Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane, led the famous horse to victory in 1973

By John Young
October 08, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT


In 1967, Penny Chenery was a suburban Denver housewife when she assumed control of her dying father’s Virginia-based horse farm. ”I was so ready for something more than wife and mother,” says Chenery, now 88. ”I just galloped right into it.”

Four decades later, so did Hollywood, adapting Chenery’s unlikely story into Secretariat. Starring Diane Lane as the titular Thoroughbred’s tenacious owner, the movie chronicles the rise of the Triple Crown winner, as well as Chenery’s triumph over the macho world of horse racing. ”I thought, ‘I’ll show them what a housewife can do!’ ” she says. ”And I had a ball.”

Chenery knew that Secretariat would take some liberties — such as omitting her other champion horse, Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1972. ”There wouldn’t be the climax of winning the Derby if I had already done it,” she laughs.

But the movie doesn’t shortchange Chenery (who appears in a cameo as a member of the Belmont audience). ”With one hand she’s raising four children, and with the other she’s saving her dad’s business and attempting greatness,” says Lane. ”Emotionally, it was a full meal to play her.” As for Lane’s portrayal, Chenery can only offer praise: ”I like her character better than I like me!”


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