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Secretariat: A Review

The real thingWilliam Nack’s Secretariat: The Making of a Champion is, far and away, the finest book ever written about horse racing.  No one else has so convincingly portrayed the dramatics, enthusiasm and sense of serving as a witness to history that Nack took on in documenting Secretariat’s origins and Triple Crown.  For those of us who came along later, it is difficult to imagine a better guide to the great horse – we may have seen the film of Secretariat’s Belmont hundreds of times, but Nack’s brilliant prose and unabashed admiration for greatness he knew he would never see duplicated offer one of the most compelling experiences in horse racing fandom.

With that in mind, the Hollywood take on Secretariat’s story had much to live up to; there’s no meaningful way to better the horse’s run in the Belmont (beyond a long-overdue cleanup and preservation of the original film), and a script that equalled Nack’s use of the English language (although clear and direct) would likely be considered too literary for the masses.  And it was obvious that certain elements would need to be adjusted for dramatic license – seeing Riva Ridge win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont (and going up against stablemate Secretariat for Horse of the Year honors in 1972) was not going to fit into a two-hour family film.

That said, the dramatic shape of the resulting film is one that works well – we get the woman against the old boys’ club in Diane Lane’s portrayal of Penny Chenery (although one suspects that in many ways, that part has not changed much), and the key elements of the Secretariat mythos that are so familiar to racing fans are all in place – the coin toss determining his ownership, his renowned appetite, the post-syndication loss in the Wood Memorial and the rivalry with Sham serve to pave the way to his still unreal-seeming Belmont runaway.  And the inclusion of some important real-life characters who might have been easily jettisoned – notably Meadow Stables secretary Elizabeth Ham and groom Eddie Sweat – occasionally seemed a bit worthy, but it was quite pleasing to see that they were remembered in this version of events.  In a similar vein, the nods to the real-life racing community were enjoyable – seeing Bill Nack pose a question at a press conference with ‘Bill Nack’ was entertaining, and the cameos continued with the likes of Dick Jerardi.  My one quibble with the cameos was that the filmmakers had the need to trumpet the real-life Penny Chenery’s appearance in the background – yes, we saw her, you didn’t have to point it out to us, since it was already obvious to racing fans, but still didn’t mean much of anything to my 5-year-old; it seems it would have been more elegantly handled just by keeping it subtle.  But again, it is a minor point.

Another positive was some authentic Secretariat footage – his Preakness is shown more or less unadulterated.  Going in, I tried to imagine how the Belmont could possibly be re-created; I’m not certain it was entirely successful, but it was nice to hear the words, ‘…he is moving like a tremendous machine’ over clean, clear footage, with brilliant sound and color – and jockey Ron Turcotte’s famous look back was there.  Seeing ‘Andy Beyer’ cheering Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory amused me – I do not know whether there is any evidence for this, but one imagines based on his recent career (by which I mean the last 25 years or so) that he might have found some element to grumble at, or come up with a scenario under which another horse in the past had really produced a superior performance.

While I found certain lines a bit overly-dramatic, this was nowhere near the very saccharine ‘Disney’ Disney film it might have been, for which I am quite grateful (nor did I see anything that should have set off the peculiar controversy that has erupted).  It’s infrequent that I come across a film (that does not involve Luke Skywalker or Hobbits) I can enjoy with my son; when asked for his opinion on the movie, he informed me he liked ‘everything’ about it.  The fact that he asked to look at pictures of ‘Big Red’ when he got home was encouraging – it can be hard to convey the higher-level romance of thoroughbred racing by taking in an afternoon of claimers at Delaware Park, but getting a taste of what greatness looks like can only whet the appetite for the real thing – even if we see it so rarely in person.

2 comments to Secretariat: A Review

  • Laura

    I loved the movie and this is a fitting review. Very good.

  • Great review, I can’t understand all the flack the movie is getting from so many racing fans. After the disaster that was Seabiscuit I was very skeptical of Secretariat, but they actually succeeded in making the film fun, exciting and wholesome while keeping it incredibly historically accurate.

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