In 1973, the magnificent chocolate stallion ran the second fastest time in the history of the Kentucky Derby. His mark remains to this day. He probably had the talent to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. Instead, he has gone down as the forgotten rival to a horse whose only real competition was the limits of reality.
There is a very good movie to be made about Sham, an artsy, angsty Sisyphean drama about the horse that never quite could. Needless to say, that film won’t be made by Walt Disney. Instead, the Mouse House has made an inspirational sports film about Sham’s great rival, Secretariat.
The 1973 winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the first horse to achieve that cherished feat in twenty-five years, became a national sensation. Like a great performer, he saved his best for last. He won the final leg, the Belmont Stakes, by an unbelievable thirty-one lengths. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest performances in the history of modern sports.
That’s a heck of a story, and we get why Disney wants to bring it to a new generation. However, the tale doesn’t follow the established Disney sports film formula which wears its heart for the underdogs above all else. So it looks past the horse to find an underdog in Penny Chenery (rendered by the very able Diane Lane), the Denver housewife who inherited the superhorse from her father. It’s fair to say Secretariat is the story of a woman cheating on her family with a horse.
Like a good lover, the horse brings her joy in good times and support during bad times. Secretariat allows the sheltered housewife to become the cutthroat businesswoman that she always wanted to be, as she tries to keep the family horse farm afloat. Her life away from washing clothes becomes a source of empowerment in an era of rising feminism. With a female lead operating in a male world, Secretariat carries a politely feminist tact.
That isn’t a theme you would expect Disney to do well. At times, it doesn’t. Secretariat runs wild with cartoon chauvinism. Take Sham’s owner, who comes across as the Don King of the Battle of the Sexes. The real-life social tension caused by a housewife abandoning her traditional place in the family led to a real-life divorce. Here it is only an obstacle to overcome for a moment of uplift. That said, the film pays attention to the balance between family and business that women face, giving the audience a heroine who is easy to cheer for.
Disney sports films are known for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Secretariat’s corny script (from “Miracle” scribe Mike Rich) is no exception. It should be hard to ignore the fact that the Meadow Stable won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont the year before Secretariat (with Riva Ridge), but somehow it happens. It’s also left unsaid that this particular Denver housewife went to an Ivy League business school and wasn’t quite the pony circuit beginner that the film portrays. Also, real-life 1973 would beckon Ang Lee to turn Secretariat into “The Ice Storm 2,” but such unpleasantness doesn’t dare intrude (arguably for the better). The Tweedy children are only faux hippies long enough to clean up for a grand ball like the guests at a Very Special Von Trapp Christmas.
If the facts are wrong, the story isn’t. Director Randall Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler deliver a mostly rousing entertainer due to its charismatic horse, fun race scenes, and Diane Lane’s refusal to let the film sink to the hokey level always tempting an inspirational sports movie. She plays Chenery as a woman whose bite is worse that her maternal bark. She dominates John Malkovich’s eccentric trainer, a rough-and-ready jockey, and two corporate men played by faceless actors named Dylan (Walsh and Baker). She flavors the role with a degree of seriousness that pays off against the odds. This easy backstretch of a movie doesn’t wring out all the drama in the story, but it works for what it is.