And still a champion
Millions of people with no knowledge whatever of horse racing, who wouldn’t know a trifecta from a tri-tip, still remember Secretariat, the greatest racehorse who ever lived. I remember standing in my parents’ family room staring goggle-eyed and open-mouthed at the television as the big horse nailed down the 1973 Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. They say the odds were so heavy in Secretariat’s favor that most bettors didn’t even cash in their tickets; they were worth more as souvenirs. The odds would seem just as heavy against any movie being able to capture the excitement of that race and that championship season. But Secretariat pulls it off.
Any movie—and probably a sports movie more than most—thrives on giving us an underdog to root for, but an underdog is one thing the real Secretariat never was. Just about everyone who saw Secretariat knew he was an extraordinary horse; here was no come-from-behind long shot, no Seabiscuit, no 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. In Mike Rich’s script (“suggested by” William Nack’s book), the underdog role falls to the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane).
In director Randall Wallace’s movie, Penny Tweedy invades the all-male preserve of horse racing, stirring up the good ol’ boys club, confronting their prejudices and blazing a trail for women in sports in the late ’60s and early ’70s, just as the feminist movement is gathering steam in America at large; a parallel (and rather pallid) subplot shows Penny’s teenage daughter (Amanda Michalka) protesting the Vietnam War and growing involved in the campus peace movement.
I don’t know how much of this is firmly factual. I don’t know how snitty and resentful Tweedy’s husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) was about his wife spending so much time out of the kitchen of their suburban Denver home, or how highhanded and hectoring her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) was about insisting that they liquidate their late father’s farm to pay the estate taxes. And I don’t remember Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), the trainer of Sham, Secretariat’s only serious rival, being quite such an obnoxious, loudmouthed, sexist jackass. Nor do I remember Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, being as cranky or eccentric (or as flamboyantly dressed) as John Malkovich makes him here. I do know that the movie makes absolutely no mention of Riva Ridge, another of Penny Tweedy’s horses that came within one race of winning the Triple Crown the year before Secretariat; as far as the movie is concerned, Secretariat might be the only horse Penny owned or cared about between 1970 and ’73.
I know there are at least a few deviations from the factual record in Secretariat (and I strongly suspect that there may be others), but it doesn’t matter. The movie is faithful in general outline, and it captures the look and feel of the time perfectly. There are none of the pointless, unnecessary and tin-eared changes that the supremely inept Gary Ross made in Seabiscuit seven years ago. Where Ross marooned us during Seabiscuit’s races to some living-room miles away listening to the race on the radio, or froze the image before the race was even over, Rich and Wallace put us right on the course in the middle of the pack, the horses’ breath thrumming in our ears, their hooves pounding enough to jar our bones and the mud of the track flying in our faces. Secretariat’s races still exist on newsreel and videotape, and Randall Wallace’s recreations are exact in every detail; the only difference is we’re not watching from the stands, we’re running the race ourselves.
Performances in Secretariat are uniformly fine, including James Cromwell as financier Ogden Phipps, Fred Thompson as lawyer “Bull” Hancock, and real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth as Secretariat’s rider Ron Turcotte.
Special mention should go to the five horses who play Secretariat himself, chiefly two named Trolley Boy and Longshot Max. There’s a truly memorable moment late in the movie, as the horses file into the Belmont starting gate. Secretariat’s eyes meet those of Sham, and if horses had fingers, we could almost see the Big Red making the eyes-to-eyes gesture: “This race is you and me, buster.”
See Secretariat, and you will believe a horse can act.