For Penny Chenery, Secretariat's Triple Crown spring was also a season of love.
In a new documentary film produced by her son, John Tweedy, Chenery reveals that during the 1973 campaign she had an affair with her champion racehorse's trainer, Lucien Laurin.
Both were married at the time, although Chenery's marriage to Jack Tweedy was on the rocks and they would divorce later that year.
Penny & Red: The Life of Secretariat's Owner premiered Friday at Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Lexington to kick off Paris' annual Secretariat Festival, a celebration of the horse's achievements and a chance for fans to talk to Chenery and others linked to Secretariat.
Chenery said she decided to speak candidly about her life so that the fans would know the version portrayed in the 2010 Disney film Secretariat isn't the whole story.
She isn't sure how they will react 40 years after those five blazing weeks of horse racing history.
"It may spoil my image. I don't know, and at this point, I don't care," Chenery said in an interview with the Herald-Leader last week. "It was a tremendous experience for me to go through the Secretariat years, and I just really wanted to let people know what it's like to have a top horse and no one to turn to."
The media spotlight was overwhelming, and Chenery says she felt isolated.
"I was no longer married, my kids were not involved, and all of that pressure and press attention — Lucien and I were buddies, and then we were more," Chenery said.
The affair ended after Secretariat retired that fall to Claiborne Farm in Paris to stand as a stallion.
"We'd run into each other at Hall of Fame ceremonies but, of course, he had a wife," Chenery said. "Neither one of us wanted it to be a destructive part of our careers. When the fever burnt out, we were just casual friends."
Laurin died in June 2000 in Miami at the age of 88; Secretariat died in 1989 at the age of 19.
Bonding in crisis
The revelation may come as a shock to fans trying to imagine Diane Lane, who played Chenery in Secretariat, together with John Malkovich, who played Laurin.
"The Disney version was glamorized," Chenery said. Penny & Red "is my son's movie. ... He is a documentary filmmaker, and he had a lot of family archives, and film material to use, and I thought, I'm 91, there's nothing more that I need to prove and I might as well let the story be accurate."
Revelation of the affair came as something of a surprise to Bill Nack, who covered Secretariat's career intensely and is author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.
"No, I had no idea," Nack said.
Looking back, he said, at the time, "I kinda thought about it for a while, but I thought, no, she's a statuesque beauty, he's a little guy with a nose that looks like it had been put on with putty. It just didn't figure."
But in hindsight, nothing could seem more natural, he said.
"They were both thrown into this cauldron together, and frequently things happen when people are thrown into crises together. They bond," Nack said. "She was the human face of Secretariat, and he was the guy responsible for bringing him to the races in one piece. ... And they were under tremendous pressure. I look back now and it makes total sense."
Nack said that Laurin never hinted at the affair, either. If he'd known, Nack said, "I would have certainly asked her about it. If Lucien had said something to me privately, or when I had my long interviews with her for the book. ... It always would have been my very last question."
Would he have written about it in 1973? Probably, Nack said, but not in a sensational or judgmental way.
"That would have been an interesting part of the story," he said.
Nack praised the film and Chenery's honesty.
"The way I saw it was here is the grande dame of the American turf looking back upon her life without any apologies, really, looking back as it happened, and coming to terms with things she had not talked about," Nack said. "And said, 'Here's my life, take or leave it.' Brutally honest in some ways."
Chenery always handled the public spotlight better than most. Before, horse owners — and particularly female owners — virtually ignored the press, Nack said.
"Most owners were not available. You just didn't go to the owner," he said.
"Whereas with Penny, she was the horse's voice. And in my experience, she was the first owner who was really a public owner. The first out there talking for the horse, in the horse's stead, and was very good at it. She was smart, she was articulate, she was out there. And she spoke in colorful language."
A love affair
John Tweedy said the film grew out of a shorter version that he put together last year for his mother's 90th birthday. Everyone liked it so much they decided to expand on it and include new interviews.
"She wanted to talk about it, and I as a filmmaker wanted to include it because it was a very important relationship for her," Tweedy said. "And it's essential to her story. This really was a love affair that for various reasons was never going to be manifest in a social sense, but was very, very important to her life."
The documentary also will be shown in November at the Equine Extravaganza at The Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Va., Secretariat's birthplace. Tweedy is working wider distribution.
Chenery's story also provides a fascinating insight into the way fame has changed.
"The experience of having a private relationship while being a famous person is one others have, and she had at a time when she was accorded a measure of privacy about it," Tweedy said. "It probably wouldn't happen that way now."
Chenery says that many people must have known but no one ever said a word about the times her car would stay overnight at the trainer's office.
"I was a hero to the racing world, and the turf writers and even the PR people didn't want to spoil the image," Chenery said. "I was a positive image for racing, and they did not want to mar that. I found that fascinating. I was grateful, but so many people, had they looked, had the opportunity to know that we were more than friends."
The relationship came at a time when Chenery needed someone: her marriage to Colorado attorney Jack Tweedy was disintegrating and family life was increasingly unhappy.
"The experience of having Secretariat rescued me," Chenery said. "The fact that I was getting a little on the side was a small part of that story."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl