LOUISVILLE — Penny Chenery was asked what it was like to watch filmmakers re-create Secretariat's legendary Kentucky Derby win, and pretty soon she was back in 1973.
Big Red's owner recalled watching a blank screen and the crowd of actors on the film's set being instructed to look around the track as if they were watching a horse race — one that was not there.
"It was a cold day, but it was supposed to be a sunny day," she said Thursday at a press conference in Louisville for the upcoming movie Secretariat. Then she looked down the table at director Randall Wallace and said, "These people earn their money."
After the laughter died down, Chenery got reflective.
"I've been to the Derby many times since," she said. "It's the same thrill and the same confusion with all the crowd. You can't hear the announcer. You're not even sure where your horse is because you're so far away, and it's just a wild moment of elation ... and then it hits you: That was your horse that won ... and it's your day."
Chenery was in the Kentucky Derby Museum on Thursday morning with Wallace, producer Mark Ciardi and Oscar-nominated actor Diane Lane, who plays Chenery in the movie, to kick off a few more days of remembering the Triple Crown winner and promoting the movie about him, which is scheduled for release Oct. 8.
The Secretariat crew will attend the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday, but the public's biggest chance to see Lane and Chenery was Thursday afternoon, when the pair served as grand marshals of the Pegasus Parade.
Both Lane and Chenery claimed limited parade experience, Chenery having walked in a Saratoga, N.Y., parade with former New York City mayor Ed Koch and Lane in a parade in Sandersville, Ga.
"I'll see you when we get there," Lane shouted to back to Chenery, perched on her red Corvette, as she settled onto the back of a black Corvette. "Wherever 'there' is."
The pair rolled down Broadway side-by-side to shouts of "Diane!" and "Mrs. Chenery!" Lane started grooving as the motorcycle-themed group in front of them, Rubbies Hog Wild, blasted Born to be Wild.
Trailing them was a Macy's Parade-style Secretariat balloon with a few dozen people handling its tethers, which were needed when the balloon had some issues negotiating under power lines, stoplights and overpasses.
Coming back to Kentucky was as important to the filmmakers as shooting here, which they did last fall at Churchill Downs, Keeneland in Lexington and other locations in the Bluegrass.
"What I discovered was that with Kentuckians, they will bring you cookies — chocolate chip cookies that have bourbon in them — and if they like you, there's absolutely nothing they won't do for you," Wallace said.
Before the parade, Lane said, "It's nice being here with the feeling of reality versus emulation. When you're emulating something and you haven't experienced it, you need a lot of verification that things are authentic."
Lane said she used the 2008 documentary The First Saturday in May as a "cheat sheet" for portraying a person who owned a horse in the race.
On Thursday morning, she said she was excited to get to experience her first real Kentucky Derby.
"I'm just riveted; I can't wait," Lane said, then referring to Saturday's weather forecast: "Bring on the rain; I don't care."
Chenery was asked about the diminished national interest in Thoroughbred racing since Secretariat's Triple Crown run in 1973. What racing needs, she said, is another Secretariat to capture the nation's attention.
"I wish we had another strong, compelling horse," Chenery said. "A winning horse is so key because he's incorruptible. ... He goes out and does his best, and most of them love the attention."
As with past movies, such as Seabiscuit in 2003, the Thoroughbred industry has looked for a bounce in interest from being on the silver screen.
Wallace said so far test audiences have given Secretariat high marks and called it inspiring.
Chenery recalled being told by screenwriter Mark Rich, "this is not a documentary; this is a Disney movie."
"It is a wonderful movie," she said. "I have adjusted to the revised version of my life." Asked if anything was better in the revised version, she looked at Lane and said, "I'm younger and prettier."
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.