A Disney-fied true story built around one about the world’s greatest racehorses, “Secretariat” focuses on the steed’s steel-magnolia owner who muscled her way into the male-dominated world of track racing in the 1970s.
Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, a Denver mom and housewife who returns to her Kentucky childhood home to run her late father’s horse-breeding business, betting the farm-—literally—on the finish-line success of her budding-superstar thoroughbred.
If you follow horse racing at all, you’re probably already familiar with the legendary Secretariat, who in 1973 became the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years, setting records that still stand today in two of the three race events.
How much drama and emotion you find in this story will depend, I suspect, on how you feel about horse racing itself. If you thrill to the clatter of the starting gate, the thunder of the hoof beats, crazy Kentucky Derby hats and the tension of the high financial stakes on the line, you’ll likely find it a stirring drama.
On the other hand, if you care little for the sport or frown on the ethics of breeding any animal for the purpose of pushing it to its limit—and sometimes beyond—strictly for the pleasure of spectators, you might not find it quite so enthralling.
And you might also wonder about the recurring use of an Old Testament passage, and a ’70s gospel-pop hit (“O Happy Day”), to put its message of oat-fueled, genetically engineered triumph in a glorified, sanctioned-by-God context that some may find theologically thin and spiritually schmaltzy.
Lane is a solid anchor for the cast, which also includes John Malkovich as Secretariat’s colorful French-Canadian trainer (“He dresses like Super Fly,” as another character describes him, referring to the ‘70s movie about a flamboyant drug dealer). The usually dependable Scott Glen is, for some reason, totally put out to pasture as Penny’s father. He has only a couple of muttered lines and spends all of his screen time in a groggy stupor before finally kicking the bucket.
In a Hollywood climate where true family movies are few and far between, “Secretariat” gallops along without any hints of sex, violence, objectionable language or other messy unpleasantries.
No one fights or gets shot, nothing blows up, and Penny’s squeaky-clean family even survives the rift caused by her spending most of her time in Kentucky, or on the race circuit, while life trots on for hubby and kids back in Colorado.
And a sideline plot, about Penny’s teenage daughter’s budding activism, sugarcoats the unrest and upheaval the era. Young men were dying in a controversial war, college campuses were erupting in protest, and racial tensions were boiling.
But against the bucolic, bluegrass-state background of “Secretariat,” Penny Chenery was shaking up the old-boy establishment by raising racehorses.