BIFF: Heads and horsetails

Documentary reveals the dark side of Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner

Danielle Meltz | Boulder Weekly

Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, the Triple Crown-winning racehorse, reveals the truth behind her life in a new documentary, Penny & Red: The Life of Secretariat’s Owner.

The documentary, directed by her son, John Tweedy, tells the true story of one of the most influential women in horse racing. After sifting through home footage of Chenery growing up, and conducting interviews with her, Tweedy combined the footage into an hour-long story of her life.

Chenery had always kept her private life hidden away from the public eye. She reveals secrets in the documentary not disclosed in the 2009 Disney movie, Secretariat, based off of her life.

“After the release of the Disney version of our family’s life, we, and my mother in particular, felt like there was more of a story to tell,” Tweedy says.

Tweedy says that as his mother has aged, she has started coming to terms with her past, and wants to open up about her life more. Given her status in the world, she really felt like it was the right time to show the true Penny.

“For Penny’s world, she’s kind an aging rock star. She’s kind of the Mick Jagger of her world,” Tweedy says.

A lot of the documentary reveals how Chenery was extremely angry growing up. She talks about the first year of a horse’s life being focused on fitting into the herd, and compares it to a lack of belonging she felt during her own adolescence.

In an interview in the documentary, Chenery’s third son, Chris, talks about the way he did not understand why his mother was so angry, but he knew she couldn’t control it.

Growing up with a controlling father and an abusive brother led Chenery to feel like she didn’t have a safe place even within her own home. Those experiences turned into anger for her growing up, and the documentary makes clear she still carries some of that anger to this day.

From a very young age, Chenery’s source of happiness came from being with horses.

When she was young, Chenery would let go of her anger by learning how to ride. She would go out into the fields in her back yard, take off her belt to put around the horse as reins, and just ride.

That love for horses grew when she took over her father’s breeding industry, and became the owner of the fastest horse to ever graze the industry, Secretariat.

Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, setting records that still stand today. In the same week, Secretariat managed to make it onto the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. But Chenery did more than own this magnificent horse; she became a spokesperson for women jockeys and owners across the country.

Chenery’s son directed, produced, and edited the documentary. He is a lawyer by day, but uses documentary making as a way to express himself artistically.

Tweedy says that two professions are more similar than you’d think.

“Lawyering in litigation and lawsuits is a form of storytelling, and documentary filmmaking is a sense of storytelling,” he says. “It’s a search for truth.”

Tweedy really wanted to focus the documentary on revealing the depths of his mom’s life, and tell stories that no one has heard until recently.

“Most of [her] fans appreciate the deepening of the portrait and are fascinated by the events because they had no idea what she was going through,” Tweedy says.

Exploring someone as a whole person, the good and the bad, is one of the things Tweedy says he loves about being a filmmaker. On the subject of finding out about his mother’s past, he seems to have a very positive outlook on it.

“Well, I think life is long. I’m 53 years old now. My mother and I have gone through a lot of phases and I think we’re in a wonderful phase now,” he says.