The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing is one of the toughest things a horse can win. 274 horses have won a leg of the crown, 50 have won two of the three but only eleven horses have been able to pull off this accomplishment since all three races (The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes) came into being. And while the last horse to notch that achievement was Affirmed (after Seattle Slew, in Secretariat’s blood line, did a year earlier), and the last to get close was Big Brown in 2008, the one that still manages to capture the imagination was 1973 winner Secretariat.
The greatest horse to have ever raced, it even managed to find itself as #35 on ESPN’s Top 100 Athletes of the Century in 2000. His records at Kentucky and Belmont still stand, with Preakness being unofficial due to a malfunction in the timekeeping, and his destruction of the field at Belmont by over 30 lengths remains one of the greatest victories in any sport. So it’s rather odd that a major film about the horse would’ve taken so long. And after sitting through Secretariat, a clichéd underdog film masquerading as a period piece, one would’ve hoped they’d taken longer.
The film follows the horse and its owner Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) in a pivotal time in their lives. With her parents both recently deceased, Penny is given control of the farm with her broker (Dylan Baker) after years of being a housewife to her husband (Dylan Walsh) and four children. Having been raised in the intricacies of horse racing and breeding by her father (Scott Glenn), she opts to run the farm in his passing when a horse they nicknamed “Big Red” was born. As she juggles life between the farm and her home in Denver, Penny and the horse form a bond as she bets everything she has on one thing: that the newly christened Secretariat can become a winner. With a wildly dressed trainer (John Malkovich) leading the way, she has to defy the odds and try to produce the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century in 1973. It’s too bad the film falls into being an assembly line Disney underdog film about overcoming the odds as opposed to a period piece epic about the greatest race horse who ever lived.
Clocking in at about two hours, the film follows the clichéd yet effective story line of overcoming the odds to accomplish a goal. Taking place in the early 1970s, painstaking detail has been made to replicate the era in every way. Even the television broadcast of the Preakness, which Penny’s family watches at home, has been given the retro treatment as it mixes new footage of modern actors with archival footage of the race itself. The film looks sensational in this regard, giving us a look into the time period and all its quirks. Randall Wallace manages to capture the spirit of the era in moments when the film isn’t giving us all the requisite underdog moments needed to keep the film moving forward. But it does set up a wonderful finale, despite its history already being written.
When Secretariat takes on the field at Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown to win, we know what’s going to happen before the race begins because the history has already been written. Secretariat charges out at a hard pace with Sham, much faster than he’s ever raced before, and the two horses stay neck and neck for a while. Sham eventually falters and Secretariat blows the field away by 31 lengths, a record that still stands. Wallace crafts this piece using every trick in the book from a cinematography standpoint, from the hand cam to long shots, and turns what should be perfunctory into something magnificent. It’s a crowd pleaser, for sure, but there’s something majestic about it.
The problem is that this sense of majesty isn’t harnessed at all. Disney has long been able to manufacture the underdog tale and this has an assembly line feel to it. You could watch Miracle (about the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team that defeated the Soviet Union) and other similar films and get the exact same story and characters as you do in Secretariat. All they’ve done is changed the setting, but Randall Wallace does something unexpected. He taps into the heart of time period and gives us a feel for it. If anything, this film taps into something about the era for enough stretches that one would wish that they’d have focused on that and lengthened the film. With the talent assembled purely for cameo and small supporting roles you have the pieces in place but instead they are there seemingly for name only. There’s more there than on the screen and it’s unfortunate to see.
There’s a three hour epic about the greatest race horse to have lived waiting to come out of Secretariat. What we’re left with is a perfunctory two hour tale of the underdog winning the day.
Director: Randall Wallace Notable Cast: Diane Lane, Dylan Walsh, John Malkovich, Kevin Connolly, James Cromwell, Fred Thompson, Dylan Baker Writer(s): Mike Rich based in part off the novel “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion”