Secretariat – 1973 Triple Crown Winner
The Thoroughbred racehorse Secretariat won the U.S. Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse to have done so since the 1940s. Though two other horses have since also won the Triple Crown, Secretariat still holds the speed records for each of the races and is generally considered the most dominant Thoroughbred racehorse of the second half of the twentieth century, if not of all time. The 2010 Disney movie Secretariat tells the story of the horse’s championship season and the story of Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), who broke ground as a female horse and stable owner in the male-dominated world of Thoroughbred horseracing.
Though she was happily raising her four children with her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) in Colorado in the late 1960s, Chenery takes over her father’s Meadow Stables in Virginia after her mother dies and her father (Scott Glenn) becomes ill. Though she has had a love for horses since childhood, Chenery knows little about the horseracing business and finds herself in even worse trouble when she fires the stable’s trainer, whose crooked deals with other stables has led Meadow Stables into decline over the previous several years. In addition, her top choice for a new trainer, the eccentric Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), refuses to come out of retirement to help her bring Meadow Stables back to its feet.--- Read More ---
Chenery’s fortunes rest on a deal her father made with millionaire horse owner Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). The deal is that Chenery’s two best mares (Somethingroyal and Hasty Matelda) will breed with Phipps’ best stallion, and then Phipps and Chenery would flip a coin for first choice of foal. Though Phipps wins the toss and chooses the foal of Hasty Matelda, Chenery is happy because she had her eye on Somethingroyal’s foal because of her pedigree. Somethingroyal’s foal astounds Laurin (who decides to take the job based on the horse’s pedigree) when the foal stands up quicker than any foal he has ever seen. Chenery and Laurin call him “Big Red” (though he later gets the official name Secretariat) and soon proves to be a powerful horse. At the same time, Chenery’s husband and children grow increasingly frustrated with her for spending so much time at the stable that she misses important family events, like her daughter’s school play. In addition, Chenery continues to face intense sexism in a traditionally male-dominated sport.
Secretariat fails in his first race and Laurin decides that the jockey is wrong for the horse. He introduces Chenery to Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), an aggressive jockey who Laurin believes will push Secretariat harder. The match proves to be extraordinarily successful, and Secretariat dominates the rest of the races that season and is named horse of the year. However, despite all of the success Chenery’s father dies and leaves the stable six million dollars in debt. Her brother Hollis demands that Penny sell Secretariat, but their father’s will stipulates that only Penny can sell the horses.
To cover the six million dollars, Chenery attempts to sell 32 shares of breeding rights for Secretariat for large sums. Despite intense criticism, she eventually sells the shares after Phipps buys the first one when Chenery rejects his offer to buy the horse. However, Chenery guarantees the buyers that Secretariat will win the Triple Crown, something that had not been done by a horse for over two decades. If Secretariat does not win the Triple Crown, she will be ruined. However, Chenery has faith in the emotional bond she has developed with Secretariat.
Problems arise when Secretariat loses his next race, the Wood Memorial Stakes, to rival horse Sham. It is later discovered that the horse was in pain because of an abscess in his mouth. The abscess heals shortly before the Kentucky Derby (the first Triple Crown race). Though Secretariat begins the Derby in dead last, he accelerates to an unbeatable speed, passes Sham, and sets a record for the Derby. Secretariat repeats that performance in The Preakness, with Big Red again going from dead last to a recording-setting first place. However, despite Secretariat’s dominating speed, Sham comes in second in both races and the margin of victory was only two and a half lengths in both races.
Prior to the Belmont Stakes, the owner of Sham, Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), boasts that Secretariat, Laurin, and Chenery will be embarrassed by his horse. When the race begins, it seems like all of America is on the edge of their seats to see how Secretariat performs. Unlike the previous races, Secretariat begins in the lead neck-and-neck with Sham, which worries everyone. However, Secretariat has an intense burst of speed and ends up winning the Belmont Stakes by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths, setting both a speed record and a victory margin record that still stand. The crowd erupts in celebration of Secretariat’s win, proving that Chenery’s faith in Secretariat was right all along. Secretariat becomes a folk hero to even non-race fans and Chenery proves that women can succeed in horse racing.
Contributing author: Chris McKittrick
Real Life, Reel Differences
- The most significant departure from truth in Secretariat is the way the filmmakers dramatized the financial troubles faced by Chenery and Meadow Stable. Chenery had another very successful horse, Riva Ridge, which was also trained by Laurin and won both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes the year before Secretariat won the Triple Crown. However, the movie makes no mention of Riva Ridge in order to make Secretariat’s victories and popularity stand out even more. That also meant portraying Chernery as being on the verge of financial ruin during Secretariat’s championship season when that was not actually the case. In fact, it was actually Riva Ridge that had saved the farm.
- Turcotte called the movie “alright” in an interview and pointed out several departures from reality, including the portrayals of Laurin and Martin. In the movie, Laurin is portrayed as a very flamboyant dresser and golfer, though Turcotte said Laurin did not dress out of fashion and he did not play golf (he was actually an avid fisherman). He also believed that Pancho Martin was unfairly vilified in the film, and called Martin “a wonderful person,” adding, “It hurt me to see the way he was portrayed.” However, the film uses words that Martin had actually said that were recorded by Bill Nack, who wrote the book the film was based on. Martin passed away two years after the film was released, but did not publicly comment on the film.
- The film suggests that Sham, the horse of Chenery’s rival Martin, beat Secretariat in the Wood Memorial Stakes several weeks before the Kentucky Derby. The race was actually won by Angle Light – incidentally, another horse trained by Laurin. In fact, the abscess under Secretariat’s lip that the loss was blamed on was actually discovered several hours before the running of the Wood Memorial, not after the race. Sham came in second and Secretariat came in third.
- The film portrays Laurin as introducing Turcotte to Chenery after Secretariat loses his first race. However, in reality Turcotte had rode for Chenery before – including riding Riva Ridge to victory in both the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes – and did not first meet her when Laurin suggested him for Secretariat as portrayed in the film. With the film completely ignoring Riva Ridge, this previous successful association was also ignored.
- Though the film is correct in showing the relationship between Penny Chenery and her husband Jack Tweedy having problems because of Chenery becoming increasingly involved with her father’s stable, the film portrays their frayed relationship as being on the mend by the conclusion of the film. However, Chenery and Tweedy divorced less than a year after Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
- In the film, Phipps is critical of Chenery and attempts to buy Secretariat for $8 million when Chenery tries to sell him the breeding rights. However, Chenery herself claims that Phipps never tried to buy Secretariat.
- Steven Crist of Racing Daily Forum had several criticisms of the film (including those listed above), but ultimately felt the most significant issue was the film’s portrayal of Secretariat as a “plucky underdog “ when in reality Secretariat was one of the most dominant horses in Thoroughbred racing history based on his physical power. He questioned the film’s reliance of establishing a melodramatic emotional bond between the horse and Chenery rather than focusing on the actual truth of Secretariat’s dominance.
Where Are They Now?
Secretariat ran 6 more races after his Triple Crown victory, winning four of them in his trademark dominating fashion. He set a world speed record at Belmont at the inaugural Marlboro Cup in 1973, and set another Belmont record at the 1973 Man O’ War Stakes which has yet to be broken. After retiring at the end of the season, horseracing aficionados eagerly wondered what Secretariat’s progeny would do in the sport. Though the first horse Secretariat sired, Canadian Bound, became the first Thoroughbred yearling racehorse to sell for over a million, he was unsuccessful as a racehorse. However, some of Secretariat’s later sires, including Lady’s Secret, Kingston Rule, Risen Star, and General Assembly won several championships. Later horses that have Secretariat in their pedigree have also been successful, including 2007 Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches. Secretariat was euthanized in the fall of 1989 at the age of 19, and after his death the veterinarian estimated that Secretariat’s heart was nearly three times the size of a normal horse’s.
Secretariat was featured in ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury profile as one of the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Penny Chenery – broke down barriers in 1983 when she became one of the first three women to be admitted into The Jockey Club, the breed registry for American Thoroughbred horses. She also helped establish the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which ensures that retired racehorses are properly cared for after their careers are over. She later received many other honors for both her contributions to horseracing and charitable works, including the prestigious Eclipse Award of Merit in 2005.
Her son, John Tweedy, produced a 60-minute documentary film released in 2013 titled Penny & Red, The Life of Secretariat’s Owner. As part of Penny’s contract with Disney when Secretariat was made, she was allowed to create a one-hour documentary and her son decided to focus the story on his mom, not Secretariat.
According to an article published by CBS Denver in June of 2012, Penny Chenery is currently living in Boulder, CO.
Lucien Laurin again retired in 1976 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1977, but his retirement was again short-lived. He returned to horseracing in 1983 as both a trainer and part owner of Evergreen Stable and was inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame the following year. He retired from the sport for good in 1986.
Overall, Laurin won 161 races in Canada as a jockey, where he first broke into horseracing. He spent more than 40 years as a trainer, having trained 36 stakes winners during that time. He teamed up with jockey Ronnie Turcotte to win five Triple Crown races, two with Riva Ridge and three with Secretariat during that memborable 1973 Triple Crown season. He won an Eclipse Award as horse racing’s leading trainer in 1972 and he was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1977.
In June of 2000, Laurin passed away in a hospital in Miami at the age of 88.
Ron Turcotte was left a paraplegic after a race at Belmont in 1978 when his mount, Flag of Leyte Gulf, clipped heels with another horse and both he and the horse fell; his spine had been smashed. Although his career was cut short by this injury, Turcotte left quite a resume, winning over 3000 races and many major stakes, none more famous than the Triple Crown run in 1973 (view footage from all three races). His other accomplishments included leading jockeys nationwide in stakes winners two years in a row; the only jockey since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902 to win two consecutive Kentucky Derbys; George Woolf Memorial Award winner; and the first jockey ever to be appointed a member of the prestigious Order of Canada. He became a Racing Hall of Fame member in 1979 and gained entry to both the New Brunswick and Canadian Sport Hall of Fame rosters in 1980.
He has also been deeply involved with charities for the disabled, including the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. In fact, he has became the voice of disabled riders worldwide – a cause he embraces vigorously, traveling in support of other disabled members of his profession and making appearances at charitable functions nationwide.
The National Film Board of Canada released the documentary, Secretariat’s Jockey – Ron Turcotte, in June 2013: