Updated on 10/09/2010 2:03PM

'Secretariat' a good story, but it's not history

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Diane Lane plays owner Penny Chenery and John Malkovich is trainer Lucien Laurin in "Secretariat."

NEW YORK – The good news about the “Secretariat” movie, which opens nationwide Friday, is that it will do racing no harm. It is a generally positive and respectful portrayal of the sport and of the people surrounding the 1973 Triple Crown winner, and may introduce a new generation to the story of America’s most revered racehorse. The movie has been testing unusually well with preview audiences, especially among children. It won’t revitalize national interest in racing any more than “Seabiscuit” did five years ago, but it can’t hurt.

“Secretariat” is a typical Walt Disney Co. production, a calculated contrivance of a crowd-pleaser, and may well prove a success on those terms. As an exercise in documenting and retelling a true story, however, it is extremely disappointing – not only for multiple deviations from the truth, which will annoy racetrackers and the sport’s historians, but also because those deviations combine to produce an ultimately misleading portrait of what made Secretariat so special.

These failings are particularly surprising because the movie’s producers began in the right place: Bill Nack’s excellent book “Big Red of Meadow Stable,” the definitive biography of the colt and a meticulous first-hand account of his career. It is telling, however, that when the book is credited in the movie’s titles, the connection is not characterized by the customary terms “Based on” or “Adapted from,” but by the much looser “Suggested by.” Unfortunately, the movie took too few suggestions and too many liberties.

Two of the movie’s central premises stem from outright misrepresentations. The first is that the magical ride began when owner Penny Chenery, trainer Lucien Laurin, and groom Eddie Sweat sat up all night watching Secretariat being foaled at Meadow Stud. Secretariat stands up quicker than any foal they’ve ever seen, and Chenery forges a supernatural bond with the colt that is subsequently invoked as a factor in his success.

It’s a sweet scene, but it never happened. According to Nack’s book, the only people present at the foaling were Meadow Stud manager Howard Gentry, his friend Raymond Wood, and Meadow Stud night watchman Bob Southworth.

Another recurring theme is that Chenery is in constant financial jeopardy if Secretariat loses races due to a “performance clause” in his syndication agreement. In fact, the only such clause pertained to Secretariat’s fertility, not his racing performances. The idea that Secretariat had to win the Triple Crown to save Meadow Stud is sheer fiction and also ignores the contributions of Riva Ridge – who won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes for Chenery the year that Secretariat was a 2-year-old but is not once even mentioned in the movie.

Every Disney fairy tale needs its cardboard-cutout villains, and here the role of Cruella DeVille is shared by Frank Martin and Ogden Phipps, both of whom deserve much better. Martin, who trained Sham, is portrayed as a boor and a sexist lout, insulting Chenery and Secretariat at every opportunity and misbehaving at ridiculous “press conferences” where everyone acts like it’s Smackdown Night at the roller derby. Phipps is shown repeatedly trying to outfox Chenery in fanciful accounts of the famous coin flip that awarded Secretariat to Meadow and in the syndication, and then scolding her when Secretariat loses the Wood Memorial, because of the fictitious “performance clause.”

The movie ends with Secretariat’s historic Belmont Stakes victory, and as the re-creation of the race (staged at Keeneland) reaches its crescendo, the Edwin Hawkins spiritual “Oh Happy Day!” plays behind a slow-motion stretch run. It’s a catchy song, but what in the world does “Oh Happy Day/When Jesus washed/He washed our sins away” have to do with Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths?

This unseemly insertion of religion into the story appears to stem from the director Randall Wallace, a former seminary student who has said that his Christianity “informs” his moviemaking decisions, and who has been actively promoting the film to “faith-based” audiences.

We never hear about Secretariat’s stride, or the literal size of his heart, or the uniqueness of the racetrack accomplishments that defined him. Instead his greatness is attributed to formulaic mush about his bond with his supposedly down-on-their-luck connections (who had won the Derby a year earlier), his “will to win,” and perhaps divine intervention.

Secretariat was not a “will to win” kind of horse. He didn’t extend himself when he wasn’t feeling well (the tooth abscess in the Wood, the fever before the Whitney), and he didn’t bravely wear down opponents because truth, justice, and a touch of the supernatural were on his side. He was a blindingly brilliant talent, not a plucky underdog. It’s nice that there’s a movie out with his name on it, but a pity that the movie deviates from the truth so much that we never get to the heart of what made him so worth celebrating.

Will Murray 5 days ago
It's a movie not a documentary. Moron 
Daniel Joseph 7 months ago
It was a MOVIE for lands sake.  Of course "liberties" were taken for intertainment purposes.  That is what movies do.  Get over yourself princess.
FrostyFeast 5 months ago
There was unnecessary character assassination of good people. It's unconscionable. You don't get to 'it's a movie' anybody. It's about real people where the truth was extraordinary enough. No lies about people needed to be inserted, no religious overtones required. Get over *yourself*, "princess." They should've made it about Secretariat technically but made it really about Riva Ridge the beloved sweetheart in the shadow of the big horse. Show Secretariat in the spotlight and Riva quietly saving the day.
Robin Lupinacci 5 months ago
pity is literal great story was lost
Michael Allen More than 1 year ago
More anti-Christian remarks from a "journalist".  Give it a break.
FrostyFeast 5 months ago
It's not anti-Christian to point out that Christianity had nothing to do with the story whatsoever and it was shoe-horned in as a marketing gimmick. If anything, you ought to be mad at being manipulated.
RaceTote More than 1 year ago
About the only thing true in the film was the shock most viewers felt about the extraordinary Belmont Stakes win. If any one thing defined the horse's greatness it was that amazing race. 
Chaz Gresham More than 1 year ago
I bought the movie....did not go to see it.....I knew in my heart it would not be a movie about Secretariat........I was right. I do put the movie in and fast forward to watch the derby sequence and the Preakness and Belmont....especially since the second leg of the triple is actually Secretariat. I was young but I remember watching the late news the night before the Derby, a short clip Of Secretariat appeared  and my Grandfather said look that is him the next derby winner. he was an avid horse fancier and I the only grandchild that shared his passion so watching the race sequences brings back many memories as we watched him run......but I do remember a different story about the world greatest race horse than depicted in the movie so I was saddened to see how the team was depicted....they weren't down on their luck and the real story is about a fantastic  team surrounding a horse that realizes their dreams.....the real story is not a fairy tale but I think it would have made for a better movie....I eagerly await the remake where Secretariat is the star and the actors hold the supporting cast as they did in real life....until then here is to watching the race sequences where Secretariat has his starring role as is should have been.
Will Murray 5 days ago
Nobody cares 
LeAnne Zephro More than 1 year ago
I was only 12 when Secretariat won the triple crown. It was the greatest race I've ever seen. He was and still is the greatest race horse of all time! The movie didn't get that wrong.
Big View Small Window More than 1 year ago
haha, shame the movie garnered such a critical response.  Uh-hem, its a DISNEY movie, not a documentary. So the scenes were appropriate for the type of audience the producers intended to captivate. Secondly, but using the words "suggested by", I think that shows respect for the novelist by not claiming to be "based on a true story."  There are plenty of movies for horse-lovers to watch - so this one happens to be a movie for drama-lovers. I'm over it :)
Daren Bradley More than 1 year ago
FACT IS secretariat was and will remain the greatest race horse to ever live and Ron Turcotte was a great jockey who cares about the movie facts r facts people
Rinaldo Del Gallo More than 1 year ago
It has been a while since I saw the film, but I think there was another historical inaccuracy. I have not seen the film in 5 years, it came out in 2010. But there was a scene where in Secretariats’ first races, he loses. This “necessitated” in the movie a chance of jockeys, when Ron Turcotte took the mount. Problem is, it did not happen that way. Secretariat ran 21 times, losing only 4 of those races. Secretariat was out of the money just once, his first race, a Maiden Special Weight at Aqueduct on the 4th of July, 1972, with young jockey Paul Feliciano on board. So an early fourth place finish is historically accurate. In the movie, however, dismayed at the 4th place loss, Penny Chenery immediately hires experience rider Ron Turcotte after talking it over with trainer Lucien Laurin. In the movie, after the 4th place finish with jockey Paul Feliciano, Ron Turcotte immediately takes over and starts winning, being the great rider that he is. This showed that Chenery was shrewd owner, willing to do what it takes to get Secretariat to win. But it just did NOT happened that way. According to the DRF race record, jockey Paul Feliciano was aboard Secretariat on his SECOND race, on the 15th of July 1972 (boy they ran them quick back then), a 6 furlong maiden special weight, and he won “handily” by six lengths. And that was jockey Paul Feliciano’s last ride on Secretariat, not coming in 4th place as the movie has it. I was not aware that the “performance clause” was only about breeding. It has been mentioned elsewhere that Riva Ridge had done a lot to help save the Meadow Stable operation.
Rinaldo Del Gallo More than 1 year ago
You can see Secretariats actual race record here: http://www.secretariat.com/past-performances/
Rinaldo Del Gallo More than 1 year ago
Here is another link to inaccuracies: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1028576/goofs Apart from some very minor anachronisms, it is pointed out at this website that Ron Turcotte, IN THE MOVIE, was introduced to Penny Chenery after Secretariat's loss, In fact, he had ridden for her before, and was Riva Ridge's jockey.
Tino Maggio More than 1 year ago
Actually Rinaldo, the movie was more accurate in this case than you are.  In the movie, after Secretariat's first race on July 4th, Penny says she wants to meet with Turcotte when she gets back in 2 weeks.  So some time after July 18th.  His second race was on July 15th.  The movie just didn't bother to show the second race.  It skipped ahead to Secretariat's 3rd race which was the first one with Turcotte.  The first race the movie shows Turcotte riding Secretariat is in July, 1972 at Saratoga Race Course for a 6 furlong race.  Secretariat's 3rd race was a 6 furlong at Saratoga on July 31st.  So the movie had that correct.  Everything except for actually meeting Turcotte 2 weeks after the first race since he was obviously already riding Riva Ridge for her. 
LogicRules55 More than 1 year ago
The Wikipedia passage about Penny Chenery might help clear this up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_Chenery
"Penny Chenery's life changed when her father became disabled. He was admitted to New Rochelle Hospital in late February 1968 and remained there until his death in January 1973. Always profitable, the stable began losing money in the late 1960s, exacerbated by Christopher Chenery's illness. Penny Chenery's siblings originally planned to sell the operation when Mr Chenery could no longer run it. However, Penny Chenery wanted to try to fulfill her father's dream to win the Kentucky Derby. The housewife and mother of four children was elected president of the board of Meadow Stud, which ran the racing stable. In 1969, she fired long-time trainer Casey Hayes. Chenery consulted with longtime family friend and business associate Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farm, and on his advice hired Roger Laurin to train and manage the Meadow Stable horses. Laurin helped to cut costs and return the operation to profitability before leaving to train for the powerful Phipps family stables. In May 1971, Penny Chenery then hired his father, Lucien, and in 1972 they guided the Meadow Farm's colt Riva Ridge to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and the two-year-old Secretariat to 1972 American Horse of the Year honors. The following year, Secretariat captured the imagination of racing fans worldwide when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Both horses were inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame."

As the trio of Penny Chenery Tweedy, Lucien Laurin, and Ron Turcotte had teamed up for Derby & Belmont wins in 1972 with Riva Ridge (as evidenced by this photo that Getty Images attributes to Riva Ridge's Derby victory - http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/horse-racing-kentucky-derby-riva-ridge-jockey-ron-turcotte-owner-picture-id104497779), it's obvious that the restaurant "meeting" between Mrs. Tweedy and Turcotte was just so much Hollywood fluff.

More likely explanations are:
1) Feliciano rode Big Red at Aqueduct and when when shipped to Saratoga, perhaps the apprentice Feliciano was not a member of the Spa's jockey colony, OR,
2) As it was obvious Red was destined for greatness, they switched to the veteran jock with whom they'd already had such tremendous success,
James Westerheid More than 1 year ago
American Pharoah's TC wins reignited Big Red fever. You cannot compare the two horses. But AP has Big Red in him and the large heart as well. But he is not as big and powerful and so must be tactically well ridden. When Secretariat took off, if well trained and fit it did not matter where he was at the start. You knew where he would be at the finish!