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Secretariat (2010): In Hollywood, We Know Drama

Secretariat (Randall Wallace, 2010)


photo credit:

A Horse and His Girl.

I will tell you right now—because I have a suspicion that I’m going to end up focusing on a couple of things about Secretariat that really, really annoyed me—that I enjoyed this movie immensely. I recommend it to everyone, even people who don’t like horse racing (especially, actually, people who don’t like horse racing). But I recommend it with the caveat that once you’re done watching it, I will equally strongly recommend you go read William Nack’s Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, the book that “suggested” Mike Rich’s script—because they’re you’re going to get all the stuff that this movie leaves out—notably, the second half of the horse’s career, which was arguably more impressive than the first half depicted here.

photo credit:

We got a hoss, now what do we do with it?

In case you’re not up on your horse racing history, the plot: a horse is born. Outspoken owner Penny Chenery (Lady Beware‘s Diane Lane), who has recently taken over her dying father’s racing and breeding business and is now trying to make headway into a traditionally male-dominated society (after all, they do call it the Sport of Kings, right?), realizes she’s got something special, and after some wrangling, she assembles what ends up—in the movie, anyway—being the perfect team to turn that something special into a superstar: trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), groom Eddie Sweat (The Help‘s Nelsan Ellis), and jockey Ron Turcotte (actual jockey Otto Thorwarth in, to date, his only screen appearance). Penny fights the Boys’ Club, the horse fights on the track, and we all get to the Triple Crown.

“And he is moving like a tremendous machine…” To this day, I cannot watch this without crying.

Yes, it’s a loose adaptation. I was mostly okay with that, though Hollywood once again takes the easy way out and leans on the Triple Crown as the Arbiter of All That Is Great in Horse Racing, rather than attempting to explain, for example, that Secrtariat’s final career race, in the Canadian International at Woodbine, cemented his place in history just as much as his run in the Belmont did. (Because, you know, doing that would require making audience members who are less familiar with horse racing actually learn something, and we can’t have that, now, can we?) Getting butts in seats for historical dramas usually requires at least a little tweaking, to play up the parts of the story that modern viewers will find more relevant—in this case, The Woman Fighting for Equal Rights in a Man’s World(TM). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it does tend to cast an undeserved light on American racing’s elite, who, while undeniably sexist (Americans, more than any other racing country in the world, believe that “the fillies can’t run with the boys”, which is why America cards so many more races restricted to fillies and mares per capita than any other country—though that it changing, and it’s going the wrong way), have always been more interested in the color of one’s money than the direction of one’s plumbing, as it were. But I don’t think most two-buck bettors are going to complain at any movie that takes a bunch of swipes at Bull Hancock, gruffly played by Fred Dalton Thompson, or Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), or any of the other ultra-wealthy types. After all, they’ve never gone around picking up tickets off the grandstand floor looking for something they can cash.

photo credit: New York Times

Just another day at the office…

But it does bring up the question in my head—why do you feel the need to (over-) dramatize a story, Hollywood, that’s already dramatic? It’s impossible for any horse fan to listen to Chic Anderson’s call of the Belmont and not tear up a little. And unlike, say, Seattle Slew, who went into the Triple Crown undefeated, Secretariat wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a question of waiting for the inevitable loss (some horses do retire undefeated, natch, but they are few and far between), but even when it looked like he overwhelmed everything else, you knew there was always an Onion or a Prove Out who might suddenly pop up and remind you that this horse was mortal. Point being, you could simply tell the story and come up with a good movie. Maybe even a better one than this, though I say again, as I said at the beginning, I liked this one well enough. But there was room for improvement. *** ½



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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