Story behind Secretariat could save your marriage

Girls, I have just enjoyed the best year of my marriage (21 and counting, if you want to know). I can hardly stand myself because I am so much like that young woman with perm-fried hair who first fell in love with Bob Gresh.

It wasn’t like that one year ago. And maybe that’s why I was so sensitive to the story behind the much-applauded movie, “Secretariat.”

It was a powerful passion for the sound of hooves that urged this horse lover to beg her husband to take her to see “Secretariat.” I never expected the sound of those hooves to be accompanied by a beautiful opening reading from the biblical book of Job.

Turns out the movie is directed by one of Hollywood’s few prominent Christians, Randall Wallace, whose life mission is to create family-friendly films. In “Secretariat,” he succeeded in fulfilling his call.

John Malcovich proved himself to be a skillful actor as he stepped away from his oft vulgar, evil character portrayal to reveal a likeable, sweet horse trainer. Even the feminine fashion of Diane Lane (who played horse owner Penny Tweedy) is somehow refreshingly innocent and, dare I even say, restful to the eye.

I urge you to go see this movie. Two reasons: the first is that I love being a part of sending Hollywood a message that says we like family-friendly films. And this is among the best in many ways. On top of that, the director is getting some flack for including the passage from the book of Job (it opens and closes the film) and an old gospel song, despite the fact that they are used merely as art.

The free speech of Christianity is always under fire, and we have to talk back. This time, I think we do it best with our wallets by just supporting the film.

But there is another reason that I think you should go: to save your marriage.

You’ll find the tool you need in the portrayal of Penny Tweedy, who may have been thrust forward in her passion for success by the heightened feminist movement of the day. My concern has nothing to do with the film itself. In fact, if anything, I believe that the director masterfully portrayed what occurred in gentle truth, being careful to protect small viewers.

If you’ve already seen the movie, maybe you noticed, too? It was there in the subtle distancing portrayed between Tweedy and her husband; it was there when she asserted her dream of training Secretariat because she’d given up her career so long ago for her husband and kids, and it was there when her husband showed up near the end of the film to proclaim that in being the independent, strong, career woman, he had begun to see what he called a “real woman.”

Really?

It broke my heart that Tweedy missed critical moments in her children’s lives and shunned the advice of her husband and brother to sell the horse. They appeared to be the cruel ones for suggesting that accepting a price of $6 million and going home to be a wife and mother was a good idea. My spirit wasn’t settled with it as the film unfolded, and so I did a little research when I got home. It was a lot uglier than what we saw, according to the oldest son of the Tweedys. Here’s part of what he shared for the public to consider:

“The movie does, indeed, glamorize and improve on my family’s situation in the early 1970s, as it sanitizes the cultural context of that era. In real life, we Tweedys were more riven and frayed by the large and small conflicts of the time, and by the pressures of celebrity into which we were suddenly thrust. The wars between our parents were more bitter, the marriage more broken, and we kids were more alienated and countercultural than the movie depicts.

During the pre-race CBS broadcast at the Belmont, Woody Broun interviewed my dad, my siblings and me, asking Jack whether he was the “power behind the throne.” He gamely (and for me now, poignantly) replied that he was proud of his wife, his kids, “and the horse.” Mom had wanted us to be all together for that interview, but away from the cameras we were each living in a separate world.

The movie navigates this terrain with a combination of erasure, gentleness, and tact, and from the point of view of my family’s privacy, I am grateful….My mother has always known that the “Secretariat story,” and her role in it, filled a deep cultural need. While the country was convulsed by feminism, Watergate and Vietnam, Penny took pains to present as a wife and mother, offering a wholesome, western, maternal female image that paired beautifully with the heroic, powerful male icon that Secretariat was becoming.“

The fighting didn’t go so great for the kids, did it? Or so it seems. Something else that I discovered is that she’d won the Kentucky Derby the year before and was involved in the breeding that resulted in Secretariat. She did not simply have to be involved after her parents’ deaths. This wasn’t thrust upon her. She chose it.

In the end, Secretariat did give our nation something to inspire us. Penny Tweedy, however, did not.

In 1974, she explained her pending divorce to “Time” magazine by saying, “You can call it a conflict of careers.” She wanted to stay on the East coast with her horses while her husband moved West. I cannot say for certain, but I believe (based on what is written above) that the children were also impacted long-term by Penny’s pursuit of career.

What was the long-term impact of her career? Secretariat was a great horse. His heart was 22 pounds — twice the size of most horses. And perhaps his emotional heart was, as well, because though he sired 600 horses in a consuming effort to make money and create another winner, none of his colts or fillies went on to the greatness he knew.

Penny Tweedy squandered her time to invest in something that proved to be temporary while failing to be strong enough to invest in what could have had lasting value: a marriage and motherhood.

I loved the movie and the story of Secretariat, and I appreciate that they portray the truthful reality of choosing career over family. It gives us pause to reflect on our own priorities, which brings me back to my marriage.

It’s better because I said no to career this year. I said no to busyness at church. I said no to anything that was crowding out our love relationship. (And there was a lot to say no to.) Together, we pressed in to it (even when we didn’t really feel like it.) There was no sin, no rebellion, no intention of separating. We were just “off,” and when you’re “off,” you don’t naturally feel like taking time for a date night. But we did. And a vacation. And some marriage coaching. And now we can’t keep our hands off each other!

A strong woman isn’t the one who pursues her whims — those opportunities that will come and pass. A strong woman is one who sees the permanence in the opportunity to be a wife and a mom, and jealously guards it no matter the cost.

In this case, I think $6 million would have been a small price to pay.

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20 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post Dannah. I am from the Lexington, Kentucky area, I even have family in the thoroughbred industry. I have two one of a kind photos of Secretariat that were given to me as a gift when I was a child, I remember him and what he achieved – he was sent to "stud" right down the road from us! So, when I went to see Secretariat last week I was all set to love the movie. And I did. But I too was hit smack in the face with the portrayal of the "cost" to the family, I too noticed the feminist undertones and wondered how the female audience would translate that in their own life choices. Life is made up of "seasons" and the season of motherhood should leave each woman striving to be the very best mom she can be while her children need her. I pound the table to get moms to understand that being a mom requires selflessness, if you are pursuing personal dreams it should not be at the cost of your marriage and children. Can your children achieve all God has intended for them if a mom does not take the time to invest in them wholeheartedly? As you noted, Secretariat never sired horses that achieved greatness. Based on the points outlined here…Is that a little irony for us moms to consider?

    1. Terri Ruck says:

      Great comments Tracey. I noticed it also. When I walked out of the movie the first thing I said was "I wouldn't want to do that to my family." My aunt, who was totally involved in the feminist movement of the 60's and 70's…..and still holds those views, replied. " I wondered about that myself…….I wonder what became of the family." It was a good movie in more than one way…….especially in the subtle way that it caused one to consider family.

    2. Bill Steiner says:

      You all miss the point of what Penny did by a mile..she had given birth to the children and spent time with them up until her fathers health failure. She knew the horse business and what was the right thing to do..it was about seeing him run and she provided the world with one of the greatest athletic performances in the world.. Why her husband could not support her instead or being a lawyer, which is a dubvious occupation anyway, I don't know. Why didnt he move back East set a practice and help with the children so she would be supported with her special talent with horses.

      Bill (football coach and high school teacher) Oh and by the way I would have no problem staying home and taking care of the kids…so get off bashing Penny.

      1. I agree, a man pursued his career family and the world thinks nothing how it might affect marriage and family , but a woman does it and she’s thought less of?? Pfft

    3. Secretariat was great great grand-sire to the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

      1. Judy King says:

        Seattle Slew was not directly descended from Secretariat. Big Red’s sire, Bold Ruler, was Slew’s great-granddaddy.

    4. i think you totally missed the point here; penny needed her husband’s support and didn’t get it; it was typical male chauvinism in the 70s……i as a woman back then appreciated penny’s courage and she demonstrated that which here daughters especially should learn from.

  2. Hi Dannah,

    I also grew up a Daughter of the American Revolution on my mother's side (7th generation), with deep roots in Kentucky and cousins in the business- insuring Secretariat was a long time policy. I have a treasured Derby book from many years of the Derby kept by a great aunt of mine. Secretariat was a god to her.

    I haven't seen the movie. I had planned to, but now I pause and want to research. I really respect your honesty, as a new mother myself now working full-time, and insight into the "season" of motherhood. I don't think it is exclusive that I must focus on only that because it is my season to be a Mom. My husband is very present in her life and indeed, many men are rising to a new time. Roles are shifting and it is time for men to also be able to choose to be husbands and fathers first, as well as mothers to make that choice if they like. Men should be able to make this choice too with honor and without stigma.

    Depending on what industry you work in, women still make 3/4 or more of every dollar men make. The finances of life don't often support what I'm idealizing above. As for the Christian business, I am more than happy to support it but not if it proselytizes or supports legislation that does not honor people to make their own choices.

    Thank you again for the insight,

    rachel

  3. Uh, why couldn't her husband have devoted some of his life to her–she stood beside him while he pursued his career, why couldn't he help her achieve her dream?

  4. I cannot believe this. Why do you put marriage and children above one's mythic quest for glory. What Penny and Secretariat achieved proved inspirational for thousands. That was beautiful. How hopelessly narrow minded and parochial your views are.

  5. MJ Phillips says:

    If you have ever been around horses this movie would make more sense to you. They become part of who you are, part of your being and part of your family. Underlying all of this is the fact that The farm was part of who she was. Her marriage had issues in it’s foundation. I am sure that things could have been handled differently, but the issue wasn’t the horse and the farm. Secretariat was probably the greatest horse ever in our lifetime and the effects of that we will never know this side of heaven. It would be great if taking chances and following your heart and dreams always ended in storybook fashion, but sometimes it does not. Be careful how you judge someone’s decision. It is easy to be the Pharisee on the sidelines.

    1. I am wondering if this story were different and it was a man who was put in the position of saving the Meadows would we be discussing this? She was the one who had vision, courage, determination, will, and heart. I think those qualities were something she must have inherited from her father, a man, if one reads the history of how he revived the family’s farm and succeeded,

  6. As a horse breeder myself, I am deeply inspired by Penny Chenery’s story, and the sacrifices she made to pursue her (and her father’s) dream. She had passion, she had conviction, and she had courage. And she proved herself! She bred a great horse! Maybe it was her husband who failed at the marriage! He clearly had no problem witb her simply being a housewife. It is clear that he was threatened by his wife’s success. I AM WILLING TO BET HER CHILDREN WERE PROUD OF HER ACHIEVEMENTS. Her daughter, Kate, has written books about Secretariat. I’ve been a working mother myself, and I think it sets a great example when mothers pursue their dreams. No one tells a man that all he should ever do is be a husband and father.

  7. Donna McDermott says:

    I started riding at age 7, and the love of horses is part of who I am. I loved the movie; I got it Mother’s Day weekend to treat myself.
    We, too, are Christians. After our first viewing, I said to my husband, “Honey, that marriage did not last.”
    I have often thanked God for my husband. The Proverbs 31 woman is who she is because of her man. As an “excellent” Jewish wife she is going to spend her time in ways he approves. Unthreatened by her gifts and intellect, he urges her on and praises her accomplishments.
    Even today some Christian men seem to forget that Ephesians 5 gives them “marching orders”, too.
    I am firmly convinced that the Women’s Liberation Movement would not have had much traction if our Christian men had been walking in obedience.
    What would I have done? What a question! With four children at stake one wonders. Perhaps had Jack seen that she was willing to give up her dream he’d have softened and flexed. He is portrayed as so self centered; he wanted her THERE. After all, there were breakfasts to be created, dry cleaning to be picked up and clients to be wined and dined. She was needed for that, while her gifts were left to shrivel….

    I wish the marriage had won by 31 lengths, too.

  8. Nancy Larson says:

    Dannah, your response to the movie Secretariat is an interesting but confusing path. You recommend it as a date night movie with your husband, but you judge Penny Tweedy’s character for choosing her career instead of her husband and and children. The quote from Job about the horse is beautiful and poetic, and I seriously doubt many movie goers would have known where it came from or cared to look it up, but thanks for citing it yourself. It’s a great thing that you were able to put aside your busy life career and other duties to focus on your relationship and get happy results, but you unwittingly discourage those women who are unable to do that. It is easy to make glib comments about the cost of sacrifice when it isn’t yours, or decide that everyone needs to do the same thing for best results. Penny was never offered 6m for Secretariat; this was written for the embellishment of the story by the screenwriter. But if she had, and she sold Secretariat, you might not have enjoyed your date movie with your irresistable husband because the story may not have had the same dramatic appeal. All relationships suffer ups and downs and sometimes you’re “Off” as you say. But you don’t know what other people are going through, what it is like, what her/his needs are, and a hundred other complex details. Your post comes across as smug and oversimplified. And to praise a movie and then condemn the heroine (even implicitly) makes no sense. You can’t have it both ways.

  9. It seems most people focus on Penny being self-centered and inconsiderate by choosing career over family. I do not think she should have had to choose and could have had it all…her entire family could have had it all. Her husband should have believed in her, suported her, and all should have moved to VA to be together. He could have been a lawyer in VA and their children could have finished school in VA. She saw a special opportunity in Secretariat and he showed little to no committment to her. Over 40 years later, we can say she had a once in a lifetime opportunity. I would have divorced him, too.

  10. Well, good for you. I’m glad that your choices work well for you. That doesn’t mean they’re for everyone, does it?

    I highly doubt that Penny Tweedy’s marriage would have been “saved” had she sold the farm.

  11. Hmmmm. I remember Penny and her beloved Red Horse. Why do you only blame Penny for the divorce?? It is Clear the family ONLY wanted her for her services; laundry, cooking, cleaning-ect. I was a teen in the 60’s as well. I was not counter culture. I saw Cleary the ways of the hippys, fems, anti war and the like; EVIL and against Jesus. Seems to me she was following her heart; maybe if her spouse had been more supportive it would have worked…?!

  12. Thank you for putting into words the emotions and thoughts going through my head. I watched this movie once or twice, but now, as a SAHM and homeschool teacher, I’m beginning to feel so very sad about the loss of her marriage. When I think of pursuing my dreams and new exciting careers, I’m always reminded, by sweet smiles, that my children and my husband would be the sacrifice. I was a full-time teacher before staying home. I was good too – so good my former boss asks me to come back every opportunity. The greatest honor of all is to be living the life I am living now. It’s definitely not the easiest, and gets more difficult each day, but it’s the best. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for not being afraid of being “pc”. God bless!