DENVER — This is not Penny Chenery’s first time at the ball. Back in 1973, Chenery’s 3-year-old stallion — known by some as “Big Red” — made racing history.
The chestnut titan followed triumphs at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with a jaw-dropping trouncing of the field at the Belmont, becoming the first horse in a quarter century to take the elusive Triple Crown.
Of course, many know the victor as Secretariat.
“He was feisty. He wasn’t mean. But he’d nip at you as if to say ‘You’re in my space,’ ” recalls Chenery of her beloved stallion.
On Friday, the horse, the elegantly smart Chenery and horse trainer Lucien Laurin get fresh attention when the movie “Secretariat” opens.
Diane Lane is winning as Penny Tweedy — nee Chenery — a woman who travels from hearth and home to keep her father’s horse farm alive. At the time, she was living in the Denver suburb or Littleton, with husband Jack Tweedy and their four young children — Sarah, Kate, Christopher and John Jr.
Worse things, of course, could happen than to be portrayed by the gifted Lane.
“I worked very hard not to be in the same picture with Diane Lane,” jokes Chenery. Still lovely and vibrant — wearing white slacks, a light-blue shirt with polka dots and a double strand of pearls — the 88-year-old need not fret.
Sitting with Chenery in her Boulder apartment in a beautiful assisted-living complex provides an important reminder about moviemaking.
As much as films make larger-than-life statements about their subjects, they also do the opposite: They shrink.
Real lives can be panoramic. They stretch out and impress like the framed 84-inch-wide photo of Secretariat’s 31-length win at the Belmont that hangs over an entryway.
Chenery was the youngest daughter of Helen Chenery and financier turned horse breeder Christopher T. Chenery. When she took over the Meadow, the family’s Virginia horse operation, her father had been hospitalized with Parkinson’s disease.
“Though I was living in Colorado with four small children, I’d kept more in touch with the stable.” Her older sister was in Tucson. “My brother was an academic. That left me to run the farm, and I was dying to do it.”
The film “Secretariat” cheats the facts a little.
For instance, the Tweedys moved from Colorado in 1971 to New York’s Long Island to be closer to the Virginia business. And Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby win was Chenery’s second. The year before, 3-year-old Riva Ridge won.
He also took the Belmont Stakes in 1972. Not bad. But not entirely perfect for a film that tightens the focus on a particular tale of triumph.
Riva Ridge was named for a ski run in Vail. Former husband Jack Tweedy was among the founders of the Colorado ski town. “He was in the ski troops,” Chenery says. “He was among the Vail originals who were part of the 10th Mountain Division.”
In fact, the gorgeous Kentucky Derby trophy Chenery holds for a photo isn’t Secretariat’s but Riva Ridge’s. (“Secretariat’s is too valuable for me to have,” she says.)
While the hooplah around Secretariat’s triumph was mind-boggling, coming to terms with what Chenery calls “someone else’s version” of her has been new and different — for her and for her family.
Director Randall Wallace deals gently but maturely with the fact that Chenery’s dedication to the Meadow put a strain on her marriage.
“Jack never took to this,” says Chenery about those tensions. “He thought I’d get over this and come back home. Well, you can imagine, I didn’t.”
“I was miscast as a wife and mother,” she says.
When she hears this quote, daughter Kate Chenery Tweedy doesn’t flinch one bit.
“Absolutely,” says Chenery Tweedy, whose just published book, “Secretariat’s Meadow: The Land, the Family, the Legend” (co-written with Leeanne Ladin), captures familial and historical nuances a two-hour movie simply can’t.
“We all knew it. Her dear friends probably knew it. Mom should have been a corporate CEO from the beginning, but it was the ’50s and the ’40s.”
“I went for my MBA, but I got my MRS,” Penny Chenery says about attending Columbia Business School where she met Tweedy in the 1940s. He was in law school, she was one of 20 women at Columbia. There were 800 men.
“Secretariat” is being compared to last year’s sports-triumphant tale “The Blind Side.” And there are similarities, including Disney’s targeted marketing of the PG film to Christian groups.
And this film, too, has a female protagonist who bucks expectations, who challenges — through force of will and dint of charm — naysayers. Or, in honor of her handsome steed, neighsayers.
“That’s what I hope. Not that it empowers women, but shows that when you get to be 50 and you’ve had your family, there’s still things left to do,” says Penny Chenery. “You can have a whole new career.”