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.