Secretariat Thunders Onto the Screen In a Magnificent Movie
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One of the memorable moments in my newspaper life — a span filled with wars, politics, and other dramas, high and low — is the one that flashed by in the spring of 1973, when I found myself jammed up directly against an infield fence at Churchill Downs by a crowd that had surged forward for the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby. There was nothing between me and the finish line save for a bit of wire and wood and a few feet of air. When Secretariat thundered across, a fan, sitting on the shoulders of someone behind me, lost her grip on a bucket of beer, which came down on my head.
For the umpteenth time, I regaled my nine-year-old with this yarn as we made our way to the Bijou for Disney’s rendition of the Secretariat saga. Given the advance reviews, I was prepared to be disappointed. But it turns out that “Secretariat” is a magnificent movie, an inspiring yarn, beautifully crafted, with just the right amount of corn. The movie-goers in my row were on the edge of their seats the whole time. Myself, I was pounding the air so hard that my daughter finally leaned over and hissed, “Dad, you already know who won.”
By that point Disney had wrapped everything into the story — the crisis of the money-losing farm, the grit of Penny Chenery (played perfectly by Diane Lane) who took over when her parents died; the strain on her marriage and her children; the redemption of the trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich); the courage of the battered jockey Ron Turcotte (played by Otto Thorwarth); and the grace of the almost-owner, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), who famously lost Secretariat on a coin toss only to help Mrs. Chenery underwrite his run to glory.
The way the story is told in the movie takes the usual Hollywood license with the facts, even those as they are rendered in the book by Bill Nack, “Secretariat — The Making of a Champion,” on which the film is based. This is covered by a reviewer for Tracksideview.com, Ron Correll, who reports that “most of the ‘drama’ that took place in the movie never happened.” He writes that the coin toss was blown out of context and the details were inaccurate in respect of the syndication of the breeding rights to Secretariat.
Another reviewer compares “Secretariat” unfavorably to the movie “Seabiscuit,” a horse film that I also loved. But it’s hard to think of Seabiscuit in the same league as Secretariat. On one list of the 10 greatest steeds of all time, Seabiscuit gets only an honorable mention, while Secretariat is listed as number one on most lists. Both horses may have lifted our national spirit — Seabiscuit during the Depression and Secretariat during Vietnam — but there is less politics and a bit more spiritual uplifting in Disney’s film.
The spiritual element of “Secretariat” begins with Penny Chenery reciting a passage from Job. For the climax of the Belmont, the director, Randall Wallace, has a camera looking from the finish line backward down the home stretch as we await the horses coming into view from around that last turn. Suddenly all sound is silenced. We are looking at an empty track in total silence for what seems like an eternity — it reminded me of the long wait for Tom Hanks to descend out of radio silence in Apollo 13. Then Secretariat bursts into view, barreling straight at you as the silence is broken by the thunder of hooves and the rousing gospel song “Oh Happy Day.”
By my lights, it worked like a charm, throwing into even sharper relief the drama of a Belmont Stakes that was already among the greatest in the history of sport. Not that the real event lacked for drama, as one can see in the clip above. The camera, panning from the far side of the whole track with no depth of field, seems to be racing to keep up. For a split second Secretariat is obscured by a huge American flag fluttering in the headwind. Then, crackling over the loudspeakers, the race is called by Chick Anderson in the famous words:
“That’s Secretariat now taking the lead. He’s got it by about a length and a half. … It looks like he’s opening . . . The lead is increasing, make it three, three and a half, he’s moving into the turn . . . Secretariat holding on to the large lead . . . They’re on the turn . . . Secretariat is blazing along, the first three quarters of a mile in one oh nine and four fifths . . . Secretariat is widening now . . . he is moving like a tree-MEN-dous machine . . . Secretariat by 12 . . . Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn . . . Secretariat is all alone . . .
“He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses. Secretariat is in a position that he’s impossible to catch . . . He’s into the stretch. . . . Secretariat leads the field by 18 lengths . . . They’re in the stretch. . . . Secretariat has opened a 22 length lead. He is going to be . . . the . . . Triple . . . Crown . . . Winner. . . . Here comes Secretariat to the wire, an unbelievable, an amazing performance, he hits the finish 25 lengths in front.”
In fact, it was 31 lengths. What the moment did to people is recorded in a series of interviews on the Internet. Jack Whitaker of CBS speaks of people starting to weep. On the same clip George Plimpton recalls: “There were these coeds lining the rail. This sounds hard to believe, but I swear, half of them were weeping as he went by.” Heywood Hale Broun relates that Jack Nicklaus told him of how, when he watched it from home, even the great golfer himself broke into tears. Someone remarked that the reason is that it was the impact of seeing perfection. And I must say that the movie version lost nothing of the thrill for the fact that the person sitting behind me was eating popcorn and did not lose her grip on a bucket of beer.