“Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says ‘Aha!’
From a distance it smells the battle,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”
When you want to make a film about what racing fans call “the greatest horse ever to run” you cannot resort to the theme that informs the majority of sports film, the scorned underdog coming from be hind to upset the high and mighty. Secretariat, or “Beg Red” as many called him, came in first in 16 of his 21 races, second in three, and third in one, thus finishing in-the-money 20 out 21 races—not quite the record of an underdog. Director Randall Wallace and scriptwriters Mike Rich and William Nack solved this problem with Secretariat by shifting the emphasis from the horse to the owner, a housewife experienced in raising children and managing a household budget, not a complex business like breeding, training, and racing horses.
Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is living in Denver with her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and children when she receives the call that her mother has died. Her father (Scott Glenn), though suffering mental impairment and no longer able to manage the family horse farm, is still mentally alert enough to pass on his horse-loving wife’s gold pin of a horse and jockey when Penny comforts him at the wake. Penny sends her family back to Denver while staying to check into the business, discovering that their trainer had almost cheated the family in a horse sale that her mother had canceled. Despite his attempt to brow beat her, Penny promptly fires him.
Aided by the loyal family secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale) and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), Penny persuades the reluctant Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train the future horse, but he agrees only after she has won a prize foal in a traditional coin toss. Actually, in an earlier scene, wealthy breeder and owner Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) called “Heads,” and supposedly won the toss, making his selection from the two foals sired by Bold Ruler, an important horse of the day. This left the unborn foal of Somethingroyal, which is exactly what Penny had wanted. (She might be a housewife, but like her mother, she knows horses.)
Over the next year penny spends a good deal of time away from husband and children while she and Lucien and Eddie groom the horse for racing. After asking around about who is the toughest jockey, she hires Ron Turcotte (played by real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth), and they’re off to the races. Penny runs into a great amount of male chauvinism, especially later on from the owner of the chief rival horse Sham, who enjoys trying to put her down at a press conference. Penny is gracious, but each time demonstrates that she is not only tough, but also smart. Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, but in a race soon afterward is beat by Sham. The belligerent owner (Nestor Serrano) confidently predicts that Sham will win, because he has beaten Secretariat once and came in second at the Derby. Penny replies that she agrees with him, “Sham did come in second.” Penny risks a lot of money on the horse, with her brother wanting her to sell everything so they can pay off their father’s debts and have some money left for themselves. Husband Jack is also skeptical of her ability to fulfill her dream of racing Big Red, and resentful that she is not home very much to take care of him and the children. Both men are appalled that Penny has turned down an offer of seven million dollars for Secretariat. So there is your underdog theme, one that brings a thrill as the “housewife” emerges as triumphant off track as Big Red is on the track. There are several moments when I almost expected to hear the strains of a song popular back then, Helen Redding’s “I am Woman,” but I suppose that would have been a bit too much.
The races are photographed at such close range that if this were in 3-D, the audience would be dodging. Close-ups of pounding hoofs churning up dirt and dust; flaring nostrils; jockeys’ legs; the horses’ eyes bulging with the strain—all quick shots that make us feel as if we are in the middle of the thundering herd. Seldom do we see the long shots of the whole pack, as we do on our home TVs. Indeed, the one race, The Preakness Stakes, when we do see the race in the accustomed way, it is back in Denver where Jack and the children are watching the race in their family room. The kids, who also had not been fully supportive of their mother, are excited when the camera shows briefly Penny and Lucien in the stands. Jack also shows much more interest now, so that the filmmakers have cleverly used this scene to show the turning point in their strained relationship as the family begins to rally around Penny. An emotional highpoint is at the ball in Saratoga, site of the Belmont Stakes, when the family arrives at the ballroom, surprising Penny. As husband and Jack embrace, he apologizes, Penny showing just by her expression how much this means to her.
The story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner is thrilling, but no more so than that of his come-from-behind owner. Diane Lane is perfect as the tough-minded Penny, and John Malkovich as the fashion-impaired trainer adds a touch of comedy. Many have called the film “inspirational,” and that it is—the music adds a religious tone, and certainly having Penny quote from the Book of Job at the opening and during one of the races could makes us think that we are in church, even more so when, amusingly, we hear the song “O Happy Day” while Big Red is being washed down. Only it is not Jesus, but Eddie and Penny who are doing the washing. O happy day, when I saw such a wonderful film!
1. How does the film show what society thinks of women, and housewives in particular, at the dawn of the Women’s Movement? What else was going on in the country between 1969 and 1973?
2. The oldest Tweedy daughter is shown as a part of the Peace Movement. Some have criticized the way her involvement was humorously depicted that it trivialized this important movement. What do you think?
3. What do you think motivates Penny? Her desire to see the family horse tradition not end in failure? Her love of horses? Her strong will not to give in to men?
4. What did you think of the use of the passage from Job at the beginning of the film, and later on? How does this contribute to the sense of majesty of horses in general, and of Secretariat in particular?
5. How does not only the use of the old gospel song, but also the musical score by Nick Glennie-Smith, contribute to the film’s religious aura? Also, the scenes in which Penny and groom Eddie Sweat seem to have a special bond with the horse?
6. How did you feel after the film? How can this be seen as a parable of risk, perseverance and pluck?