“Secretariat”
 
            We all know how this movie is going to end before we walk into the theater.  Those of us who remember the racehorse’s run for the Triple Crown in 1973 are also aware that the unusual feat of winning America’s three most prestigious horse races in the same year hasn’t been accomplished since.  But this movie isn’t really about the horse so much as it is about the woman behind the horse.
            Penny Chenery ( Diane Lane ) grew up on a horse-breeding farm in Kentucky , alongside all the other patrician families who live in the rarified world of trainers, groomers, pasturing, arranged breeding, and maintaining precise track of lineage.  (This in itself is no small enterprise, as the famous Secretariat, after his racing career was over, sired 600 foals.)  Her father Ogden (Scott Glenn) was the unquestioned patriarch of the family farm, and Penny moved off to Colorado to marry a lawyer, while her brother became an economics professor at Harvard.  Penny was happily raising four children with her husband in Denver when she suddenly received word that her mother had died, and when she went home for the funeral, she realized just how badly her father had deteriorated.  Between the grief and the dementia, he was hardly functioning at all.
            Penny was pressured to just sell the farm and get what she could for the couple of mares remaining who might have any value on the open market.  Her brother thought that would be a fine idea, because then the money would be available to put their father in a nursing home.  But Penny was unwilling to sell the farm, or to force her father to abandon the family homestead.  She simply took charge.  And did the best she could to commute regularly back to Denver to still be part of her “other life”---but she missed a lot of teacher conferences and school plays, and had only grudging support from her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh), who was beginning to feel abandoned, himself.
            Penny begins by firing the trainer whom she suspected of trying to arrange horse trades more favorable to his other employer.  When she sets out to hire another one, she finds Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who says he’s quit, he’s retired, he’s not interested any more, but she can see that he plays a really lousy game of golf, and thinks she perceives in him some of the competitive fire that’s burning within her.  She then hires a jockey on crutches who’s just been injured after falling in a race, but has the reputation of being the most aggressive.  She winds up with the colt of destiny only by luck of a coin toss.  There was an agreement her father had made with another breeder that the winner of a coin flip would get his choice of the offspring of two of the best-bred mares.  She lost the coin flip, but got the right colt:  the perfect combination of speed and stamina in the blood line, and something else, too:  a horse with a fiery competitive spirit.              Legend has it that he stood up immediately after being born.  And here’s where the “horse whisperer” stuff gets kind of subjective.  Supposedly, she could see in him the will to win that she ascribed to herself (or maybe she was simply projecting?).  Supposedly, Secretariat not only loved to race, he also developed a preferred strategy:  start out last, and then pass everybody on the outside.  (But how much of that was the jockey’s preferred method of managing a race?)  Supposedly, he also enjoyed mugging for the cameras (because he turned his head toward the flash?).  Well, there’s no question that he had the heart of a champion.  After winning The Preakness and The Kentucky Derby by coming from behind the pack, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes, the last race of the Triple Crown, by surging from the starting gate, and won going away by an unprecedented 31 lengths (a feat also never since duplicated). 
            Yes, we all know what’s going to happen before we ever enter the theater.  But it’s still fun to see brought to life on the big screen the story of perhaps the greatest thoroughbred of them all, and the people who helped set the stage for his one magnificent year of 1973.
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas