Take your family to the races: Disney’s ‘Secretariat’

UPDATE ‘Secretariat’ 2011: Enjoy this story by Editor David Crumm about the real Secretariat, Penny Chenery and the movie. Now, ‘Secretariat’ is available via Amazon at a discount (link below).

Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery in Disney’s “Secretariat.”I met Secretariat as a journalist for the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader in the early 1980s.

For a while in the heady 1970s, every American was buzzing about the Triple Crown—even Americans who rarely followed horse racing. In 1973, Secretariat spectacularly pulled off the triple feat after a 25-year drought. (Citation had done it in 1948.) Then, as if lightening was striking again and again, Seattle Slew did it in 1977 and Affirmed pulled it off in 1978. Three years later, I was reporting for the Herald-Leader and caught up with the 11-year-old Secretariat at the gorgeous Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.

I previewed the Disney film earlier this week and can tell you this: Despite what you’ll see in the movie when it opens today, Secretariat said nothing meaningful to me on my sunny afternoon wandering among the miles of wooden fences at Claiborne Farm. Don’t misunderstand my comment: The horse doesn’t “talk” in any audible way in this film. But there are long scenes in which Diane Lane, who plays real-life Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, looks deeply into the big horse’s eyes and reports that she has communicated meaningfully. As a mere ink-stained journalist, I got no such response from the horse affectionately called “Big Red.” I was impressed to stand near this amazing animal for a while. I couldn’t exactly read his thoughts, but he did seem pleased in his semi-retirement.

In the packed screening where I previewed the film this week, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People grinned and exchanged words of praise as they made their way out of theater after nearly two hours.

What struck me was: Wow! This is a family movie with mature themes that easily will engage adults. It may sound cliche, but “people of all ages” will enjoy this film—even though we all know the ending. In fact, I can’t imagine how Disney got a PG rating on this film—perhaps because we see a horse giving birth and, at one point, we see a horse relieving itself. The humans in the film are remarkably well behaved for horse people. As a journalist covering central Kentucky for a couple of years, I can tell you: Horse people know how to let “blue” words fly on occasion! But in the Disney version? They’ve all got G-rated tongues, even in moments of stress or fury.

Why is this well-known story so stirring on the big screen? Two reasons …

The real Penny Chenery and real trainer Lucien Laurin with the real Secretariat.Diane Lane adapts herself so completely to the role of Penny Chenery that some viewers may barely recognize the actress. This isn’t a film about feminism per se, but it is a story of one tough, smart woman who made the choice of straining her family pretty much to the breaking point—as she courageously took on one of the most iron-clad old boys’ networks anywhere in American life. I was fascinated to see Disney so eagerly celebrating this particular story for family viewing.

The second reason is: There’s a lot of pure moviemaking talent in the final editing of this story. Even though we all know that Secretariat won the Triple Crown, I can guarantee your heart will be racing, too, as you watch the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont recreated in this film—right down to Secretariat’s famous three white socks and lots of other historically accurate touches.

How fast was Secretariat? At the Belmont, he ran more than 37 miles an hour for a sustained distance of a mile and a half—an accomplishment thought impossible until Secretariat set the record. And that record stands to this day.

How big a “deal” was this horse historically? Is this just Disney studios rewriting history (as Disney has freely done with lots of other stories)? In this case, Secretariat truly was the wonder horse depicted in the film.

Back in the 1970s, it seemed that one horse after another might be this powerful and this consistent. But, since 1978, no other horse has won the Triple Crown. When ESPN looked back over the 20th century and listed the “100 greatest athletes,” Secretariat ranked 35 on the list—the highest of any athlete who wasn’t human. (Horses “Man o’ War” ranked 84 and “Citation” ranked 97.)

This weekend: Take your family to the races!

Care to read more?

There is a website for Secretariat, the horse, which has a lot of interesting background information and photos—and news about the ongoing Secretariat Fan Club.

Of course, Disney also has a website for Secretariat the movie.

You can buy a combo set, of “Secretariat” (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) from Amazon at a discount now. OR, you can order just the DVD of “Secretariat” at an even lower cost from Amazon.

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