Triple Crown Winner

Thoroughbred horse-racing movie Secretariat takes the prize

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, 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 two lengths and the Belmont Stakes in 2 minutes, 24 seconds. These records have never been duplicated. No proud owner ever toiled so bravely and vigorously to save her beloved horse, farm or family than Penny Chenery Tweety, a Denver housewife who hocked her life and compromised her marriage to follow her dream. Played with honesty and naturalism by the beautiful, heartfelt and deeply committed Lane, Penny comes alive as much as Secretariat does. You will end up loving 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 Penny 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 remained, 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 ignored everyone’s sound advice and raised a new chestnut colt called Big Red, whose moniker was rejected by the Jockey Club 10 times before her family’s loyal secretary, Elizabeth Ham (played with solidity and gusto by Margo Martindale), submitted the name Secretariat.

In July 1972, the stallion won the first race under his new name in Saratoga, saddled with a controversial new jockey named Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), so aggressive he was known to drive his horses until their hearts exploded. But Ronnie fell for Secretariat the same way Penny did, and from there, it was silver trophies all the way. Seven wins in four months, named “Horse of the Year” at age 3, Secretariat could not be slowed. Financial ruin followed when the $6 million inheritance tax on the farm could only be paid by selling her prize horse. To her family’s horror, she refused, insisting her father’s legacy was not money, but “the will to win.”

More setbacks in 1973, when America’s favorite horse arrived at the Kentucky Derby with abscessed gums, but Penny’s critics were flummoxed again. Most horses are built for 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, unwavering faith, and about the people who believed in them both. 

Before his 1989 death, Secretariat sired more than 650 foals, many of them prize winners, and he is one of the few horses who was buried 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.