Big Red comes up short

The first I heard of a Secretariat movie was several years ago and the conversation went something like this:

Friend: Disney wants to do a movie about Secretariat.

Me: Really? That would be cool. It could be The Black Stallion for a new generation.

Friend: Yeah, but they can’t find a colt to portray Secretariat.

Me: Of course they can’t. Big red colts aren’t born every day.

Even if you’re not an avid horse racing fan, you know the name Secretariat. He’s the greatest racehorse that ever lived, the big red machine who won the 1973 Triple Crown in spectacular style, setting track records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes that still stand today. The Belmont was especially great because Secretariat won by over 30 lengths. For most racehorses the Belmont is the longest race they’ll ever run (one and a half miles) but Secretariat was still accelerating even as he crossed the finish line. It boggles my mind that after running that far, that fast (the race completed with a time of 2:24), he still hadn’t maxed out his speed. Secretariat’s gait was so smooth, his acceleration so easy, jockey Ron Turcotte later said he had no idea how fast they were going until he saw the time clock as he approached the wire. For a horse as big as Secretariat—16.2 hands (64.8 inches) tall, weighing 1175 pounds with a huge deep chest—that kind of speed should mean a spine-shattering ride for the jockey but Turcotte couldn’t even feel it.

Secretariat had a big personality. He loved to run in the way natural athletes do, but he thrived on competition and attention. He was handsome and seemed to know it as he posed for after-race photos. With that kind of attitude and flash, you think Secretariat would be the main character in his own movie. But no, in Disney’s Secretariat you barely get a sense of “Big Red” as a thinking entity at all, nor do you get an impression of that incredible power he generated. More often than not Secretariat (ultimately portrayed by five different horses) was treated as a prop in many scenes, instead of a real live breathing character. (Seabiscuit did not make that mistake, which is why it is a great horseracing movie.)

It’s one of several problems that keep Secretariat from being a great horseracing movie, let alone a great horse movie, but it is not the worst problem. The worst offense is that the race scenes SUCK. Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, writer of Braveheart), editor John Wright and cinematographer Dean Semler combine to deliver some of the worst race sequences committed to film. The Belmont recreation is particularly offensive since it is Secretariat’s signature win. I don’t care about seeing the crowd screaming, or the incredulous sportswriters muttering, “That’s impossible,” to each other. Just give me a long shot of Secretariat pulling ever further ahead, thundering down the stretch as the crowd roars, the dirt flying from beneath his hooves when he comes around the final turn, all alone and still soaring toward the finish. That could be so beautiful.

But no, we’re stuck with a choppy cut flipping from the jockey to the crowd to the writers to owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) looking on. Any time you start to feel the power of the horse, the angle cuts and you lose it. As the audience, we know Secretariat shouldn’t be able to do this. We’ve been told for two hours at this point that speed and stamina rarely go together and that Bold Ruler (Secretariat’s sire) is famous for producing sons who can’t maintain speed over distance. We really don’t need the expostulating crowd reinforcing how impossible this is again. Just show us Secretariat, a once in a lifetime champion, obliterating the field.

Not as bad as the poorly edited race scenes but annoying nonetheless is the treatment of Penny Chenery as a character. To her credit, Diane Lane gives this performance her all. She doesn’t phone it in, as she easily could have, but she really tries to make Penny a human being. Unfortunately, Penny, as represented in this film, is not a human being, she is a walking edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She’s all quotable platitudes and generic encouragement, a “lil ole housewife” who lucks into owning a freak of nature winning machine. Portraying Penny as a kind of lottery winner who is set up for success by Luck and Happenstance derides the real Penny’s accomplishments.

Penny didn’t just stumble across a breeding chart and have a Eureka moment about the possibility of a sire known for speed (Bold Ruler) breeding with a mare that has a pedigree for stamina (Somethingroyal). In reality, Penny planned Secretariat’s breeding, choosing Somethingroyal specifically for her bloodline which favored stamina to cross with Bold Ruler’s speed. That doesn’t change the fact that Penny still had to win (or lose) the coin toss with Ogden Phipps for who got which of Bold Ruler’s offspring. It’s possible to maintain the drama of the moment the coin flips and Penny crossing her fingers to get Somethingroyal’s foal, but it would have been possible to also show Penny’s thoughtful planning, her careful attention to breeding and her knowledge of horses and the business.

I also don’t understand the filmmakers electing to ignore Riva Ridge, the colt Penny, Lucien Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte took the Triple Crown in 1972—the year Secretariat won Horse of the Year. Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes that year, as well as the Eclipse Award, but I suppose the filmmakers thought that showing Penny’s ability to evaluate and promote talented racehorses somehow undermines the drama of Secretariat’s winning campaign in 1973. I mean, it wouldn’t be dramatic at all to show that even though this woman is consistently turning out champions she still faced sexism and prejudicial treatment in her professional life.

The final slight against Penny’s real achievement is how the movie depicts her running the family’s farm, Meadow Stable. In the movie she steps in ad hoc after her mother’s death when she realizes how bad her father’s dementia has become (this is represented by an attempted sale of four of Meadow Stable’s best mares for half their value), but she keeps emphasizing the temporary nature of her involvement. In reality, Penny took over in 1968 when her father was hospitalized with no hesitation or second guessing. Meadow Stable was in decline but not because of a dishonest trainer—Casey Hayes worked for Meadow Stable for 25 years before retiring. It did, however, put Penny in the position of having to hire a new trainer when the farm was in a vulnerable position. She really did consult Arthur “Bull” Hancock, Jr. and he did recommend a Laurin, just not Lucien. Roger Laurin, Lucien’s son, stepped in as Meadow Stable’s new trainer and it was with Roger that Penny began turning around the farm. When Roger left after a few years Penny then hired Lucien.

What does it cost the movie dramatically to show that Penny was capable of turning around the family business? They could still show how when her father died in early 1973 the family was hit with an inheritance tax that wiped them out. Penny really did bet the future of Meadow Stable on Secretariat, but could we not also see that she was a savvy businesswoman who did manage to improve a troubled business first? I just found it kind of insulting. What Penny Chenery did was extraordinary. She did struggle with balancing her private family life and responsibilities with her professional life, she did fight her siblings to save her family’s farm, she did bank the future of that farm on Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. But none of it was accident or mere luck. She was an excellent businesswoman and had good horse sense. Why could we not see that?

If you want to see a horseracing movie with your family about the triumph of spirit through sport and the unique bond between a horse and its rider, just stay home and rent The Black Stallion.

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2 thoughts on “Big Red comes up short

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. Mathelo

    Just watched Secretariat with my wife. We really enjoyed the movie but I decided to go online to learn more. Among other articles I found your blog. I also find it very interesting what they left out and the liberties they took to ‘dramatize’ the story. Too bad because I think there is a lot of STORY in the real version. Perhaps someone some day will do it right.

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