I am a huge fan of Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner who in 1973 gave the greatest performance of any horse in thoroughbred racing history by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. His story--his true story--is remarkable, as is the story of his owner, trainer, jockey and groom. There is enough excitement and drama in it to make several great films. "Secretariat: The Movie," however, is not a great film, and it veers from the truth in so many ways that it is impossible to catalog them all. There are some decent performances--Margo Martindale and John Malkovich in particular--but otherwise the film is pretty flat. It does effectively build the tension so each time I watch I still wonder if Secretariat is going to win. But the film's inaccuracies create a fault line right down the middle of it and do an injustice to some people, some horses and the truth itself. In typical Disney style, we get a happy ending but it's a fairy tale worthy of the Grimm's Brothers, not a true story.
In the first place, Penny Chenery does not live happily ever after in the sense that her family stays together, which the ending implies. She and John Tweedy divorce soon after Secretariat's amazing year. Secondly, Poncho Martin, Sham's trainer, is portrayed as a rude, churlish braggart, when in truth very respected and well-liked though he did have a quick temper and was very exacting--as was Lucien Laurin. Not only that, Secretariat's rival, Sham, was owned by Bull Hancock and raised at Claiborne Farm. Seth Hancock helped Penny to sell breeding rights to Secretariat at the same time his own horse, Sham, was vying to beat Big Red. The horse that gets no mention--also owned by Penny Chenery's father and trained by Lucien Laurin--was the great Riva Ridge. It was Riva Ridge who saved Meadow Farm, not Secretariat. Consigned to history as no more than Secretariat's stablemate, Riva Ridge won the Derby and the Belmont in 1972, with Ronnie Turcotte up top. Riva Ridge only lost the Preakness because he was hopeless running in the mud, and rain had soaked the track the day of the race. In addition, Riva Ridge was Penny Chenery's favorite of the two horses. When both the great stallions were in retirement, she would visit them at Claiborne Farms when she no longer owned either of the horses. She later recalled that when she would call out Secretariat's name, he rarely came. "He had a hundred people calling his name," she said, whereas Riva Ridge always recognized her voice. ""He had only me." I like Diane Lane a lot; her performance in "Unfaithful" with Richard Gere (who also turned in one of his best performances), deserved an Oscar; she was nominated. But in Secretariat, her portrayal of Penny Tweedy is B-flat. She brings no depth to the part, and one is always aware that it is Diane Lane playing Penny Chenery rather than a portrayal of Penny Chenery by Diane Lane. This is always the challenge when playing a real person, and Lane just plain misses the mark. The script isn't very good, either, which is no help. Good soundtrack is one high point and the painstakingly re-created racing scenes are truly remarkable. I also like the way the director chose to vary the way in which each race is presented. We watch the Derby and the Belmont from the stands, but we see the running of the Preakness on the tv along with Penny Chenery's family in Colorado. This shows how amazing it was from their perspective to see their unexceptional-seeming Mom on tv, doing something only men had done before. It's an entertaining family picture, but no more. Both Penny Chenery and Secretariat deserved better.