10/06/2010 4:32PM

No need to embellish in ‘Secretariat’

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LOS ANGELES - The makers of the movie “Secretariat” hope to attract millions of viewers who weren’t yet alive when the great horse was racing in 1972 and 1973. Those members of the audience may wonder how much of the narrative is fact and how much is Hollywood gloss.

Just about every turf writer who has previewed “Secretariat” – which opens nationwide Friday – has pointed out historical inaccuracies and significant omissions in the film. Having followed Secretariat’s career as a journalist, I found some of the omissions distracting (particularly the expurgation of his Kentucky Derby-winning stablemate Riva Ridge.) But the filmmakers had to take some liberties in order to make this movie. Secretariat’s real-life story didn’t have a triumph-of-the-underdog theme that is a staple of sports movies. Nor were the people surrounding him particularly colorful or lovable.

Disney mined William Nack’s meticulously reported biography of Secretariat to find the female-empowerment theme that could make this film a hit. It built the narrative around Penny Chenery Tweedy, who abandoned her life as a Denver housewife to take over the faltering operation of the Meadow Stable from her ailing father. There are plenty of sentimental embellishments, but the story is true, and actress Diane Lane makes it a compelling one. Moreover, “Secretariat” depicts the racing world more credibly than most movies and shows the racing action vividly. Purists should forgive the inaccuracies and relish the fact that Secretariat’s story has finally come to the screen, giving a younger generation the chance to appreciate the horse’s feats.

Disney didn’t have to embellish Secretariat’s achievements. In fact, the film almost understates them. Many of us who watched him in 1972 and 1973 thought that we were probably seeing the best racehorse who ever lived, and the ensuing years have reinforced that conviction. Secretariat came of age in the decade that the American Thoroughbred was at its peak, a period that also produced Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian, Forego, and Spectacular Bid. Experts can endlessly debate the relative merits of such horses, but Secretariat did things that even other great ones didn’t do. If you watch videos of races without knowing who the horses are, there may be little to distinguish a high-class race from a cheap one. A film of Affirmed going to the lead and fighting off Alydar’s challenge doesn’t look much different from a $5,000 claimer doing the same thing.

But Secretariat’s athleticism was unmistakable. I saw him for the first time in the summer of 1972 at Saratoga and still remember vividly his first stakes race, the Sanford, when he faced the pro-tem leader of the nation’s 2-year-olds, Linda’s Chief. As the five-horse field turned into the stretch, Secretariat was blocked by a wall of three horses in front of him; Linda’s Chief, on the outside, had clear sailing. When a slight bit of daylight appeared in front of him, Secretariat bulled through the opening in a manner that journalist Charles Hatton likened to “a fox scattering a barnyard of chickens.” He immediately unleashed an explosive run and flew past the favored Linda’s Chief to win by three lengths. I wrote in the Washington Star that we might have seen the 1973 Kentucky Derby winner. Never have I watched a lightly raced 2-year-old stamp himself so definitively as a potential great.

Ten days after the Sanford, Secretariat made a dazzling move in the Hopeful Stakes, circling the field and going from last place to first place around the turn. The next year, in the Preakness, he made an even more amazing last-to-first run. He did it on the first turn at Pimlico – what would ordinarily be a suicidal move – and blew past his archrival Sham to take command of the race. After watching that grainy film recently on YouTube, I am still astonished by it. I have never seen a horse make a winning move like that one in the subsequent 37 years.

In the early 1970s, I had begun to embrace the philosophy that horses are best defined by how fast they run, and I had begun to calculate the speed figures that, two decades later, would be incorporated into every Thoroughbred’s record in the Daily Racing Form.

At each stage of his career, Secretariat’s winning times and speed figures provided objective evidence that he was an extraordinary runner. His greatest performance, of course, was the Belmont Stakes, where he dueled with Sham at a seemingly suicidal pace for three-quarters of a mile and proceeded to draw away to a 31-length victory. The prevailing track record, Gallant Man’s 2:26 3/5, was considered almost unassailable; only one other winner in the Belmont’s history had run faster than 2:28. When Secretariat crossed the finish line in 2:24 flat, he had raced into a new dimension.

Years later, when my speed-figure methods had matured, I revisited the data from the day of the 1973 Belmont and tried to produce a figure that would relate to my present-day numbers. I calculated that Secretariat had earned a 139, a figure that no horse after him has ever approached. (The best Beyer Speed Figure in the last two decades was Ghostzapper’s 128 in 2004.)

If the movie “Secretariat” had been a work of fiction, audiences might have scoffed at a climax that shows the equine hero winning by an almost unimaginable margin and running faster than any member of his species has ever run. Those of us who saw the event at Belmont Park could barely believe it, either.

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