Thursday, October 08, 2015

In Spite of Shortcomings, 'Secretariat' Was a Winner

"This is not about going back. This is about life being ahead of you, and you run at it! Because you never know how far you can run unless you run."

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane)

Even now, more than 40 years later, the story of Secretariat seems like the sort of thing that could only happen in Hollywood, a fairy tale.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a movie would be made about it, and that movie began showing in theaters across the country on this day in 2010. It had all the elements of an epic, beating–the–odds kind of story, a real feel–good triumph — even though it wasn't quite as much of a rags–to–riches tale as it might have appeared on the silver screen.

That does not mean it was not dramatic.

While I am sure there were parts of it that were dramatized — in fact, I know there were — "Secretariat" was the kind of history movie that I like — one that is basically true to the facts. The facts of Secretariat's story certainly were dramatic enough.

Which is why I was sorry to see that the Disney studios thought it was necessary to whip up conflict that wasn't needed. In reality, Secretariat's chief rival was a horse called Sham, and the movie portrayed Sham's trainer unfavorably — and unfairly, according to no less an authority than jockey Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown.

"[Sham's trainer] Pancho [Martin] is a wonderful person, always was," Turcotte told the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union. "I loved him, he was great to me, and it hurt me to see the way he was portrayed."

Turcotte said John Malkovich's portrayal of Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin, wasn't accurate, either. I don't think he had any complaints about Malkovich's acting, but Laurin was "a very conservative dresser," Turcotte said. He didn't wear the loud clothes that Malkovich wore in the movie.

Nor did Laurin play golf, as he was shown doing early in the movie. Turcotte said Laurin was a fisherman when he wasn't training horses.

While I'm on the topic of historical discrepancies, the movie made it seem that Sham beat Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, a Kentucky Derby prep race held two weeks before the Derby; in reality, though, a horse named Angle Light won the Wood Memorial. Sham finished second that day and Secretariat, who was found to have an abscess under his lip, finished third.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Actually, in spite of those shortcomings, I thought the movie was very good. I remember the real–life story of Secretariat's Triple Crown run being the subject of conversations in movie theater lines and at restaurants — everyone was talking about it, people knew Secretariat's name even if they didn't know anything else about horse racing — or sports, for that matter. But few knew the story of how Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane in the movie) came to own Secretariat.

She won the rights to him on the toss of a coin, which she lost but wound up winning in the end because she got Secretariat, possibly the greatest racehorse who ever lived. But Chenery's personal story was just as inspiring as Secretariat's. Taking charge of her father's horse farm after her mother's death, Chenery found herself competing in an almost exclusively male business. She did so successfully with the help of Laurin and another horse owner and breeder played by Fred Thompson.

One of the things I have observed in my life is that the stories of legends are often glossed over to the point where observers think the subject must have lived a charmed life and never had to overcome anything en route to becoming the best at whatever he or she did. That usually isn't true, of course, and it certainly wasn't true of Secretariat.

Nor was it true of Penny Chenery. But both did overcome, and the movie told that story well.

In the current political climate, it is worth taking the time to remember women who truly were pioneers, not opportunists. Pioneers have to be tough, as the nation's first black president has been learning, and they aren't apt to win many popularity contests in their chosen fields — although history does tend to look favorably upon them.

It also did a pretty good job of re–creating the Triple Crown races that put Secretariat's name firmly in the annals of horse racing. The first and third races — the Kentucky Derby in early May and the Belmont in early June — showed Penny Chenery's reaction in the stands. The Preakness, in mid–May, showed her family watching on TV from their home.

The family was with Mrs. Chenery for the '73 Belmont, which has taken on a life of its own in the last four decades, largely because of the unexpected ease with which Secretariat won the third and final jewel of the 1973 Triple Crown.

On that day, Secretariat left the field in the dust and won by an astonishing 31 lengths.

As Lane and Malkovich watched the race, there was no suspense about the winner. All Malkovich could do was shout to the jockey, "Don't fall off!"

No other advice was needed.