10/17/2010 5:55PM

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