I recently watched the movie Secretariat. (I am aware it is eight years old). But, it had my attention from the opening scene. It begins “More than three thousand years ago a man named Job complained to God about all his troubles and the Bible tells us that God answered. Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing, he does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against his side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.” Did you know God had so much to say about a horse?
The story is carried by characters that are easy to like or not like and the tensions of loyalty vs. economics. But this story is interesting because of a horse. Not just any horse, Secretariat is likely the greatest race horse of all time. Indeed, if race times mean anything, Secretariat still holds the records for all three Triple Crown races (45 years later). Indeed, Secretariat was voted one of the top 50 athletes of the twentieth century.
The storyline includes a daughter’s love for her father and the things her father loved. It includes a coin flip to determine who gets what horse. By the way, the “loser” gets Secretariat. (Sign me up to lose my next coin flip). It includes Penny Chenery’s (played by Diane Lane) savvy at acquiring a trainer and a jockey. It includes some great lines like this one from trainer Lucien Laurin, “He lays against the back of that starting gate like he’s in a hammock in the Caribbean. And when he finally does get out of the gate, it takes him forever to find his stride.” It includes a rivalry with Pancho Martin, who worked with a pretty good horse as well. Sham was likely one of the fastest ever but spent his career chasing Secretariat. It includes a horse who loved to come out of the gate last but cross the finish line first.
Even though we know how the story goes, the movie keeps a hold on us. The Kentucky Derby followed the script. Secretariat came out of the gate slow but went on to win the race in the fastest time ever. One of my favorite characters in the movie, Eddie Sweat (played by Nelson Ellis) provided one of my favorite scenes the morning of the race. Secretariat had been struggling with a mouth abscess that kept him from eating. But the morning of the race Sweat comes out and announces “Hey Kentucky! Big old Red done ate his breakfast this morning! And you about to see something that you ain’t never even seen before!” At the end of the movie we learn that Sweat spent more time with Secretariat than any other human. Just saying, if I ever own a horse, I want Sweat to be nearby.
We cheer for Secretariat during the Preakness in the family living room as a reminder of the sacrifice and unexpected celebrity that came with owning this particular horse. But, let’s face it; this movie is always leading up to the Belmont. This is a race that is played up as being too long for Secretariat. In this race Secretariat didn’t come out of the gate last but first. Throughout this race, even loyal fans (including owner and trainer) were giving up because of the race speed. But in this race, Secretariat started fast and got faster. He averaged over 37 miles an hour for a mile and a half.
But to my favorite part, who am I kidding, probably everyone’s favorite part. The movie goes silent as we watch an empty track at the final turn. Until Diane Lane’s voice can be heard reading again words from the book of Job. “He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing, he does not shy away from the sword… He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.” This is followed by the hoof beats of a solo horse and the appearance of Secretariat who goes on to win by 31 lengths. I love when Sweat adds to the scene “There you go Red!”
Critics and staunch history buffs may not like the way some events are portrayed or that Riva Ridge, a horse owned by Chenery, trained by Lucien Laurin, and who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes just a year earlier was not even mentioned. So if you want a movie that sticks close to history, this may not be it. If you like underdogs, this may not be your movie either. Secretariat is so fast it sometimes doesn’t seem fair. But if you want to be reminded of greatness, in fact one of the greatest athletes in American history – this might be the movie for you.