Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I just went to my own mini-marathon of movies: 1 each day for the last 4 days. Yesterday I saw Secretariat with my mom. First let me say that it is a Disney movie, so it is gorgeous to look at. The cinematography was beautiful, and was often filmed to show the events seemingly through the horse’s viewpoint. Here, horse racing is truly presented as the sport of kings, with regal contenders eager to prevail through physical force and a champion’s will.

The interesting twist is that Secretariat’s champion is a sharp, tough housewife, Penny Tweedy (nee Chenery) played by Diane Lane. Lane is one of my favorite actresses, indeed probably for most woman over forty: youthful, vulnerable, sincere but with an inner strength that ultimately succeeds. Here, her character goes through the usual dismissals of her resolve and competence in an era when women’s lib was just starting.

After her mother’s death and downward slide of her beloved father’s cognitive health, she wrestles trying to decide between closing their family farm at a loss or try to build its value for eventual sale. Flying between her upscale suburban life with husband and four kids in Colorado and the farm in Virginia, she somehow manages a crash course in the professional horse breeding business, holds off her snarky brother who wants to liquidate, and makes risky decisions everyone thinks are best left to men. I was amazed that she juggled these two lives over several years while she was developing the colt she gambled on in a coin toss who went on to become Secretariat.

And his story is remarkable. Beginning with his birth, where seasoned trainer Lucien Laurin (played to great eccentric but a big softy effect by John Malkovich), Penny, her loyal assistant Miss Ham and stable hand Eddie Sweat declare that they’ve never seen a foal stand so quickly after being born, he grows into Big Red, a name they continued to call him all his life. He seemed know what was going on around him, casually living up to their hopes of a race horse that would have both speed and stamina.

The rest is history, but I didn’t remember the amazing feat of his triple crown win, his times and margins of winning still untouched today. What is great about this movie, where the story’s outcome is already known, is the drama and excitement that the director and writers generated about the daring gambles Penney Tweedy took, laying everything and then some on the line in her belief in her horse and her team with little support. The races themselves were edge-of-the-seat exhilarating as Secretariat became a gladiator literally running away with the hearts and dreams of all who were there to witness.

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