Production begins on ‘Secretariat’; 2010 release eyed

By Steve Szkotak
Associated Press / October 11, 2009

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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.

The racehorse considered by many to be the best ever and the housewife-turned-breeder who soared in a male-dominated sport are 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. 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 in Doswell.

“Her . . . 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.’’

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.

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 KO of George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

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

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