Secretariat an Alternative View to the Belmont Stakes

Secretariat (2010)

Directed by Randall Wallace

Disney, 123 mins. PG

* * *

No horse has won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 and it’s not going to happen in 2011. Who could blame a casual fan who decided to skip the June 11 Belmont Stakes and pop in the DVD of Secretariat instead? After months of being hard to secure as a rental, Secretariat is finally widely available. Is it a great movie? No, but Secretariat (1970-1989) is probably the greatest horse to ever munch oats. In 1973, Secretariat won the Triple Crown and set records in all three races. (A timekeeper’s error robbed the horse of his deserved record in the Preakness.) I can still recall watching Secretariat destroy the field in the Belmont in what may be the most thorough domination of a peer group in professional sports history. It was like Bob Feller facing Little League hitters.

Secretariat the movie tells the story of this remarkable animal and of the Cherney family that owned him, thanks to a bad choice by Ogden Phipps, who shared rights to the offspring of sire Bold Ruler. (Cherney and Phipps yearly tossed a coin for first choice; Phipps won and bet on the wrong horse!) This is a Disney movie, so you know that sentimentality and melodrama will reign, just as you also know that everyone will be straight-teethed, scrubbed, and airbrushed. You could eat off the floor of the horse barns in this film and even mud-covered jockeys look fresh as a daisy. Like most Disney films, it’s also predictable that the American Dream will triumph and that critiques of it will dissolve in the face of shucks-gee whiz wholesomeness. Check out this film’s needless and ridiculous subplot of Penny Cherney Tweedy’s counterculture-wannabe daughter (pop singer A. J. Michalka as a hippie designed by L’Oreal). It’s the worst depiction of the 1960s since Selling Woodstock. You may also have some trouble choking down the performance of Nelsan Ellis as black stable hand Eddie Sweat, who sashays around Penny with wide eyes and a broad smile that border on Stepin’ Fetchit territory. And a few of the scenes between Penny and Secretariat might make you think you’ve accidentally downloaded Dr. Doolittle.

Luckily the actors transcend the PG (for Perfectly Gentile) writing and add the illusion of script depth. Diane Lane plays Penny Tweedy and does a credible job as a woman recovering her girlhood feistiness, thanks to an emergent feminist movement, birth family trauma, and contact with enough chauvinist piggies to open a bacon factory. John Malkovich spouts execrable French as trainer Lucien Laurin, but he’s wicked fun as a swishy misanthrope with an unfortunate wardrobe. Also turning in good performances are Otto Thorwarth as jockey Ron Turcotte, and Margo Martindale as Cherney family secretary Miss Ham, who gave the big red horse his name.

But you can forget all the human actors, because that big red horse is definitely the star of the film. Disney has always excelled in big build-ups to crowning (literally in this case) moments. The horse racing sequences are excellent, even when they were exaggerated. (No horse could make up the deficit in which director Randall Wallace placed Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby.) Wallace puts us at the edge of out seats when the gates open, which is quite a feat because we already know that Secretariat is going to win. My vote for best actor goes to Trolley Boy, the horse discovered by Hollywood in a Secretariat look-alike contest. Call it the best doppelganger performance since Jamie Foxx morphed into Ray Charles.

This is a flawed and predictable film, but a fine way to wile away two hours. Those of you old enough to remember Secretariat will be transported back in time. And for those of you too young, t’is a shame; I doubt his likes will come again.

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