The problem that often vexes sports movies is that we know the outcome in advance. Team wins World Series, boxer wins Big Match, skater takes Olympic Gold, and so forth. When the title character is “Secretariat,” perhaps the best-known thoroughbred in history, the problem gets even tougher. The horse, nicknamed “Big Red,” was the last winner of racing’s Triple Crown. That was in 1973, and all these years later his astonishing record still stands: he won the final and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes, by 31 lengths in the fastest time ever. This last feat was especially amazing, since his reputation had been that he was built for speed, not endurance.
Now available on DVD, the movie gives us this information early—before the colt is even born!—when owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) “loses” a coin flip and chooses a mare whose forerunners (sorry) have the endurance to complement the bloodlines of Bold Ruler, his male ancestor. When the newborn foal stands up well before any horse that his trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and his groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) have ever seen, we get a strong preview of what’s to come. The rest of Secretariat’s story plays out according to formula: early promise, setback in the middle, final triumph.
But the movie concerns itself rather more with Chenery’s battles with the male-dominated world of horse racing. Splitting time between her skeptical husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) and four children and her ailing father’s (Scott Glenn) horse farm, Penny quickly takes the reins (sorry again), firing the trainer and hiring her own on the recommendation of Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson). She lures the somewhat eccentric Laurin out of retirement, but she also gives him to understand exactly who is in charge of Big Red’s career.
Penny acts on her own familiarity with the horse, which director Randall Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich occasionally over-romanticize. But she also proves herself adept at business, making a bold, innovative move to syndicate the breeding rights, literally betting the farm that Secretariat will win the Triple Crown well before the fact. Chenery is portrayed as a feminist role model, especially through her relationship with her elder daughter, Kate (Amanda Michalka). That the movie’s credits note that she has lived “happily ever after” tells you all you need to know about the movie’s tone and approach. Nick Glennie-Smith’s somewhat goopy score reinforces that impression, though Dean Semler’s cinematography gives the races themselves a realistic edge, sharpening the fairy tale’s warm fuzzies a bit.
“Secretariat” is rated “PG,” and it’s an authentic family film. It has a Disney film feel to it, and the story clearly plays on its inspirational moments and message. That it’s (mostly) non-fiction doesn’t hurt its adult appeal: you might even find yourself snuffling and cheering.