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Former Kentucky Derby champ Secretariat makes it to the big screen

1973 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner Secretariat is the star of a new Disney movie based on his life and racing career.

By Jim LitkeAssociated Press / April 30, 2010

Secretariat approaches the finish line to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths. Many consider the performance to be the greatest ever by a thoroughbred. His Triple Crown was the first in 25 years.

Lexington Herald-Leader/KRT/Newscom/File

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Louisville, Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby goes off late Saturday afternoon and for two glorious minutes and change, horse racing will be back at the center of the universe. And then, like a hangover, the sport of kings will have to confront its grim prospects all over again.

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Declining revenues, smaller purses, shorter fields, less wagering and even the biggest track operators in North America in bankruptcy — the odds for renewal are so depressingly long that even mighty Secretariat likely couldn't make a dent.

That won't stop Big Red from trying.

At least at the movies.

Coming this fall to a theater near you, "Secretariat" is a retelling of the greatest Triple Crown campaign ever, this time through the eyes of his owner, Penny Chenery, who took the reins of her ailing father's stable against the advice of her husband and turned the old-boy, old-money, bourbon-fueled network that dominated the game on its ear.

"Seeing yourself in a movie is really weird," Chenery said with a laugh.

Now 87 and living in Boulder, Colo., she returned Thursday to Churchill Downs, where Secretariat's saga began. Chenery walks with the aid of a cane, but her wit remains as sharp as ever.

"They told me, 'Penny, it's not a documentary, it's a Disney movie,'" she added a moment later. "I've adjusted to a revised version of my life."

Then she paused again, looked to her left at actress Diane Lane — who plays Chenery in the movie — and beamed.

"I'm younger and prettier."

Racehorses have struck the national nerve before for all kinds of reasons, but not for a long time. Secretariat ended a Triple Crown drought of 25 years by widening margins during the torrid summer season of 1973, giving a country numbed by the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal something, finally, to cheer about. The feat put Big Red on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.

Long before Seabiscuit, too, became a movie star, his rags-to-riches-story regaled an audience suffering through the cruelest years of the Great Depression. And harkening back to a time when racing dueled only baseball and boxing for the sporting public's attention, Man O'War's funeral was broadcast on the radio, an honor in his day accorded only to popes and heads of state.