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.

Big View Small Window 4 months 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 9 months 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 4 months 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 4 hours 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!
Nick Gumba More than 1 year ago
Not to mention Riva Ridge is a complete crime to the Racing Industry. Disney needs to apologize.
PP More than 1 year ago
Though we enjoyed the movie, it was fictitious and did not relate to actual history. For the sake of my 'families' heritage work on horse farms in Charlottesville, Va. and "The Meadow" in Doswell, Va., we found it ultimately disappointing that Howard Gentry nor Bobby Gentry were not included in the story of this movie. Our 'Gentry' family has held our story with great reverence and pride! As 'every' family story my grandmother told me was found to be 'true', I personally will hold her family stories as the truth in history.
Alyce More than 1 year ago
I saw the movie for the first time tonight, because I lost one of my horses and could not watch the movie until now because of my emotions. I am a horse owner. I waited 48 years to get my first horse. She is 20 now. If you truly love horses and understand them this movie is great. I got it. I look into the eyes of my horses just like Penny Chenery did. My horse had a great Reining career. I talked to her before she showed and she was always great. We know there is more. There is more to me and my horses' story too. We just, KNOW, how great they are. And this movie showed that.
Lmaris More than 1 year ago
This was one of the worst horse movie I've ever seen. It portrayed honorable men (Lucian Lauren, Phipps, Martin) as clowns or worse, cheaters. Misrepresented race results, and flat out lied about important issues. Only someone who does not understand Secretariat's greatness could view this movie as a good story. It ignores Riva Ridge (trained by Lauren & ridden by Turcottte before Secretariat looked through a bridle) who "saved" Meadow farm. The horses chosen to portray him were only similar in color. Their builds as different as a warthog from a giraffe. Back should sue for misrepresentation. I would be ashamed to have my name anywhere near this disaster.
Lmaris More than 1 year ago
Nack, not Back. Sorry autocorrect. Read the book ( not that fans of this movie would) to see how far from the mark the movie fell. I don't understand why they didn't just take the original film of his races and use them with closeups.
Kalar Walters More than 1 year ago
Well, as the producer/director told Penny, "It's a Disney move, not a documentary."
Kalar Walters More than 1 year ago
P.S. I was disappointed in it. I guess I knew too much to fully enjoy it.
Peter G Alindo More than 1 year ago
Not to say that Paul Feliciano the Mexican jockey who won the first two races of the triple crown and was not mentioned in this age of none racism and equality and of the domination of hispanic jockeys in horse racing today. Get off the valium and deal with reality.
LogicRules55 More than 1 year ago
Feliciano rode Secretariat in his first two Maiden races at Aqueduct in July 1972 on the 4th & 15th (when he broke maiden by 6 lengths). Turcotte rode him in his subsequent 18 races (including ALL Triple Crown races). In his final race, in Canada, he was ridden by Eddie Maple, as Turcotte was serving a suspension at the time.
Darrell Landry More than 1 year ago
I was going to say what are you talking about, till someone else cleared it up. I just noticed your on Valium too so no wonder you are spitting out false facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thanx for this account; I just rewatched the movie on cable at 3 a.m. and have (re-) caught Secretariat fever. However, I wondered about a number of fictions you addressed and am glad to know some more of true story.