01/08/2014 3:17PM

Hovdey: 'Penny & Red' far more than a horse story


Sometimes a little unburdening is good for the soul. Easier said than done, of course, but sometimes it helps if the unburdening is done in the presence of a single, friendly face and the cold, dispassionate eye of a video camera.

“Just between us,” the friendly face might imply, while the camera refuses to blink.

So it was that Penny Chenery, in her 91st year, sat down with her youngest son, John Tweedy, to get a few things off her chest. Tweedy is an accomplished documentarian, having already produced, among other titles, the moving “Iwo Jima: Memories in Sand” with his wife and partner, Beret Strong. Now comes “Penny & Red – the Life of Secretariat’s Owner,” a one-hour documentary that gives the audience a satisfying taste of what it was like to be the human face of the most famous racehorse in modern times.

“Penny & Red” has been making the rounds of a few film festivals and fund-raisers. There will be a special showing at a Krikorian Theatre near Santa Anita on Saturday night (as in racehorse owner and racing commissioner George Krikorian), and next month the film will debut in Chenery’s backyard at the Boulder International Film Festival.

For those who want the Secretariat horse story chapter and verse, it’s probably best to dig up the ESPN Sports Century episode, released in 2000. “Penny & Red” is a pure character study, with a few fabulous horse races for decoration.

There is plenty of Secretariat, though. His baby pictures mix nicely with Chenery’s, both of them foals of great privilege, born into roles they were expected to fulfill. As a girl Chenery describes herself as restless, edgy, and not a little bit manipulative. As a young woman during World War II she found purpose in a workplace suddenly open to women. Of all the outfits in which Chenery is seen, from the blue jeans of childhood to her snappy Red Cross uniform to the chic suits of an attorney’s wife, it is her wedding dress that seems most ill-fitting, posed as she is as Bride Beautiful.

“Mom is from the generation of women who were invited into positions of real responsibility during World War II then sort of asked politely, or forcibly ejected, from those roles when men came back into the work force,” John Tweedy said. “They were told to go back into the kitchen and change diapers. For my mom, that was a slow burn that took the next 20 years to flower into full-blown frustration. And she wasn’t alone.”

The death of Penny’s father, Christopher Chenery, loosened the psychological chains that bound Penny to the lingering vestiges of her traditional marriage. But if her father’s death freed Chenery in one sense, it also robbed her of that which was most precious. To settle the taxes on the Chenery estate, Secretariat was syndicated at a value of $6.08 million with the stipulation that he would be retired at the end of the 1973 season.

Horse racing fans will savor to the action in “Penny & Red,” including all three of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown races and his grand finale in the Canadian International at Woodbine. Special attention is allowed for the first Marlboro Cup, which was built around Secretariat, and how Chenery’s most desperate wish was that stablemate Riva Ridge not be embarrassed in the running. He wasn’t. Secretariat needed to set a world’s record to beat him.

There was none of Riva Ridge and many other things in the Disney movie version of “Secretariat,” in which Diane Lane portrays a sanitized version of Penny. Appropriately, Lane does the narration for “Penny & Red.”

“Those who felt that the Disney version of her life left some pieces out are gratified to have a fuller vision of her life and personality,” John Tweedy said. “People have responded to her honesty and candor with a great deal of admiration. And then of course there’s been a minority of folks who’ve been shocked, or whose image of Penny has been altered in a way that’s been dismaying to them.”

Here Tweedy refers not only to his mother’s admission of deep-seated anger issues (“I wasn’t angry with you,” she tells her son. “I was just plain angry.”), but also to Chenery’s revelation that she and Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, enjoyed a sexual fling during the height of the horse’s notoriety. These days, such news should fall under the “big deal” category. But believe it or not, some journalists have decided that’s the most important part of the film. Penny’s comment:

“It was wonderful for me.”

Enough said.

In the end, what audiences will see is an entertaining, eloquently tantalizing summation of one woman’s journey through a modern era, during which much of her life was lived in a fishbowl of celebrity, now coming to terms with the world others did not see. At the end of “Penny & Red,” Chenery summons a line from a song, “Time to get right with God.”

“I don’t know if it’s God I’m getting right with,” she says. “I just want to sleep better, be nicer to my friends and easier on my kids.”