Betting the farm on a big red horse

Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by
Slash Films

I went to see Secretariat having walked through rain for eight blocks to get to the theatre. I was miserable. An hour and a half later I walked out happy. Granted, I had to endure some Disney-patented melodrama to get there, but for once I didn’t mind.

Secretariat is the inspirational, true story of the horse who won the 1973 Triple Crown—three races in five weeks—for the first time in 25 years. This “Big Red” horse won its last race by 31 horse lengths—a record that still stands 37 years later.

But viewers be warned, the movie is really more about Secretariat’s owner, Penny (Diane Lane)than about the horse itself. The film begins with the death of Penny’s father and her inheritance of the family farm. With the birth of a promising colt, Penny is thrown into the male-dominated world of horse breeding and racing. The movie chronicles Penny’s giant risk: betting the farm and her inheritance on the big red horse.

Key players include trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), secretary Miss Hamm (Margo Martindale), and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis). These personable characters support Penny as she faces off against the then “richest man in the world,” Ogden Phipps, rival horse teams, and the male equestrian world.

Secretariat is a feminist story about  Penny, a ‘70s housewife, juggling four kids and a multi-million-dollar horseracing career. Penny’s victories for women’s rights are echoed by the activist efforts of her daughter Kate (Amanda Michalka).

I thought I would have to turn off my critic’s brain to enjoy this movie, but Secretariat truly had some redeeming qualities. The race scenes were wonderfully shot and structured, making the stallions’ runs exciting and suspenseful even if you knew how they would end.

The main drawback of Secretariat is its script. The dialogue was often unrealistic, as characters spouted one (or four) spur-of-the-moment inspirational quotes too many. Gems include “He’s not a racehorse, he’s Secretariat,” and “I’ve run my race, now you run yours.”

Secretariat is not a movie for the cynical viewer. There are foggy technicolour sunrises and scenes that beg the audience to become teary eyed. But it’s the true story of the “greatest racehorse that ever lived” if you need a lift. Secretariat is worth seeing, even if you end up trudging through the rain to get there.