Secretariat movie has Washington ties

By Leonard Shapiro
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:19 PM

"Secretariat" hits the big screen nationwide next week, with exposure on smaller screens almost certainly to follow for many years to come. Mark Ciardi, a former University of Maryland baseball player who had a brief fling in the big leagues, also played a major role in making a thoroughly engaging movie worthy of thoroughbred racing's record-shattering, 1973 Triple Crown champion.

Ciardi was once a promising pitcher drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers after his senior year at Maryland in 1983. The New Jersey native was talented enough to spend a season in the majors before shoulder problems and the ultimate realization that it was probably time to move on to other pursuits ended one dream career and led to another - as a big-time Hollywood producer.

Ciardi and his longtime business partner, Gordon Gray, are the producers of "Secretariat," which also has other Washington connections. The Disney movie is based in large part on a book about Big Red written years ago by longtime Sports Illustrated writer Bill Nack, who now lives in Montgomery County and served as a technical adviser on the film.

Nack, who also writes and narrates stories for ESPN's racing coverage, is played in the movie by Kevin Connolly, a young actor best known these days for his role as an aspiring agent in the HBO series Entourage. And longtime Washington Post racing columnist Andy Beyer also is portrayed in the film, including one memorable scene when he openly questions the horse's ability to run the longer distance in the Belmont Stakes, only to have Secretariat urinate on his foot.

That's probably more Hollywood fiction than it was real life, but the movie for the most part follows the true arc of the story of the horse's ascension to the highest level of his sport. Just as significantly, it also focuses on Penny Chenery, the woman who persevered against some rather long odds to help produce a champion for the ages in what was then an insular, mostly male-dominated sport.

Ciardi, whose company, Mayhem Pictures, also produced sports-themed movies like "The Rookie," "Miracle" and "Invincible," said he was always intrigued by the Secretariat story. His chief writer, Mike Rich, who wrote the screenplay for "Finding Forrester," came to him one day and told him he thought he had a dramatic way to get into the Secretariat story.

"It was Penny Chenery's story," Ciardi said. "Obviously, the horse was never really an underdog, but she was. We had to tell the story about how hard it was for her to come into this man's world and be so successful. She went from being a housewife in Denver to rekindling her love of horse racing. She's since become an iconic woman in the sport, and her story needed to be told."

In years past, Chenery, played rather convincingly by Oscar-winning actress Diane Lane, had been somewhat reluctant to become the focus of the Secretariat story, one reason a movie was never made.

"A lot of people tried over the years, but she just never felt like it was the right time," Ciardi said. "I think as the years passed, she just decided the timing was right. We got very lucky. She liked Disney and the team we put together. We probably could have done it without her, but you really do want permission from your subjects. It would not be the way to go about such an inspirational story, and we were thrilled to have her blessing."

Ciardi was especially thrilled to sign actor John Malkovich, who plays the role of quirky trainer Lucien Laurin. Malkovich was an easy sell; he's a racing enthusiast himself and gives a rollicking performance surely worthy of best supporting actor consideration.

Ciardi's story also is rather unique. When he was still in the Brewers organization, his agent convinced him to come to Los Angeles for his offseason workouts. He fell in love with Southern California and made a number of friends in and out of the film industry. One of them was Gordon Gray, and when Ciardi walked away from baseball, they decided to try to go into the movie business together.

Working for several years out of a garage, the first property they developed was "The Rookie," based on the true story of Jim Morris, a high-school science teacher and baseball coach who pitched his way back into the big leagues in his 30s after giving up the game for many years because of injuries. As it turned out, Ciardi and Morris were in the Brewers organization at the same time and played together for three years.

"We were the first producers on to him," Ciardi said, "but it became a dogfight to get him once people found out about the story. We were very fortunate to start out with that kind of movie. It was a small budget and we did very well with it. The response was just great, and we were on our way."

Ciardi obviously has great hopes for "Secretariat," and judging from the audience response at a recent Washington screening, he may well have another big hit on his hands.

"It's up to the movie Gods now," he said. "All you can do now is just hope."

No Tiger, no rating

The PGA Tour keeps tinkering with the format of the FedEx Cup, and after a dismal, 1.3 overnight rating on NBC for Sunday's final round of the Tour Championship, the final event in the playoff series, more tweaking might be in order.

Despite some riveting back-nine action involving eventual champion Jim Furyk and his closest pursuers, the Sunday telecast was a hard sell for viewers to begin with, considering it was going up against the NFL all afternoon. And without Tiger Woods in the field, the low number was not that much of a surprise.

Woods, still the No. 1 player in the world rankings, did not qualify on points to make it into the elite 30-man field. Purists would say he didn't deserve to be there, which is certainly true. But network executive realists know full well that the Tour Championship audience probably would have been much larger had he been playing, particularly if he were in contention.

Perhaps a future fix might include a slightly larger field, say 35 players. The final five players could be the five highest-ranked players in the world who did not qualify on points. That would guarantee that the No. 1 player, whoever that might be, would not be excluded from one of the PGA Tour's most prestigious events.

This weekend, at least, NBC will have the benefit of Woods's selection as a wild card member of the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup. NBC and PGA of America executives insist there was no pressure put on U.S. Captain Corey Pavin to select Woods following a tumultuous year on and off the course that saw Woods fail to qualify on points for the first eight spots.

But his presence in the tournament contested at Celtic Manor in Wales should guarantee many millions more eyeballs will be focused on golf this weekend than watched Furyk earn $11.3 million by winning the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup. ESPN will carry the first day's play Friday from 3 a.m. to 1 p.m., with NBC taking over on the weekend. On Saturday, the telecast will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at

© 2010 The Washington Post Company