Story behind ‘Secretariat’ inspiring

I recently saw the movie “Secretariat” about the horse many people believe to be the best Thoroughbred race horse ever.

Secretariat, born in Virginia in 1970, grew to 16.2 hands (one hand is approximately four inches) and weighed 1200 pounds at maturity. His official color was chestnut, but he was called Big Red by those close to him.

This is a Disney movie, and a story about love. Everyone loved that horse. What made him unique was he loved them back. When the crowd roared, he pranced. I remember, especially, watching the Belmont Stakes on television. He preened for the raucous crowd, and then won by such a large margin (31 lengths) the cameras had trouble including the also-ran horses in the photo. He’s the only horse to adorn the covers of “Time,” “Newsweek,” and “Sports Illustrated.” That hadn’t happened before, and it hasn’t happened since.

Current notable descendants include A.P. Indy, Gone West, Storm Cat, Elusive Quality, Smarty Jones. Readers involved in racing will recognize these names.

For me, it’s a story about female perseverance. I remember when women had to dress up — heels, hose the whole thing — to appear at the track on race day, especially if they were wives of owners, trainers or, God forbid, actual owners themselves. Penny Chenery went along with that, as the old photos show. She didn’t, however, go along with the “give it up” advice she got from most everyone.

They didn’t realize her father had taught her so much. She found Lucien Laurin, trainer, and Ron Turcotte, rider, Eddie Sweat, super groom and they were, as they say, off to the races.

Yes, the movie has “some omissions, some contrivances,” Chenery (now in her 88th year) said in an interview with Bill Christine for the Nov. 15, 2010 “Daily Racing Form.” She added, however, “…by and large I think it’s a wonderful picture. Working with the Disney people was a complete pleasure… I realized going in that this was Hollywood, and to keep a movie going, you have to disturb the facts and enhance things here and there. So the things in the film that didn’t really happen don’t bother me at all.”

Chenery’s father had made a deal with the late Ogden Phipps in which Phipps’ stallion, Bold Ruler, would be bred to a set of mares. The choice of which offspring went to who was decided with a coin toss. Chenery lost, but she had studied the pedigrees and wanted the foal delivered by the mare Somethingroyal, not chosen by Phipps. Her father had taught her that the mare’s genes are every bit as important as the stallion’s.

Indeed. When Secretariat died in 1989, the autopsy showed his heart was about twice as large as that of a regular horse. Later study proved the gene that controls heart size is passed on by the mare. Is that cool or what?

My favorite line in the movie, true or not, is when the owner of race horse Sham made an uncomplimentary comment about housewives owning race horses. Chenery said she had made a multi-million dollar gamble, adding, “That’s what we housewives do.”