With so much junk crowding movie marquees these days, it’s a joyous feeling to see a warm, wonderful, skillfully made picture with nothing on its mind but pure pleasure for all ages. Secretariat fills the bill nicely. If you’re a horse-movie junkie like me, if you loved National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, Smoky, The Black Stallion and both movies about Seabiscuit (to name only a few four-legged box office bonanzas), you will love this one. I mean, it’s got one of the most spectacular horses of all time. And it’s got Diane Lane. What’s not to love?
Secretariat, directed with style and elegance by Randall Wallace, is, of course, the awesome chronicle of one of the greatest American thoroughbred racehorses in history, who, in 1973, became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years, winning the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, the Preakness in a last-minute dash by only two lengths and the Belmont Stakes in 2 minutes, 24 seconds. The Derby and Belmont records have never been beaten or even duplicated to this day. And no proud owner ever toiled so bravely and vigorously to save her beloved horse, farm or family than the financially beleaguered Penny Chenery Tweety, a Denver housewife who sacrificed a lot, hocked her life and compromised her marriage and family life to follow her dream to racing history. Played with honesty and naturalism by the beautiful, heartfelt and deeply committed Diane Lane, Mrs. Tweety comes alive as much as Secretariat does. You will end up loving them both unconditionally.
No need to go into Secretariat’s breeding history or vital statistics, but you get all the facts, meticulously condensed without cost to the overall entertainment value. The story begins in 1969, when Mrs. Tweety flies to her childhood home in Virginia for the funeral of her mother, the brains and conscience behind the family’s failing horse-breeding farm. Everyone, including her husband (Dylan Walsh, from TV’s Nip/Tuck), expects Penny to sell what remains, but after rummaging through the books and discovering the farm has been mismanaged by a crooked trainer, she fires him and hires a flashy, eccentric replacement named Lucien Lauren, who is crazier than anything with four legs (John Malkovich, chewing the scenery with over-the-top temper tantrums, in purple hats, cherry-red shirts, fuchsia ties and a Truman Capote lisp). You get a lot of facts about sires, brood mares, foals, tax issues and dishonesty in the ranks, but the genealogy is tangential to the real story of how Penny ignores everyone’s sound business advice and raises and nurtures a new chestnut colt called Big Red, whose moniker is rejected by the Jockey Club 10 times before her family’s loyal secretary, Elizabeth Ham (played with solidity and gusto by Margo Martindale), submits the new name, Secretariat. In July 1972, the stallion wins his first race under his new name in Saratoga, saddled with a controversial new jockey named Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thurworth), who is so aggressive he is known to drive his horses until their hearts explode. But Ronnie falls for Secretariat the same way Penny did, and from there, it is silver trophies all the way. Seven wins in four months, named Horse of the Year at age 3, Secretariat cannot be slowed. Financial ruin follows when the $6 million inheritance tax on the farm can only be paid by selling her prize horse. To her family’s horror, she refuses, insisting her father’s legacy is not about money, but “the will to win.” More setbacks in 1973, when America’s favorite magazine-cover horse arrives at the Kentucky Derby with abscessed gums, but Penny’s critics, who resent a woman’s triumph in a man’s sport, are flummoxed again. Most horses are built for either speed or distance. Secretariat could do both. And in June 1973, this great horse made his bid for immortality and won the Triple Crown.
There’s not much suspense. I mean, it’s not that we don’t know how it all turns out. But director Wallace still manages to milk every event of maximum excitement. The movie is about the mutual adoration between owner and horse, her unwavering faith even when the chips were down, the special relationship that developed between them and about the people who believed in them both and the ones who didn’t. In the 37 years since his retirement at age 3, no horse has ever duplicated his success. Before his death, in 1989, he sired 600 foals, many of them prizewinners on their own, and he remains one of the very few horses to this day who was buried whole instead of cremated. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and there is plenty of it in Secretariat. This is one terrific movie about one terrific horse. It enthralls on so many levels–emotional, cinematic, historic–that I am willing to bet you’ll go away sated with satisfaction from paddock to finish line.
Running time 116 minutes
Written by Mike Rich
Directed by Randall Wallace
Starring Diane Lane, Dylan Walsh, John Malkovich