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
Penny Chenery (
) grew up on a horse-breeding farm in
, 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
to marry a lawyer, while her brother became an economics professor at
Harvard. Penny was happily
raising four children with her husband in
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
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,
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.
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,