Chenery's story is more than just a one-horse tale

October 16, 2010 

Secretariat is a movie worth seeing, but could have been better if the Hollywood types hadn't messed with the facts. Thankfully, the basic sweet story is intact and its two lead characters are correctly portrayed:

  • A horse, with a heart that was literally 2 1/2 times as large as that of a normal thoroughbred, and in a two-year career won nearly every prestigious race in the nation, setting track records that are still unmatched after 37 years.

  • A housewife and mother of four, who took on the male-dominated horse-racing world and risked her marriage in order to pursue her father's (Christopher Chenery) dream of winning the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.

    Diane Lane is a perfect fit in the role of Penny Chenery Tweedy, a tough-minded, pretty woman who, against the advice of her husband and brother, took the reins of her dying father's struggling Meadow Farm in Virginia.

    Fittingly, it took five horses -- four thoroughbreds and a quarter horse -- to play the part of Secretariat, whom Chenery called "Big Red." That's the way it is in Hollywood, and I have no problem accepting that.

    But I have a hard time accepting the factual liberties that director Randall Wallace took in filming this riveting tale that needed no embellishments.

    Many events were twisted and out of sequence. The character of Lucien Laurin, played by John Malkovich, was nothing like the famed horse trainer. Laurin was a former jockey who was quite tight-lipped -- not the wise-cracking man with the eccentric wardrobe portrayed in the movie.

    Then there is the grievous omission of Secretariat's stablemate Riva Ridge, whom Chenery called her "Golden Boy." Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1972, the year before Secretariat swept the Triple Crown.

    Think of it now -- two horses from the same stable, with the same trainer (Laurin), carrying the same jockey (Ron Turcotte), winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in back-to-back years.

    How can you make this film and ignore Riva Ridge? That's like leaving the Tin Man out of the Wizard of Oz.

    A personal disclosure: I have a particular fondness for Riva Ridge because the horse was the reason I got to meet and interview Penny Chenery, who in turn introduced me to Secretariat.

    It was a Saturday in February, 1972. I went to Hialeah Park to cover Riva Ridge, a much-heralded three-year-old who was the Champion Two-Year-Old colt in 1971.

    Riva Ridge finished fourth that day, and I went back to the Hialeah barns to interview Laurin and Turcotte. I got a bonus that is one of my top sports memories.

    Chenery was there, and after discussing Riva Ridge's disappointing performance, she pulled me away from the group, took my hand and said, "Come with me."

    The stylish owner led me to a stall where a handsome young horse was grazing.

    "This is next year's Triple Crown winner," Chenery said with confidence as she proudly pointed to Secretariat, who at that moment had never run in a race.

    History proved her right and then some. Secretariat lost his first race that July at Aqueduct and then went on to win eight straight and was named 1972 Horse of the Year. After winning the Triple Crown and six other races in 1973, he was named Horse of the Year for an unprecedented second time.

    Secretariat is the only animal to make the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week. ESPN listed him 35th of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, the highest of three non-humans on the list (Man o' War is 84th and Citation 97th.)

    When Secretariat died in 1989, a necropsy revealed his heart weighed 22 pounds, which was about 2 1/2 times as large as the average horse.

    Most of this is correctly chronicled in the movie, but what is not correct is the portrayal of Secretariat as the horse that "saved" the Meadow Farm for Chenery. That distinction belongs to Riva Ridge, who forged a career that produced more than $1 million in earnings to keep the Chenery farm from going under.

    According to veteran horse racing writer Bill Christine, Chenery might not have even owned Secretariat by the time he turned three if it were not for Riva Ridge's success.

    "Chenery told me," Christine wrote recently, "that had her father died in 1972 instead of January 1973, she would have been forced to sell Secretariat outright." (Before any of the Triple Crown victories.)

    Secretariat, in my view, is the greatest race horse of all-time, but Riva Ridge was pretty darned good, too.

    It's a shame Riva Ridge was overlooked by the movie. Lost was a wonderful sports moment in September 1973 when Secretariat and Riva Ridge both ran in the Marlboro Cup. Secretariat won, Riva Ridge finished second and both broke the world record for the 1 1/8-mile distance. Incidentally, Riva Ridge's jockey that day was Hall of Famer Eddie Maple, who now manages the Rose Hill Equestrian Center.

    The story goes that after greeting the winner, Penny Chenery went to Riva Ridge and said: "I have the greatest admiration for Secretariat, but I love Riva Ridge."

    Now 87 and living in Bolder, Colo., Chenery says she has "adjusted to a revised version of my life." A version that doesn't include Riva Ridge.

    She loves the way she was portrayed by Diane Lane. She claims the actress makes her "younger and prettier."

    Younger yes. But prettier? Not in 1972.

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