10/17/2010 6:55PM

The Late Secretariat


The real mystery about the movie "Secretariat" is why it took so long for it to be made. Mystery is perhaps the wrong word. Abject confusion is more like it. Given all the truly rotten sports movies that have issued forth over the past 37 years, you would think there would have been room for at least one full-blooded, ripping yarn of a horse story somewhere in the mix, especially in the immediate wake of Secretariat's glorious departure from the scene, in a cold, ghostly drizzle at Woodbine in the 1973 running of the Canadian International Championship, jets of steam shooting from those huge nostrils as he emerged from the gloom, in eerie isolation, to beat as good a field of grass horses as has ever populated the event.  

Attempting to fathom the ways that Hollywood has fed the movie market leads to madness. Then I thought about looking at the lists of movies made that made an impact in the mid-1970s, roughly the window during which you would think the market would be prime for a Secretariat tale. It was enlightening, to say the least, especially since I remember stepping up to the box office for most of the hundred or so catalogued for each of these years:

If somebody had gotten right on the stick and released a movie about Secretariat in 1975, while the memory was still hot, the competition would have included "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Jaws," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Man Who Would Be King," "3 Days of the Condor" and "Shampoo." Okay, so no one would have seen it, unless it would have been played as a hay and oats version of the later "Chariots of Fire." In fact, there was only one sports movie to raise a pulse that year -- "Rollerball." Word of advice: do not get into arguments with people who love "Rollerball."

The competition among top movies of 1976 included "Taxi Driver," "Network," "All the President's Men," "Rocky," "Marathon Man," "The Outlaw Josie Wales" and "Bound for Glory." That'll do.  Apparently, sports movies weren't getting made, except for off-beat baseball flicks like "The Bad News Bears" and "The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings." Also there was "Stay Hungry," about body-builders, with future governors of California, but that's only if you think of body-building as a sport.

In 1977, all the air was sucked out of the movie business by "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." For those who were not quite ready for the science fantasy explosion, there was "Annie Hall," "Julia" and "Saturday Night Fever." As far as sports, once again the demand for body-building films was met by "Pumping Iron," starring you-know-who, while the lone voice crying in the wilderness was "Slap Shot." A foul-mouthed, hockey-playing Paul Newman and the Hanson brothers assaulting a pop machine -- now that's quality entertainment.

In the end, it was just shy of 37 years between Secretariat's farewell gallop at Woodbine to the release of "Secretariat." That beats 1983's heralded "Phar Lap," the tale of the great New Zealand stayer who died in 1932. Which is not to say it necessarily takes a half a century to get it right, but apparently it helps. "Secretariat," though mildly greeted at the box office, has more than its share of both critics and fans, but I guarantee folks aren't staying away just because the filmmakers decided to ignore Riva Ridge.

I'll tell you one guy who got it right, way back when the real Big Red was on everyone's hearts and minds. The last cut of John Stewart's 1975 album "Wingless Angels" was called "Let the Big Horse Run." It was as good a song as you'd every want to hear about anything with four legs and a tail, and he wrote it out of an awestruck appreciation of what he had witnessed during Secretariat's Triple Crown season of 1973. When he wasn't busy being part of the Kingston Trio, or going solo with albums like "California Bloodlines" and "Cannons in the Rain," Stewart, the son of a harness horse trainer, was a stone cold racing nut. 

In April of 1975, when the Smothers Brothers were taking one last stab at a network variety show on NBC, musical guest John Stewart chose as his contribution to the evening's entertainment a performance of "Let the Big Horse Run," backed by video of Secretariat's other-worldly win in the Belmont Stakes. If a tape of that show is still around somewhere, speak up. Otherwise, we can be grateful that one fan of Big Red and Mr. Stewart put together this homemade YouTube effort to at least give a taste of how the horse and the song were one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFx68BIfMiM 

Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Wonderful, Jay, Wonderful....as was was the Frankel article today...."bet of Slewball, let the big horse run, run, run"....keep the turkey on the carving plate today, though....Blessed Thanksgiving Wishes to your stable!
kr More than 1 year ago
No one ever said she was the best horse ever. But you wrote a book talking about the use of corticosteroids and turn downs to defend the great Cigar. Wow. Star Standard was such a speed devil ( he was a f***ing allowance horse ) and Concern, how could he make a run from such pathetic fractions. Finally, when he faced a dangerous speed horse he lost. then Skip Away beat him -- but unlike Zenyatta -- they gave all the credit to Cigar. You guys have to wire your ass and head. I mean do you even know how to put a halter on a horse, or a lip shank?? Doubt it. You are all experts on something you don't know.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
"Rocky" came out in that Bicentennial year of 1976 and did fairly well as a sports movie. It could have inspired a scene with the trainer Lucien Lauren rushing towards the wire yelling, "Yo, Big Red." Or a young Secretariat racing up Mount Vernon and raising up on his haunches with front legs up-raised (with proper triumphant music, of course). Or Penny Tweedy given the choice of viewing a race or dealing with an eye infection screaming, "Cut me, Luc!" Or maybe not, they'll be no re-match.
Jim Moran More than 1 year ago
Jay, the video that you linked is my creation. You and I actually met at John Stewart's Fantasy Camp 5 in 2004 - I was a camper in a group called the Chilly Winds that went on to modest fame and zero fortune on YouTube. We also connected at a Stewart show at the Fret House in Covina - I'm presuming you still have your striped shirt. Someone commented under my LTBHR video that you had written this fine article. I'll see the film at some point, but thanks for the heads up - it won't be with any particularly high expectations.
Ruskin Hodges More than 1 year ago
My kids are grown up now but when I used to take them to a Disney movie, I would drop them off, pick 'em up and ask, "How was it kids?" So I'll ask, did anybody really see "Secretariat" or are you just telling me what your kids thought of it? All seriousness aside, I did watch the movie "Seabiscuit" at home on video, with a six-pack of tranquillizers and to give an honest review of it, I don't know if it was the beer or the movie that caused me to fall asleep. Judging by the accounts I've read in here, when "Secretariat" hits video, I may have to take some kind of stimulant or perhaps watch it ten minutes after I wake up in the morning. As a rule, I never mix Hollywood and horse racing. Its a bad combination and it will make you sick....maybe its just those five minute stretch runs I'm not used to.
Jerry B. More than 1 year ago
The movie is good. They took liberties, yes, but basically the story is true and the racing scenes are great. Best scenes of human and horse in a movie: Black Stallion. Scenes of the boy and horse on the beach are the best in movie history. Movie falls apart after they leave the beach, but those scenes are the best ever.
Tim More than 1 year ago
Great article about a not so good movie. Being a historian and loving Secretariat the movie left me wanting more truth and less Hollywood. When Angle Light won the Wood no mention was made about his being part of the entry and Poncho Martin acted like Sigmund Sommer's Sham won. I remember Secretariats story being far more fulfilling than the movie.
magic More than 1 year ago
Poor factually. Wrong colors on Angle Light. Turcotte was riding Riva Ridge for the same connections before that bs meeting with Penny in the coffee shop. The after Wood was a fiasco as the owner and trainer just won with Angle Light. The substitute racetracks were a joke. Cowboy hats in the Aqueduct paddock? Nice to see Jean Cruguet in a cameo. I hope the Zenyatta movie will be better. Disney should stick to Mickey Mouse, which this movie was. Bull Hancock near the Meadow Stable in Virginia, Last time I checked Claiborne is in Kentucky. Horse of the year in a mid-day racing form notification, hardly.
in the barn More than 1 year ago
I saw the Secretariat movie today before noon. Just me and an older couple in the theatre. The movie was ok entertainment for a couple hours. The biggest mistke made with this movie was that it was made by Disney. You can't say historical accuracy and disney in the same breath. PLEASE..Do NOT let disney within 10,000 miles of a film about Julie Krone. Her story deserves better treatment than Secretariats. Hollywood has a long history of forgetting the facts in an attempt to tell a good story anf failing in the process. NO mention of Riva Ridge. I liked some of the closeup shots of the horses in the starting gate. There were some good scenes of each of the three main human characters...but they scattered through the film. Penny Chennery's husband and brother were not portrayed in a flattering light. What was up with keeneland substituting for belmont park? The actual footage of the Belmont Stakes would have been more dramatic. I am going to read the book.
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Well Jay , Thats Disney for ya . Still trying to ride Mickey Mouse's coattails. M-I-C -K-E-Y Oh those SOB's