a September marked by 90 degree heat, but we sweated it out in the will-call tent where my tickets were M.I.A., neither under my name nor that of the trainer and his wife who had given me theirs. I hoped we weren’t on the verge of becoming Lexington’s version of Tareq and Michaele Salahi, but I wasn’t about to have gotten dressed up for nothing.

The women working the ticket tables were very helpful, and after a few minutes and with the help of a confirmation number, we were given replacement passes. Small crisis averted.

We found the express line on the red carpet and were able to sneak unnoticed behind Calvin and Lisa Borel and a crowd of others without having to go through the full red carpet experience as though we were somehow famous.

Inside the historic Kentucky Theatre, the ticket snafu had relegated us to the penultimate row. John and Donna Ward, who had had a similar ticket malfunction, were seated beside us. Ward trained Monarchos to win the 2001 Kentucky Derby in the second-fastest winning time after Secretariat’s. He lamented that he had been riding Otto Thorwarth (AKA Ron Turcotte in Secretariat) on an increasing number of his horses when Thorwarth quit riding to take the acting gig.

Casey Chavez, a jockey who exercises horses for Al Stall, was in the row behind us with other riders who had participated in the movie’s race scenes. I know Casey peripherally as the regular workrider for Blame and it was a pleasant surprise to find out he was in Secretariat. In the wheelchair row behind the jocks was Ron Turcotte, accompanied by Charlie Davis, one of Secretariat’s exercise riders. Davis was decked out in a fabulous pastel lilac suit and matching hat; I chatted with him at the afterparty and as you might imagine from the outfit, he is quite a character. The lighting was bad for taking photographs with my camera phone, so you will have to use a little imagination for the full effect:

Charlie Davis.
Most but not all of the theater’s 816 seats were filled. The event got underway with Bucky Sallee, longtime bugler at Keeneland, playing the Call to the Post, after which we stood and sang My Old Kentucky Home. A gentleman from Disney – apologies to him as I can only recall that his name is Sean – handled the intros. Among the speakers were Governor Steve Beshear; Lexington mayor Jim Newberry; Penny’s daughter Kate Tweedy; and Diane Lane. Penny Chenery was in attendance, a day after presenting the trophy for the Lady’s Secret Stakes (named for the Horse of the Year sired by Secretariat) to Zenyatta’s connections in California. Bill Nack, who wrote the book on which the film is based, was there as well. I learned recently that one of Nack’s closest friends is movie critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert, so I’m curious to see what Ebert thinks of Secretariat.

As for the movie itself, I smiled from beginning to end. Okay, I admit: sometimes my smile was a laugh at how loosely the script portrays the facts about Secretariat and horseracing in general. I’m not going to say that the inaccuracies and omissions didn’t irk me. And I was sad that Riva Ridge, who always played second fiddle to his year-younger, more illustrious stablemate, didn’t warrant a mention. I seem to remember that Penny Chenery has said that Riva was her favorite of the Meadow Stable horses.

But it’s a movie – a Disney movie – and the story will work for those who don’t know it. It’s a tale of a strong woman who believes in her horse at all costs as she makes her way in a man’s world. In a victory for the anything-is-possible-if-you-believe-hard-enough mentality, the horse vindicates her faith and transforms everyone in and out of her immediate circle into fans and believers.

For those who know the story and are upset that this one is nothing like it, I offer this, that the movie is not really for you or me, but for the person who’s not already hooked on horseracing. Go back to and embrace that innocent time in your childhood when you fell in love with horseracing, before you knew the ins and the outs of the industry and its people. I watched the film among people who’ve lived and breathed horseracing for generations, and they enjoyed themselves. I’ve never been to a movie where the audience was so attuned to everything, with so much electricity. Many scenes were played to applause and laughter, and Penny Chenery’s cameo while Secretariat is winning the Belmont brought down the house.

All I care about is this: was it a positive portrayal of the sport? Was the movie handled in a way in which even just a few newbies might switch on a big race or go to their local track? If yes, as I believe here, then Secretariat has done us proud.

Like, Titanic was realistic?!

Lane, John Malkovich, and Thorwarth were excellent as Penny Chenery Tweedy, Lucien Laurin, and Turcotte; my favorite was probably Margo Martindale’s spunky, scene-stealing character of Miss Ham. Blame’s rider Casey got a few seconds of face time (he was unidentifiable during the racing scenes) in the scene directly after Secretariat relieves himself on the foot of a reporter; look for Casey seated at a table in the background in the track kitchen when Turcotte bursts in with a newspaper to break the news that Secretariat had been named Horse of the Year.

Jockey Casey Chavez.
Once the screening was over, the crowd walked (or shuffled, in the case of those of us who chose footwear for fashion over function) across E. Main Street to a cocktail party at Portofino’s, a locally-owned restaurant. They did an excellent job of keeping the wine flowing while horsey people and state politicos beamed at what felt like a triumph for horseracing and for Kentucky, where the movie was filmed, including at Keeneland and Churchill. Even the governor came over for a brief chat and clanked wine glasses with us.

In post-movie dissection conversation, the word I heard repeated over and over again was “fun.” Kerry’s 17-year-old niece, Katelyn, was there with her parents and two younger sisters. Not only did Katelyn enjoy Secretariat but it resonated in a unique way for her: it was kind of cool, she said, to get a perspective of how important those “three races” are. Katelyn was born 15 years after her dad Steve won those same three races on Affirmed in 1978, and though she has seen footage of Affirmed’s Triple Crown, the full impact of what it means started to sink in after watching the movie.

Katelyn also told us that Drew Roy, who portrays Seth Hancock, is well-known to people in her age group for a role in Hannah Montana. (We would never, ever have known this on our own.)

It’s been many years since I’ve seen Penny Chenery in person. She is now a breathtakingly beautiful 88 years old and from the looks of it is enjoying this, what I’d have to assume is the second most exciting ride of her life.

A blurry Penny Chenery at the premiere.
A personal highlight of the evening was when Steve gave me a very special introduction to Ron Turcotte. I had spoken to Turcotte for a minute at Churchill Downs in June, one of those moments to which you look forward your entire life…right up till you open your mouth and make an eejit of yourself. That’s a story for another time, but the long and short of it is that I was reduced to an emotional, unintelligible, blubbering idiot that day at Churchill. I reminded him at Portofino’s that I had tried to tell him I had worked with Flag of Leyte Gulf, on whom he had had his accident, when she was a broodmare. He remembered and put his hand over his eyes with feeling and said, “Oh…that was you?”

Ron Turcotte and his portrayer, Otto Thorwarth.
The third living Triple Crown-winning jockey, Jean Cruguet – whose wife sadly died last week – was also at the premiere. He has a cameo during the Belmont Ball.

My advice about seeing the movie? Lighten up! Have fun with it! Even if you spend $10 or $15 to get in and are disappointed, think of it as a cheap investment to publicly support horseracing. Secretariat is a gift horse, and I, for one, won’t be looking it in the mouth.

Of course, I didn’t have to do much soul-searching to revert to the era when I fell in love with horseracing…

Secretariat and me in 1988. Slightly embarrassing photograph, yes, but posted in the spirit of the moment.


  1. Thanks for that review of the movie and the experience. Thoroughly enjoyed it and have heeded your advice to take in the movie in a different light! True, Titanic was a fact-bender, too, for poetic license!

  2. Yes, the line about the Titanic really helps to put things in perspective. Mouse World sees things through a different set of glasses.

    Love the photo of you and His Chestnut Perfection at the end. The expression on your face is enchanting because he was a "gargeous harse," yes indeed.


  3. I actually loathed Titanic (have always been awfully lonely in that "I hate Titanic" rowboat), but it was the first big blockbuster/Academy Award winner that seemed to fit and came to mind.

    I couldn't wait to see Secretariat again the next time I was in Kentucky, promised myself a less embarrassing photo. Of course, he had died by the time I returned. I'm sure both of you have much better photos of yourself posing with His Chestnut Perfection!!

  4. When I went to see Secretariat... I was pretty sure there would be plenty of poetic license used and of course there was. BUT, there were people in that theater who obviously had no idea about horse racing in general and that was really wonderful as the powers that be in racing can't seem to put any of the profits back into advertising the sport to draw newcomers in. I know Seabiscuit really drummed up the crowds as the come from nothing guy but Secretariat was the king. The pinnacle of the sport and in a world where perfection is no longer even lauded as a goal... Secretariat was perfect in his Triple Crown run and that is something truly inspiring.

  5. As an owner of a Secretariat great grand daughter who stands in our pasture and is simply loved to pieces, I can tell you it thrilled us to at last get to see this movie. It might not be the whole truth but it was certainly a good story and makes you laugh, cry, and clap for everyone involved. We loved it.

  6. How on God's green earth could that be embarassing?!! You had your picture taken with Secretariat!!! If it were me, I would put that on everything. I would print it on a t-shirt and wear it every day.