There are some movies that, given their subject matter, I’m disposed to like regardless of the quality of the execution. “Secretariat” is such a movie, although I’m glad to say that the execution did not disappoint. And in this case, I liked it a lot.
Sometimes you live through a golden age, and you don’t even realize it until enough years have passed to lend perspective. Such is the case with Triple Crown racing. Those of us horse racing fans who grew up in the 1970s may not have realized it at the time, but we were seeing the golden age of thoroughbred racing.
From 1969 through 1979, there was only one year when there was not a legitimate threat to win the Triple Crown. In ’69 you had Majestic Prince, and he didn’t even win Horse of the Year honors – that went to Arts and Letters who conquered the Prince at the Belmont to dash his Triple Crown dreams. In 1971 there was Canonero II, the South American horse who came out of nowhere to shock the world and take the first two legs – alas, he was undone by a leg injury in the Belmont, and limped home 4th. In ’72 there was Riva Ridge, undone only by a sloppy track at Pimlico that he couldn’t handle. In ’75 there was Foolish Pleasure, in ’76 Bold Forbes, and ’79 Spectacular Bid – all great horses that threatened, but fell just short of, the ultimate goal in racing.
And then there were the Triple Crown winners – remarkably, three in the span of five short years, when the world had not seen one since 1948, and has not seen one since. In 1977 there was the great black colt Seattle Slew, who was rarely threatened in his brilliant 3-year old campaign and made the whole thing look like a walk in the park. There was Affirmed, ridden by the legendary Steve Cauthen, who in 1978 won each Triple Crown race by shrinking margins over the almost equally great Alydar, a great colt whose only misfortune was to be born in the same year as the larger, just slightly stronger Affirmed. Their duel in the 1978 Belmont, with the two great horses battling nose-to-nose over from the top of the stretch – and the last race called by the great Chick Anderson before his untimely death – remains one of the great Triple Crown races of all time.
And then there was Secretariat.
In one’s lifetime, there can be but a handful of athletes who cross the line from excellence to legendary status – athletes who transcend their sport, and become a part of their time…our time. In my lifetime, I’d argue that there have been only five such athletes – Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods…and Secretariat.
Unless you lived through it, it is hard to imagine the excitement generated by Secretariat in the spring of 1973. It was what I would call the beginning of the cynical age in America. Our President was Richard Nixon, who on his best day was hardly what one would call an inspiring figure and who was about to become engulfed in a scandal that, a little more than a year later, would claim his presidency. The Vietnam War had – for the United States – come to an end, and the bitter aftertaste was still there. It may sound hackneyed to say it, but I really think that people were looking for heroes, and Secretariat fit the bill perfectly. He was a horse with personality – a horse who seemed to know exactly how special he was, a horse who played to the camera, a horse who demonstrated what one might call that unique American blend of confidence, just bordering on arrogance, all conducted with a wink of the eye and a smile on the face.
There can be arguments about whether Secretariat was the greatest racehorse of all time, but there can be no arguments about this – when he was on his game, as he was during those three Triple Crown races held over a period of five weeks in the spring of 1973, he was simply not beatable. And there can be no argument that his performance in the Belmont Stakes – one of the great, awe-inspiring performances in the history of any sport – was the greatest race ever run by a thoroughbred. I’ve watched it dozens of times, and still get chills at that point where – just entering the top of the stretch – Secretariat is remarkably running faster than he has for over a mile, and Chick Anderson exclaims, “he is moving like a tremendous machine!” It is one of the great sports calls of our time, and any time.
So. With material like that, all one really has to do is get out of the way, and tell the story. And “Secretariat” accomplishes that quite well. Fortunately, the horse was also surrounded during his lifetime by interesting and colorful people, including owner Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane), trainer Lucien Lauren (a great turn by John Malkovich), the groom Eddie Sweat, and others like Bull Hancock (Fred Dalton Thompson) and his son Seth. The film does a good job of establishing Chenery as a determined and steadfast woman – determined to show her brother, her husband, and the horsemen around her that she is up to the task of running a horse farm, and steadfast in her belief that with Secretariat she has a horse that will be remembered for the ages.
Diane Lane is really good in the role. I’ve liked her since 1979’s “A Little Romance,” George Roy Hill’s under-appreciated romantic comedy about two young teenagers who decide that their first kiss should be under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Even at that early age she struck me as entirely natural, and nothing in the years since has changed my estimation of her. She doesn’t get the publicity or the showy roles of some other actresses, but she never disappoints. Malkovich is great as the quirky Lauren, and the rest of the outstanding cast (which also includes the two Dylans, Baker and Walsh, and James Cromwell) are entirely believable in their roles.
But of course, the real star is Secretariat himself, and the film does a great job of capturing the excitement and the drama of what those of us who were lucky enough to be around in that memorable spring of 1973 lived through.
So if you want to feel good about things, if only for a moment, watch “Secretariat.” I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.