REVIEW: 'Secretariat' Delivers

REVIEW: 'Secretariat' Delivers
Photo: John Bramley Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Scene from Secretariat; (L-R) Nelsan Ellis, John Malkovich, Otto Thorwarth

It was an early August morning at Saratoga in 1972. I was sitting several yards from the rail, having breakfast with a Daily Racing Form colleague when I heard this sound behind me, getting louder and louder. The pounding hooves and snorting nostrils sounded like the proverbial locomotive. I turned toward the track and there before me was a big chestnut, adorned in the blue and white colors of Meadow Stud, reaching out with gargantuan strides. It was a sight and sound that doesn’t go unnoticed.

“That’s got to be Secretariat,” I said. “You know that 2-year-old everyone’s been talking about. Look at him. Someday they’re going to make a movie about that horse.”

OK, well, everything is true up until that last line.

It’s taken 37 years for a movie to be made about Big Red, and we all have Disney to thank for bringing Secretariat to the big screen and surrounding him with major talent.

There are several ways to look at this movie, depending on one’s own racing experience. There is the viewpoint of the veteran racing aficionado who lived through the Secretariat era and was relatively close to the horse, such as myself. There is the younger generation of racing fans, who only know Secretariat through books and film clips. And finally, there are those who know little or nothing about Secretariat other than he was a great racehorse and will go see this film in much the same way moviegoers in 1944 went to see “National Velvet.”

I admit I am not the one best suited to review this or any other biographical movie about the Sport of Kings, having been a racing historian for more than 40 years. I can’t help but dissect it with a sharp scalpel.

I have already written a lengthy review of the movie (http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin), listing its good and bad points, including its historical inaccuracies, several poor character portrayals, and downright silly scenes. I walked out of the theater shaking my head and muttering to my wife, “Typical Disney.”

But as time has passed, the flaws have become enveloped by the overall scope of the film and its subject. Disney representatives have pointed out that this is not a documentary, which basically means it is partially fictional. Did it have to be? Did so many liberties have to be taken? I didn’t think so, but I am learning to accept the film for what it is—pure entertainment. It is not the true story of Secretariat in detail as much as it is a beautifully filmed story of a Denver housewife who was thrust into the national spotlight and her relationship with the horse that would change the course of her life. As for Secretariat, it never really captured the true magnitude of the horse and what made  him such a celebrated figure.

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The American public, especially the non-racing public, is not going to go to the theater to see every detail filmed as it happened. They are not paying eight bucks to see Lucien Laurin and Pancho Martin portrayed as they really were. They are not going to care that jockeys are mounting and dismounting outside the barn or that the Belmont Stakes was filmed at Keeneland.

They are going to be entertained and overwhelmed by the beauty and excitement of Thoroughbred racing and the phenomenon that was Secretariat. And, of course, they are going to be overcome with emotion, as memories of the equine heroes of their own childhood come flooding back.

Director Randall Wallace, despite a totally ill-conceived  use of gospel  music to accompany the slow-motion Belmont stretch run, has used an innovative method of photographing races that brings the audience right into the action, and his extreme close-ups in the starting gate capture the drama, tension, and anticipation that precede a race of the magnitude of the Triple Crown events.

So, after seeing the film, the heck with the flaws and the liberties taken. I have come to grips with what this movie was intended to be.

It has brought back into public consciousness a legendary athlete that transcended his sport and sports in general, weaving himself into the fabric of American culture. And it tells the story of one woman’s dogged determination in a world she was born into, but had long since left behind.

Have you seen Secretariat? Submit your own review.

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