Fans of the great horse Secretariat who have seen the races and the Disney movie know Big Red's story. They might think they know the story of his beautiful owner, Penny Chenery. They almost certainly don't.
Now, in a new documentary film produced by Chenery's son, filmmaker John Tweedy, Chenery opens up about her life and the personal upheaval that was going on behind the scenes during the 1973 Triple Crown season.
Penny & Red: The Life of Secretariat's Owner will have its world premiere Friday at Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Lexington, kicking off the Secretariat Festival in Paris. The horse stood as a stallion and is buried at nearby Claiborne Farm.
The year of Secretariat was one of incredible turmoil: The Vietnam War was finally ending, the Watergate scandal was erupting and bringing down a president, the Battle of the Sexes was playing out on the tennis courts.
The public was desperate for heroes and the pure joy that Secretariat represented.
But fans had only the merest hints of Chenery's struggles.
She has long been recognized for her role as a ground-breaking female sports and media figure and for feminizing a traditionally male sport, opening it up to women and to fans.
Even today, she says, she has a hard time seeing herself as a feminist.
"My actions, my decisions all grew out of my own feelings, and my own needs. I just happened to be a woman in a man's world," Chenery said Friday in an interview. "I get letters from fans, and they say, 'Oh, you're such a role model.' If that's true, it's a happy by-product of living my life. ... When I say I'm not a feminist, I am ... in the sense that I want women to be free to be themselves."
Now, 40 years after that season in the spotlight with Secretariat, she wants to tell a side of the story she has never discussed publicly, warts and all. She acknowledges that is a risk.
"I don't know how it's going to work out," Chenery said. "It may spoil my image. I don't know and at this point, I don't care. Actually it was very freeing to go ahead and do the interview."
Not the Disney version
In part, she says, it's to counter the glamorized, sweet version of the story brought back into the public sphere by Disney's 2010 movie starring Diane Lane as Chenery. (Lane narrates Penny & Red.)
"I'm 91. There's nothing more that I need to prove, and I might as well let the story be accurate," Chenery said.
In Penny & Red, she reveals that the image of the poised and serene housewife she represented in the winner's circles was only half the story. What the cameras didn't see at the time was her private rage.
"I was just angry to the core," Chenery says now.
In breathtakingly candid interviews with her son, she admits in the film that anger spilled out onto her children as well.
"At the time, I was so bottled up in my own distress, that I did not pay attention to their needs," Chenery said.
As she put it in the film, "I thought, 'Tough sh--. This is the just the way I am.' "
Her anger, Chenery said, came from her deep unhappiness in her marriage to Jack Tweedy and in her life.
"Materially she did have a lot of advantages," her son John explained, "but she had a lot of the expectations and role boundaries that women of her era experienced."
Chenery said, "I had done the wife-and-mother bit, and community participation, Junior League, children's theater, and all of that and just was ready for something different for me. I was angry because I was cooped up in a box that I didn't choose — I needed an exit from that.
"The horses provided that."
Saving her life
Horses had been Chenery's refuge as a child, an escape from a difficult sibling relationship. As an adult, they would help pull her out of a crumbling marriage.
In 1967, Chenery's mother died and her father needed her help running his racing operation, Meadow Stable.
As her oldest daughter, Sarah Manning, says in the film, "It was just so clear that for Penny, being able to take over for her father was saving her life."
First, legendary horse Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, and then Secretariat gave her the validation she was desperate for, Chenery says.
Finally she wasn't so angry any more.
She and her children have worked through their anger as well.
"We had our ups and downs, but since I've moved to Colorado, where they live, we have good relationships and happy times together," Chenery said. "It takes work."
Tweedy's film has amplified that.
"The filmmaking process has been a wonderful exercise in exploration, catharsis and healing, frankly for Mom and for our family," Tweedy said.
"The level of honesty that she gave us in the film was just remarkable. It sort of helped me, as a filmmaker and her son, understand her better and understand the parts of her life that we didn't understand, and provide context about the outer triumphs and inner struggles."
IF YOU GO
6th annual Secretariat Festival
What: Festival and related events celebrating the great Triple Crown-winning racehorse. Secretariat merchandise and autograph signings by owner Penny Chenery, jockey Ron Turcotte, writer Bill Nack, exercise rider Charlie Davis, actor and former jockey Otto Thorwarth, who played Ron Turcotte in Disney's Secretariat, and legendary jockeys Eddie Maple, Jean Cruguet, Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Mike Manganello, Laffit Pincay, Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez and Angel Cordero. Tours of Claiborne Farm, where Secretariat stood at stud and is buried, depart every half-hour 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. from fairgrounds.
When: Sept. 21
Where: Bourbon County Fairgrounds, 30 Legion Dr., Paris
Learn more: Secretariatfestival.com
Penny & Red: The Life of Secretariat's Owner, world-premiere screening. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20. Fasig-Tipton, 2400 Newtown Pike, Lexington. Cocktail reception at 6 p.m. with Penny Chenery, Meadow Stable team and writer Bill Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. $40 general admission for film only, $95-$150 for VIP admission to film and receptions; available at Secretariat.com or (502) 893-7997. Proceeds will benefit equine-related charities through non-profit Secretariat Foundation.
Paris Art Walk. 5-8 p.m. Sept. 20. Downtown Paris. After-party and Four Roses bourbon tasting at 8:30 p.m. at Oasis Event Hall, 718 Main Street.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl