By John H. Foote
To watch this magnificent horse in full flight was a miracle, a thing of natural beauty. Four legs, powered by a great heart, a mass of muscle hurtling down the track towards the finish line, setting records in his wake, he is hailed as perhaps the greatest racehorse to ever live. I was a boy watching that last great race, when he tore out of the gate, eventually blowing by the fine horse Sham, leaving him in his dust by more than twenty lengths, an astounding achievement. No other horse was even close, as the great horse established a record for speed, one that stands to this day. It was as though God created the perfect animal and it was Secretariat. You could hear the absolute disbelief in the play by play announcers voice as the horse got farther away from the pack, a near impossible feat, but one that happened nonetheless, setting records that might never be shattered or approached for that matter.
Horses, I believe, are the most noble animals on the planet, beautiful to gaze upon, and thrilling to ride. If you are any good at riding, the feeling of becoming one with the animal is a thrill unlike any other. Some think they control the horse, that the bridle and bit control the animal, but the truth is, the animal is always in control. If they trust the rider, all will be well, if they do not, well trouble. If you happen to be a good rider, you can truly become one with the animal.
When I was a boy, my father rode in rodeos on the weekend. It was cool, my dad was a cowboy! How I marveled at the control he had over these powerful animals, the muscles and cords on his arms bulging as he rode. I rode a little (very little) when I was a boy, nothing serious, but I have certainly been around horses to know how beautiful how powerful and how majestic they are. I have a very dear friend (more than a friend actually) in Florida heavily involved in the world of horses and she once saw Secretariat run, how I wish I had been with her.
Secretariat is a solid film about the great horse, owned by Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) who took enormous risks with her financial well-being and kept the horse, who was trained by French Canadian Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). Navigating the male dominated world of thoroughbred racing, Chenery gambles everything she owns on the horse because she believes in the connection she feels to him. Her gut is telling her he can be great. Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) grooms the horse and spends more time with him than any other human being alive. He came to love the horse, and shared Chenery’s connection with Secretariat.
Voted Horse of the Year in 1972, an extraordinary feat for a two year old, that was just the warmup for his accomplishments in 1973. Offered six million dollars for the horse, which would have allowed her to pay overdue taxes on her father’s farm, which she has taken over, not to mention set up she and her family for life, she holds on to the horse, believing he will make her very wealthy.
How right she was. In 1973 Secretariat won the coveted Triple Crown, far outdistancing the fine horse Sham, and every horse in the field After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, all that remains is the Belmont Stakes, where Secretariat blows the competition away, winning the race by an extraordinary 31 lengths, forever forging his legend. In the annals of horse racing this is the race most remembered and what all owners hope to have happen with their animals. Good luck. Secretariat was a once in a lifetime animal, we are not likely to see another in our lifetimes. But how fortunate we were to see him in his prime.
The racing sequences are recreated, brilliantly, placing the viewer on the track with the horses as they thunder around the track at top speed. It gives one an idea of what the jockeys go through atop a charging horse! That great line roared by Lucien as Secretariat charges for the finish line to his jockey, “Ronny don’t fall off” has more meaning than one might expect.
The final scene is edited beautifully between the track and Secretariat’s growing lead, and Chenery watching the conquest from the stands, as the owner of Sham, Pancho Martin looks on in shocked disbelief. “That’s impossible” he whispers as he sees it happening right before his eyes. That a horse could maintain that speed, that thundering, overwhelming speed for the entire race, was a credit to the great power and strength of Secretariat.
Every sport has a wunderkind, someone who is simply on another level than the rest of the professionals they are surrounded by. Baseball had Johnny Bench and Babe Ruth, football had Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, hockey had Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, and thoroughbred racing had Secretariat.
Nicely directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart (1995), the film follows the story very closely with only a couple of events altered for drama, and what we get is an inspirational sports story about a horse who was a champion and the woman who knew he could be.
Beautifully acted by Diane Lane, the actress gives one of her best performances as Chenery who believes the horse knows what she is saying to her, just as she felt the horse posed for photographs. It is among her finest work and she deserved to be nominated for an Oscar. Facing ruin, she cannot explain why, but she believes, she just believes and her dreams are not let down.
Malkovich as always is interesting and perfect as Lucien the quirky trainer who knows he has greatness with the horse, but just how great eludes him. The late, wonderful Nelsan Ellis, gone too soon, is superb as Eddie Sweat, the man who spent more time with the horse than anyone and felt a curious kinship with him.
Oh sure, there are some corny, hokey moments, some sentiment takes over, but the actors make it work quite well. I was never not entertained, and that last race, is exceptional.
But make no mistake the star of this film is the magnificent horse portraying another piece of magnificence, Secretariat. And he is divine.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.