Film Explores The Woman Behind Secretariat



Penny Chenery Tweedy with Secretariat.

By Stephen J. Kotz

Few horses have captured the public’s imagination like Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, whose success made its owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, the public face of horse racing. With the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby this weekend, the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival will present the East Coast premiere of a documentary that explores the life of the famous champion’s owner, who was a trailblazer herself in a sport long dominated by men.

“Penny & Red: The Story of Secretariat’s Owner,” which is directed by Ms. Tweedy’s son, John Tweedy, will be screened at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Bay Street Theatre. The screening will follow a “Triple Crown Benefit” lunch and silent auction of Secretariat memorabilia that will take place at noon at The American Hotel and raise money for the film festival and two charitable organizations dedicated to the welfare of horses, Amaryllis Farm Equine Rescue and the Secretariat Foundation.

Jacqui Lofaro, the director of the film festival, said the idea for turning the event into a three-way fundraiser was a natural. Amaryllis, run by Christine Distefano, which now has eight locations on Long Island, has several of Secretariat’s offspring among its rescued horses, and Ms. Tweedy founded the Secretariat Foundation.

Mr. Tweedy, who has enjoyed a long career as a documentary filmmaker, and Bill Nack, a former Newsday reporter who covered horse racing and wrote, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” will attend both events and take part in a question-and-answer session following the screening.

“I realized my mother was getting older and her story needed to be told,” said Mr. Tweedy in a telephone interview this week. “It transformed my mother’s life—she became the human face and voice of Secretariat. And she transformed how thoroughbred owners interacted with fans.”

Ms. Tweedy was a child of self-made man who first made a fortune in New York before rescuing the old family farm, The Meadow in Doswell, Virginia, from foreclosure and transforming it into a horse farm. Ms. Tweedy, who worked in New York during World War II, was studying for an MBA at Columbia University when she got married. At her father’s request, she dropped out of school a month before graduating.

She moved with her husband, a successful lawyer, to Denver, where he became one of the founders of Vail as a skiing center. In the film, Ms. Tweedy who is now in her 90s, admitted that she was unhappy in her marriage and frustrated with her role as a housewife. When her father became ill in the late 1960s, she had her escape. She began splitting her time between her family, in Denver, and the horse farm in Virginia.

In 1972, she began a streak of remarkable success, when her horse Riva Ridge won both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.  But those accomplishments would pale in comparison to what would transpire just a year later.

Entering the season, Secretariat was considered a potential star, and Ms. Tweedy was able to syndicate the breeding rights for more than $6 million, an unheard of sum at the time and enough to rescue the family horse farm, which had been running losses for several years.

In the Kentucky Derby, jockey Ron Turcotte guided Secretariat from the back of the pack to a two-length win. At the Preakness, Secretariat showed a remarkable, and sustained, burst of speed in the back stretch to move from dead last to an easy victory. But it was at the Belmont, the grueling mile-and-a-half race that foils so many Triple Crown hopefuls that Secretariat enjoyed his greatest triumph, obliterating a small field of only five contenders to win by an astounding 31 lengths and shave more than two seconds off the track record.

Mr. Tweedy said that because at the time, America had been torn apart by anti-war protests, the beginning of the Watergate scandal and other problems, “there was a hunger in the culture for an uncomplicated hero.” And Secretariat fit the bill.

“We would get 250 pieces of fan mail day,” Mr. Tweedy said, adding that Secretariat was on the cover of Time, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek in the same week. The horse, he added, was a natural ham, straightening up and posing when he heard the click of a camera.

“It was a very cathartic opportunity to talk about and explore issues that we hadn’t talked about as mother and son,” he said of making the film. It was also very much an opportunity for my siblings.”

“She was extremely capable and interested in business and she was passionate to have her own career,” said Mr. Tweedy of his mother. “She did have a heroic journey, but the back story was not known to the public.”

Tickets to the Triple Crown Benefit luncheon at the American Hotel are $125 and include admission to the film. Tickets for the film only are $15. For more information visit or or call Bay Street Theatre at 631-725-9500.