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‘Secretariat’ visits Santa Anita

Hollywood came to Arcadia earlier this week.

To promote the movie “Secretariat,” which opens nationwide on October 8, Disney Studios put on a promotional Press Day at Santa Anita Park.

Larry Stewart with one of the horses used to portray Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the Disney movie of the same name.

The two leading stars of the film, Diane Lane, who plays Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, and John Malkovich, who plays trainer Lucien Laurie, were at the track. So were the film’s director, Randall Wallace, and one of the producers, Mark Ciardi, and several others involved in the production.

The place was crawling with public relations people, herding around reporters, most who had come from all over the country to sit in on a press conference and hopefully get their five or 10 minutes with Lane, Malkovich or anyone else who might be available.

I was there to cover the happenings for the Thoroughbred Times, a national horse racing magazine published in Lexington, Ky. I interviewed Lane, Wallace and Ciardi and also got a photo with one of the horses who plays Secretariat in the movie. I also got to talk to the real Penny Chenery during a conference call Wednesday.

As is the case with most movies based on true stories, “Secretariat” is not a documentary; some facts are altered and others are omitted. But if you’re looking for a movie that offers a compelling story that will hold your interest and likely prove entertaining for the whole family, “Secretariat” fits the bill. Plus, it includes some of the most amazing racing footage ever captured on film. And get this – much of it was done with an $800 Olympus camera anyone can buy. “We really wanted to show the races from the inside,” said director Wallace. “We made a decision early on that the audience would not just watch Secretariat run but be Secretariat.” Getting inside the races meant mounting cameras in unusual places. “We put them on the horse’s cinch, mounted them on the jockey’s helmet, or had the jockey holding the camera,” Wallace said. The director also had vehicles traveling along beside the horses around the track with cameras attached to poles 20-25 feet long. “Far enough away so as not the spook the horses,” Wallace added.

The screenplay, adapted from a book on Secretariat by legendary turf writer Bill Nack, was written by Mike Rich. (Nack’s book has been re-released in paperback with Lane as Chenery on the cover.) Comparisons of “Secretariat” to the 2003 critically-acclaimed “Seabiscuit” are inevitable. First of all, “Seabiscuit,” which came out on 2003, cost a lot more to make – like $80 million compared to between $30 and $35 million for “Secretariat,” according to two sources. Although he could not reveal the budget, Wallace said it was less than half the production cost of “Seabiscuit.” “We were $1 million under budget and two days ahead of schedule,” he noted. But just because it cost less to make doesn’t mean “Secretariat” is the inferior movie. I feel that “Secretariat” is as good as “Seabiscuit,” possibly even better. Since the story of Secretariat and his phenomenal run toward the Triple Crown in 1973 is well known, the focus of the movie is on owner Penny Chenery and her bumpy and, at times, difficult road toward racing immortality. Left out, presumably for dramatic effect, is that Chenery and her trainer, Lucien Laurin, won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont with Riva Ridge in 1972, the year before Secretariat’s Triple Crown year. Chenery, when asked during a conference call with reporters about Riva Ridge being slighted in the movie, admitted she was disappointed. But she also said, “You can’t show everything, so I understand.”

Chenery, now 88 and living in Boulder, Co., says she is “very pleased” with the movie. “Some horsemen will see the inconsistencies, but it is a wonderful, feel-good show.” She and her husband Jack Tweedy, who is portrayed in the film, divorced after the time period depicted in the movie, and Jack had remarried before he died 12 years ago. Chenery is still often called Penny Chenery Tweedy, but when I asked which name she prefers, she said, “My husband’s second wife is Mrs. Tweedy. I’m Penny Chenery.”

Besides the Riva Ridge slight, there other minor flaws that those who follow horse racing might notice. A scene following Secretariat’s loss in the Wood Memorial leading up to the Kentucky Derby has jockey Ron Turcotte, played by a retired jockey Otto Thorwarth, walking with Chenery and Lucien supposedly in the bellows of Aqueduct while carrying his saddle. At one point, the Turcotte character sits down and disgustingly throws his saddle to the ground. Thorwarth, reached at his home in Hot Springs, Ark., was asked about that scene. “Before we started filming, Randall told me to let him know if there was anything we were doing in the movie that wasn’t realistic,” Thorwarth said. “I told him a jockey would never be carrying his saddle after a race. But he said he wanted to leave that scene alone because my throwing the saddle to the ground added to the emotion of the moment.” Added Thorwarth: “There were some things I brought up that were changed and some things that were not.”

Among the other liberties taken by filmmakers that will be fodder for nitpickers:

* Trash talking: While there might occasionally be some trash talking in the starting gate, depicting trash talking during a Triple Crown race is a bit ridiculous. * Lucien’s polar opposite: Much has already been made of the 6′ 1″ Malkovich’s characterization of Lucien, who was a 5′ 2” former jockey. Malkovich’s wild outfits and eccentric and sometimes bizarre behavior don’t accurately portray the real Lucien. Malkovich was given quite a bit of free reign during the filming. *Inventor of Arnold Palmer?: There’s a celebration scene in a restaurant after Secretariat was named Horse of the Year as the 2-year-old where Malkovich says, “Arnold Palmers all the way around.” The drink of half iced tea and half lemonade named after the legendary golfer didn’t become nationally popular until long after 1973. According to Wallace, that was an ad lib – and apparently no one noticed it was a dated comment. * Blurred origin of “You’re going down”: This was not an ad lib: During a press conference prior to the 1973 Kentucky Derby, the trainer of Sham tells Tweedy and Lucien, “You’re going down.”  That line later became associated with professional wrestling but essentially wasn’t around in 1973.

Writer/author Nack was one of the consultant’s during the 45 days it took to shoot the movie. Nack and another turf writer, Andy Beyer, are portrayed in the movie by actors who, for some reason, appear overly slovenly. Bad stereotype? Okay, enough nitpicking. Overall, those involved in this project put out an outstanding film, one that should provide a needed boost to the troubled horse racing industry.

Sites used for shooting the racing scenes were Churchill Downs, Keeneland, dressed up to appear as several tracks, including Belmont Park, and a training track in Louisiana, which used to be the site of Evangeline Downs before it moved nine miles away in 2005. The 1973 Preakness is documented with real footage from CBS’ coverage, featuring host Jack Whitaker and race caller Chic Anderson. In the movie, the Tweedy family watches the race on television at their home in Denver. Avoiding another location shoot is a nice way to stay under budget. Wallace pointed out another advantage. “It was vastly more effective to do it that way,” he said. “We were not showing the audience the same thing once again and it showed how the family came around to see how exciting all this was for Penny.” The other races in the movie were filmed in bits and pieces and assembled to look real. “No horse ran more than a quarter of a mile,” Wallace said. “That was the maximum allowed. The Humane Society was with us the entire shoot. “And because we wanted to be statistically precise about Secretariat’s races, our horses ran at the same speed Secretariat did. Of course, they — or any horse — could never have sustained that speed.”

Rusty Hendrickson, who describes himself as a “movie horse wrangler,” found the five horses that played Secretariat. For the close-ups, there were two main Secretariats. They were Trolley Boy, who raced until an injury ended his career as a 2-year-old, and Longshot Max. Trolley Boy won a 2008 Secretariat Look-A-Like contest in Paris, Kentucky, and Longshot Max was discovered through an online casting call. The biggest, most complicated shoot was at Churchill Downs, replicating the 1973 Kentucky Derby. About 2,000 extras were used. To make the place look full to capacity, photos of people were put in every seat, a tedious process called “tiling.”

Lane had high praise for the extras at Churchill Downs. “These extras had never been on a film set before,” she said. “Usually you get a jaded group that has seen all of this a million times. But this group loved the project and showed real enthusiasm for the experience.” Lane said she has always loved horses and that this role has turned her into a racing fan. “A day at the races means something to me now,” she said. As a child growing up in New York City, Lane enjoyed watching horse racing on television with her family. “I always bet on the horse with the number of the age that I was at the time,” she said. Now she yearns for the days when racing, in her view, was a family event. “As much as I want this industry to flourish because of my love for the horses and the respect I have for the jockeys, I remember when off-track betting was born and became sort of huge in Manhattan,” she said. “I want it to be as it used to be, where families would come and make a day of it. It’s my hope to re-ignite that family fun feeling about it.” Lane said she immediately became fond of the real Penny Chenery, who has a cameo in the movie toward the end and helped with the project throughout. “I’m most happy to see Penny appreciated afresh,” Lane said. “It’s very heartwarming and personally gratifying for me because I became a fan at hello.” Lane’s first conversation with Chenery was via cell phone while she was attending the 2009 Belmont. Producer Mark Ciardi handed Lane his phone and said, “We’ve got Penny for you.” Lane said, “It was like, Elvis is on the phone.”

Superb performances by Lane, Malkovich, and retired jockey Otto Thorwarth, who plays Ron Turcotte in his acting debut, contribute to the enjoyment of the film. Just about everyone knows how this story turns out. It really doesn’t matter. The story, the acting, the photography and the editing add up to a movie worthy of a Triple Crown winner.

— By Larry Stewart

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