'Secretariat' premiere brings Hollywood glitter downtown

The cloudy skies and biting wind that blew down Main Street for the Secretariat premiere at The Kentucky Theatre reminded Keeneland president Nick Nicholson of a similar day a year ago.

"They were trying to film a day in early June that was 84 degrees, and they were all in short-sleeved shirts but it was freezing," Nicholson recalled. "But they were such good actors that when the film was rolling they all looked hot, and when they yelled, 'Cut,' they all looked like that," he said, doing a shivering clutch.

Sunday night, Lexington was similarly trying to bask in the warm glow of a Hollywood premiere as Secretariat star Diane Lane and many others walked the red carpet to catch a first glimpse of the movie. Patrons paid $125 and up for the event, which included the film and a party afterward at Portofino restaurant. Most of them held hopes that the film, which opens nationwide Friday, will boost the fortunes of the Thoroughbred racing industry and Kentucky's fledgling film industry.

"Seabiscuit was a great start, but obviously that was the first racing movie in a long, long time," Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen said on the red carpet, referring to the 2003 Academy Award nominee for best picture that also was filmed in Central Kentucky. Cauthen — who was the last jockey to ride a horse to a Triple Crown victory, with Affirmed in 1978 — reflected on going to events with Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte. "Secretariat is held in high esteem, I think because he won the Belmont by 32 lengths. He was an awesome horse, and he was the first horse to do it for 25 years."

The film chronicles the story of Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, played by Lane, as she assembled the team to prepare her horse for a Triple Crown campaign after the deaths of her parents. The movie shows the strain that pursuing Thoroughbred racing immortality put on Chenery's family, who went by her married name of Tweedy at the time.

"They did it very sensitively," Chenery's daughter, Kate Chenery Tweedy, said on the red carpet. "I thought, 'Wow, the arguments between Mom and Dad were so succinct and articulate.' That's not how I remember it."

The occasion of the premiere was stirring up a lot of memories for people in attendance, both of Secretariat's run and more recently of filming the movie last fall in Central Kentucky.

Filming took place at locations such as Spindletop Hall and Keeneland, which stood in for Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., where the Belmont Stakes are run.

"I told their president that the Belmont never looked so good," Nicholson said, laughing.

Lane recalled, "I was allowed to stay in someone's home who has amazing property and horses, and that was my favorite thing. To be close to the horses and sneak out each day and spend time with them without cameras rolling was really special."

Lane said she was enjoying watching footage from the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on TV and recalling her time here around horse racing.

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry said when he heard that the premiere was coming to Lexington at the same time as the World Equestrian Games, he thought, "'Oh, my gosh, how are we going to squeeze something else in?' But after about a half-second, you think, 'How perfect.' You couple that with the fact that Secretariat spent most of his life here and Penny Chenery lived here for many years, it's an ideal location."

After the screening, the mayor pronounced the movie "fabulous," pointing to John Malkovich's performance as Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin, and footage of Keene land as high points.

"It's a woman's movie about women's intuition and women believing in themselves," said Katie Hoffner of Fort Collins, Colo., who attended the screening with her mother, Mary Margaret Miller of Richmond. "We all know the story, but we were still crying at the end."

Clayton and Katherine Davis of Bourbon County liked how inside the story the movie took them.

"It was interesting knowing about things like the abscess he had at the Wood Memorial, and that's why he didn't run well," said Clayton, who admitted he bet on Secretariat's chief rival, Sham, at the 1973 Derby. "The intensity of the financial risk they took was also interesting.

Katherine Davis said, "It reminds you of how great these Thoroughbreds are."

Gov. Steve Beshear was also in attendance and touted Secretariat as the first recipient of Kentucky's new tax-incentive programs for filmmakers. "The first, but not the last," he said. "We're going to build on that, and we're so proud that the very first film to take advantage of these incentives is about that magnificent animal that Kentuckians have such a special relationship with."

Secretariat's director, Randall Wallace, a Tennessee native, said he would recommend filming in Kentucky to fellow Hollywood directors "in a Kentucky minute — which is not any longer than a New York minute."

Among those who had already seen the movie were three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.

"This movie will show people that dreams come true, and when people watch the movie, they'll see what we go through and dream about," Borel said.

Helping orchestrate the festivities inside The Kentucky Theatre was its manager, Fred Mills, who has been through several Hollywood film premieres, including Seabiscuit. The film will open at The Kentucky and theaters nationwide Friday.

"It's kind of a slim time for movies right now, between the summer season and the holidays," Mills said. "So it's a good time for an exciting movie to come out.

"If it's anything like Big Red, the race horse, it should be fantastic."

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