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Updated on 10/09/2010 1:03PM
'Secretariat' a good story, but it's not history
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.
More anti-Christian remarks from a "journalist". Give it a break.
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.
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.
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.
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 :)
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
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.
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!
Not to mention Riva Ridge is a complete crime to the Racing Industry. Disney needs to apologize.
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.