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Secretariat's owner says movie is 'a wonderful, feel-good show'

For most people, the story of Secretariat is three races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, which in 1973 made Big Red a legendary Thoroughbred that many people considered the greatest racehorse of all time.

That, of course, is not the whole story.

In the next week, Disney's Secretariat writes a prologue and behind-the-scenes tale to those races. In director Randall Wallace's film, it is a story of heartbreak, risk, tenacity, redemption and luck centered on one woman, Penny Chenery, one of Secretariat's owners.

The movie tells the story of how Chenery took over her family's farm after her parents died, took some risks on a horse that seemed to embody greatness, and endured long, lonely days away from her family in Colorado to make the dream of fielding a superhorse come true.

"You have to get over the weirdness of seeing yourself on the screen, which is a deference I never thought about having to make," Chenery said during a conference call with journalists from across the country Wednesday afternoon. "It's a process you really have to go through, but it's really been a lot of fun."

Diane Lane, who plays Chenery, said during the same call: "The fact is, this story is not a story. It's a piece of history and real life. If Disney could have written it, they would have. But here it is, a piece of real life."

The story follows Chenery from the day she received a phone call telling her that her mother died and started her journey from Colorado homemaker into the men's world of Thoroughbred racing.

At one point in the film, she waltzes into an all-men's club to talk to a business consultant. She listens as men mock her horse, calling him "Secretary." She persuades cranky trainer Lucien Laurin (played by John Malkovich) to work with Big Red.

And she wins.

Of course, as with any film based on actual events, dramatic license was taken and corners were cut in the story.

One of the big cuts was the story of Riva Ridge, who, while a stablemate of 2-year-old Secretariat, won the 1972 Derby and Belmont, giving Chenery's Meadow Stable five of six Triple Crown races in two years and back-to-back Derbys and Belmonts.

"Yes, I was disappointed for poor old Riva, who was always shoved aside by Secretariat," Chenery said. "But I certainly understand. You can only show so much in one film and make it cohesive."

Without that element, the story is more of an underdog tale, a stable without much success taking a monstrous financial risk to chase the dream of a Triple Crown, a title that had not been won in 25 years.

Chenery and others say there are moments of authenticity and extreme close-ups of racing action that should make the movie a must-see for racing enthusiasts.

A real jockey, Otto Thorwarth, plays Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte.

"The fact that they used a real jockey was very important to me," Chenery said. "Otto Thorwarth turned into a wonderful actor. I'm proud of the movie because it doesn't look like a fake. It's not some pretty boy scrubbing on a hobby horse."

The racing footage also gets very close, showing the speed, bumping and motion of the races.

Producer Mark Ciardi said it was Wallace's intention to "really get inside the action. He wanted to get that visceral experience. We used an off-the-shelf Olympus camera that retailed for around $800 ... so literally used this little camera with some hi-def memory, taped it on the end of a stick and had a guy hanging out of a car and followed the horses. That allowed us to get really close to the action."

Chenery came away from the whole weird experience happy.

"Horsemen will nitpick inconsistencies, but they really don't hurt the flow" of the story, she said. "It's just a wonderful, feel-good show."

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