Good News Friday sponsored by Liberation Farm: Secretariat Is a Success

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:48am

Riva Ridge was omitted from the movie. Lucien Laurin was not nearly as eccentric as he was written. Pancho Martin was not nearly as over-the-top. Ogden Phipps never made a hard offer for Secretariat after his 2-year-old season. When and where the jockeys were wearing silks was not consistent with reality. The script leads the audience to believe Sham won the 1973 Wood Memorial, not Angle Light. And a myriad of other details, large and small, were misrepresented or flat out wrong.

Yet for the purposes of Secretariat, none of this matters. Very few people in the packed house at the Baxter Avenue Theater in Louisville noticed the inaccuracies and judging from the loud ovation at the end of the film, even fewer cared.

This is a moving story of a woman who tests her own limits to save her family's horse farm. Cliché? Of course it is. Secretariat is a sports movie above all else and this genre falls in love with the predictable underdog storyline nearly every time. To expect anything more than that would be like expecting Keith Olbermann to keynote the Republican National Convention.

So the litmus test for Secretariat should not be whether it's historically accurate or twisted into a cliché pretzel, but instead whether the story of Penny Chenery and her super horse “Big Red” was emotionally gripping enough to bring the masses to see a movie about horse racing. With this as the measure, Disney's newest movie is a big success.

We begin in the Tweedy (Ms. Chenery's married name) home around the kitchen table with the typical family chaos. The family is made up of a politically active daughter, two rambunctious boys, another daughter we learn almost nothing about throughout the movie and an attorney father who is already treating his wife like she's more his errand girl than the love of his life. All of this changes with a phone call giving her the news of her recently deceased mother and we are instantly whisked off to Meadow Farm in Virginia. Here we meet the rest of the Chenery clan including an very frail Mr. Chenery, obviously well past his prime.

At the end of the funeral, Bull Hancock, played with a soothing ease by Fred Thompson, and his son Seth pull Penny aside to see what she plans to do with the farm. When she says she needs a new trainer, Hancock suggests she meet with retired trainer Lucien Laurin played with the classic zeal and eccentricity that John Malkovich has built a career on.

It's when Malkovich first steps on the screen that Secretariat kicks into overdrive. The veteran character actor makes every scene he touches infinitely better and the chemistry between him and Diane Lane (Chenery) is engaging and real. Lane herself is no slouch, capturing the inner strength that is Chenery's hallmark, but is sometimes bogged down by an inadequate script that too often takes the easy road out of tough situations.
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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie is Otto Thorwarth who, despite no previous acting experience, pulls off the fiery grit of Ron Turcotte so expertly that he is sure to earn much critical praise. Word is that his role was actually beefed up part of the way through the shooting of the movie because the producers were so pleasantly surprised with the chops of this jockey turned screen actor.

Racing fans will enjoy discovering actors playing well-known racing figures surrounding the story of Secretariat including Bill Nack, Andy Beyer, Ogden Phipps and Eddie Sweat (played with a simple nobility by Nelsan Ellis who also happens to be a former classmate of mine at Illinois State University). Even Mike Battaglia makes a cameo, running a press conference between the connections of Secrtariat and Sham.

But nothing in this movie compares to the emotion of the racing scenes. This is where director Randall Wallace gets it most right. The power of these animals, the speed of their endeavor and the sound of their hooves sent chills down my spine and made my entire body tingle with excitement. If every race could be captured with this expertise, our industry would be fighting new fans off with a stick.

And it's because of these racing scenes that from an industry perspective, Secretariat is a huge hit. It's hard to imagine anyone not being open to going to the racetrack after the emotional pull of these scenes. Now it's incumbent on the industry to capitalize on what will surely be a box office hit.

The Paulick Report's Scott Jagow interviewed some audience members last night to get their take on the movie. Below are the two video interviews, including the family of Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson.


  • Garrett Redmond

    If the movie does induce anyone to try a visit to a track (doubtful), the reality of the surroundings will reveal the movie portrayed a different world. The public will quickly see the movie is no more than “based on a true story”.

  • Bernie in Ocala

    The best thing about the movie is it gives us a chance to see “Handsome Hank” Goldberg on an even bigger screen. Who better to sell the sport to a young, intelligent, hip audience than he? I just hope it leads to bigger, juicier roles for “The Hammer.” We can’t get enough of him.

  • tinky

    The hype surrounding this film, including at this site, is absurd. Does anyone seriously believe that its success or failure at the box office will have the lightest impact on the industry? Do you believe that it has the potential to impact the industry in any meaningful way, Ray?

    Let’s stick to substantive issues, of which the industry has countless remaining to sort out…

  • tinky

    “lightest” should have read “slightest”

  • Sally in Indy

    Uhhhh, yes, I do expect this film to persuade people to visit their local tracks. Why on earth shouldn’t a major motion picture be considered an excellent and effective marketing tool? – just as effective, if not moreso, than anything the industry is putting out there in the form of marketing right now. And once people have seen the real thing up close and personal, well, why wouldn’t they want to come back? The tracks I patronize regularly – in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois – are outstanding entertainment venues for the entire family.

    The trick, Tinky, will be to keep them away from the consistently and unbelievably negative industry insiders and so-called fans who prefer to wallow in their misery instead of proactively supporting their sport and introducing others to its incredible thrills.

  • Cris

    Some people here are missing the point. If a nice middle class lady with kids can get involved in horse racing and win by having the best horse ever in horse racing, and Disney of all companies can make a movie parents can take their little kids to this can help make racing more acceptable. No mob connections, no drug dealers, no one gets beat up or put in jail, no potty mouth. How can it hurt? There is no accident this happens just before Breeders Cup. Wonder how many little kids will trick or treat in Blue and White this month?

  • East Coast

    Saw the movie Tuesday. While it was less than historically correct and had little to do with real life at the track; it had the audience cheering and applauding…and that flat out is good for our industry.

    Having worked with Mrs. Chenery and several of the others depicted in the film, it was nice to see folks in the sport being portraited positively. There wereseveral youngsters in the audience and they were the most enthusiastic in the crowd.

    No doubt this helps us.

    Let’s see if we can put on as good a show for ourselves at the BC.

  • Steve

    Agree that any movie which positively portrays horse racing is good for the industry. And maybe little kids will talk their parents into taking them to the track. Unfortunately, despite high hopes, the popular movie Seabiscuit did little or nothing to impact on-track attendance.

    My beef with the film is that Seattle Slew was a real life underdog story so they could’ve made a film about him if they truly believe that’s the only plot line that will bring people into the theaters for a sports movie.

    Secretariat in real life was a great story of the relentless pursuit of perfection that finally paid off. It’s called perseverance and IMO that’s also a good enough story line to sell tickets and inspire people.

  • Trappeddownontherail

    Encouraged by the comments and reviews, I am striving mightily to overcome Dreamer-induced insomnia and screaming nightmares to convince myself that facts don’t really matter in fiction and go see it.

  • Mike in Aventura

    Is the heiress to an established, 2,800-acre stud farm in Virginia; one that produced champions Hill Prince, First Landing and Cicada; a family that could afford a season to the greatest stallion of his era, really to be considered “middle class?” A “housewife?”
    Plenty of feel-good and/or entertaining stories exist in this industry, all based in reality.
    Wouldn’t the telling of those stories be just as compelling, introducing the sport to an outside world while maintaining its credibility to us cynical old-timers?

  • tinky


    I’m afraid that you’re missing the point. No one is suggesting that free publicity is a bad thing, nor that the movie won’t bring some newcomers to racetracks. But the industry is deeply flawed in many ways, most of which self-inflicted, and unless those flaws are seriously addressed, no form of marketing will ever have a meaningful impact.

    we’ve seen decades of concerts at tracks, at yet they have proven rather conclusively that bringing neophytes in for a day at the races doesn’t create any significant (if any) gains in handle. There is little point in tempting fresh faces to racetracks if drug abuse, high takeouts, and poor quality racing are par for the course.

    Fix the game, and people will be attracted to it. As it stands now, it’s tantamount to luring a new customer to a restaurant with some sort of promotion, only to feed them bad food and treat them to poor service.

  • East Coast

    Let’s face reality….we all know there are many great stories to be told…but only a few ever are.

    This movie isn’t about racing…it’s a feel good movie about a woman who empowered herself (it fits the time and is what sells0. This is a Disney feel good movie…that’s all it is. Racing is simply the backdrop.

    Kind of the same roll we’re in when folks come to the Casino and wander into the grandstand for a few minutes.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, if next time they come and hang out a little longer.

  • Laurie

    Movies *have* to condense and fudge facts in order to avoid exceeding two hours and budget (i.e., the Belmont filmed at Keeneland). Also, the people behind “The Rookie” also were responsible for Secretariat….and in “The Rookie”, a *major* part of the story was Quaid’s character (sorry, can’t remember the name right now) had a rough relationship with his father. The movie portrayed “Dad” telling his son *not* to go back to baseball….really made “Dad” a real SOB. However, this story line was *far* from the truth– “Dad” encouraged his son to try again.

    Based on what happened with “The Rookie”, I can deal with some of the “streamlined” items in Secretariat. :-)

  • I. Davis

    Agree w/#8, Steve – Seattle Slew is one of the best Thoroughbreds of my lifetime. He was the only undefeated Triple Crown winner….a blue-collar priced horse (sold for $17KL), that was supposedly so ugly as a yearling, he was named Baby Huie…and his owners came from the NW….in the lumberjack business, and partnered w/a vet and his wife to purchase Slew. It’s an awesome story…..and Slew won time after time, wire to wire, or just about. What’s even better, is his real life trainer, Billy Turner, is still alive and still training in NY!! Furthermore, there’s a lot to say about Slew after he was retired to the breeding shed. So many of the great horses on North American tracks today are from Slew bloodlines!! Unfortunately, Secretariat was a disappointment in the breeding shed. So why not have a movie about a horse that’s similar to “the little engine that could”….an underdog at the early stages of his career that blossomed into greatness, race after race. Also, some of the story lines would be awesome…like when Slew was late arriving in the paddock for the Belmont…interesting tale that goes w/that. Also, how about the Taylors being so eager to show off their TC winner on the West Coast, that they over-rule Turner and try it so shortly after the grueling TC races and of course, Slew lost the race?? Lots of ups and downs and turns w/the story of Slew…he was close to death at one time..another dramatic scene that would capture the imagination of the audience. Also, Slew was the only TC winner to defeat another TC winner, Affirmed, the following year……..great stuff for a movie that would surely sell tix at the box office.

    The Life and Legend of Seattle Slew deserves to be seen on the big screen…and it probably would encourage the dream some have of owning a blue-collar horse that makes it to the very top of the game, and even today, has his bloodline racing the best of races throughout the country. A movie about the legendary Slew would be a winner, no doubt about it.

  • joe

    A few big horses bring horse fans to the track the day they run.

    If some industry insiders count on this movie to promote or save racing they are nuts. Racing needs to clean itself if it wants to be able to properly promote it to potential fans, owners and corporate sponsors. However, industry insiders continue to fight against vital changes such as lowering the Bute levels, never mind banning all drugs on race day as it must do.

    Racing can’t have poor horses like Burna Dettes being shamelessly raced to death year around, coast to coast without the perps being shamed, severely punished and banned, then hope that a Disney fantasy will magically bring enough new guys with full wallets to the races, turn them into serious gamblers whose losses (aside of slots welfare) will contribute to fund purses and keep the game going with a steady flow of owners and horses. The magic kingdom cannot bail-out racing as long as racing refuses to help itself.

  • John Califano

    I saw the movie this morning and I came away very disappointed. Why?

    This was a very beautiful, touching and wonderful film until the filmakers, IMO, really blew the last scene with the music “Oh happy days.” This was a movie that I went to see alone and halfway through it felt that I wanted to bring a lady to see it, to see her be moved and swept away by the film’s beauty, drama, and power. The opening scene was extremely exquisite and powerful, the other gate scenes were breathtaking to, the sound of the horse’s breathing, the close up shots into the equine eyes, their feet pawing at the ground, absolutely captured my soul; and the action shots were almost ‘otherwordly.’ It was wonderful.

    Then suddenly, during the last scene, which depicted Secretariat’s greatest moment, just as I’m listening to Penny, just as the drama is again building, and as we’re all waiting breathlessly for Secretariat to come around the turn, all alone in glory, the dream was abruptly interrupted and halted by that ridiculous music, totally out of place to the moment, the scene and the mood. And for me, this grandiose drama turned almost into a comical farce. I am flabbergasted. What were these people thinking when they shot that last scene? They destroyed the entire wonder of this movie and its story. I’ve never seen a worse climax. It was a terrible anticlimax.

    I am so frustrated, because the movie, particularly Diane Lane’s performance, and the photography, were so wonderful, that this film should have sustained its beauty from beginning to end, with the last scene at least as good if not better than the first. Whatever factual errors the movie contained, didn’t matter, because I was swept away by what the filmakers had thus far produced; that is, until the end. I should have been crying. I wasn’t.

  • john greathouse

    the same people
    are here dwelling on the negative day after day
    go enjoy the movie and shut the hell up
    oh! and go racing and enjoy it!

  • francine

    Just came back from the movie – it was a BIG FLAT disappointment, even after bracing myself for the Disney schmaltz.
    What made Seabiscuit so compelling was Laura Hildebrandt’s volumes of research.
    I got more of a feel for Secretariat, his connections and his story from Steve Haskin’s two articles than I did sitting through an hour and a half what felt like National Velvet redux.
    The Oh Happy Day music didn’t interrupt anything because the story leading up to the Belmont never got off the ground. It was just another punctuation of how out of touch this movie was with its subject matter.
    (Laffit Pincay is portrayed as some kind of mean-spirited hack jockey who doesn’t even have an accent)
    I appreciate the need for embellishment, but movies like Apollo 13 that are painstaking about authenticity are the ones that resonate with the audience
    After chosing the wrong foal in the coin toss, Diane (penny) remarks that Ogden Phipps should have named his foal “Missed Opportunity”.
    That would be a fitting name for this movie.

  • tinky

    This is classic:

    John Greathouse, who is part of a family that has been breeding, selling and racing horses for decades, is telling people who are raising alarm bells about the many deep problems which plague the industry, to “shut the hell up”.

    That’s precisely what he and his ilk have been thinking, and in some cases saying for the last 30 or so years as the industry has devolved into its current, sad state. How has that advice worked out, John, given where we are now?

    Forget about the drugs, the breeding to sell rather than to race, the radically declining quality of racing at major tracks across the country, the atrocious customer service, etc. If everyone would just quite whining and enjoy themselves, everything will be fine, right?

    Thanks for underscoring just how detached people in power in the industry can be from the reality of the situation.

  • Rotund Haberdasher

    Some of these fans (????) remind me of the grandma who takes her little grandson to the beach. The little boy is playing in the sand when a big wave comes in and washes him out to sea where he disappears. Lifeguards swim out, miraculously find him under water, bring back back to shore and parimedics work on him for a long time, pumping the water out of his lungs and eventually reviving him.

    They turn to the grandmother and say “we saved your precious grandson.”

    Grandma says “He had a hat!”

    You want the perfect Secretariat movie then go make it yourself.

  • Noelle

    You naysers – you’re so wrong. So wrong. – America is waiting to fall in love with a HORSE, Any American horsel. An American horse. Another superhorse like Secretariat maybe, but any super, amazing, notable horse will do.

  • Noelle

    Has any of you dopes followed Sea The Stars?

  • John Califano

    Greathouse, don’t tell me or whomever you’re addressing, to “shut the hell up!” I have a right to my opinion, without rude remarks from someone like you. And in case you don’t know it, which you obviously don’t, I rarely give negative remarks. I try to be positive. But this is a movie, and I am giving my critique from the perspective of a movie goer who loves racing, and wanted the movie about a great racehorse to maintain its beauty all the way through. And in my opinion, the ending, with that kind of music, sucked! And it spoiled the experience for me.

    Period. End of paragraph.

  • Garrett Redmond

    Delighted that, this time around, it is someone other than me telling Greathouse to “put a sock in it”.

  • There are so many great horse stories out there,(Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Seattle Slew,John Henry,Lisa’s Booby Hatch). I would be happy if a racing movie came out every year. But The Natural didn’t make me like baseball so these movies may not help our industry either.What will help is getting young people involved. How many present day fans got started when Dad took them to the track as a kid? We should have a national ” Take your child to the Track” Day. As for this movie’s flaws, I refer all curmudgeons to another great story about a gift horse.

  • joe c.

    If America is waiting to fall for a horse, it should be-should have been-Zenyatta. I still contend that only real champions, on the track and often-to build a following-will build a following for racing. Again, a colt who could have built a great 4-year old campaign, Quality Road, will be retired at three. I hope “Secretariat” does something for racing; “Seabiscuit” in the end did little, despite similar high hopes during what was really the year of a GREAT on track story, Funny Cide. I’ll probably see “Sec,” largely because of Diane Lane, who should have won the Oscar for “Unfaithful.” But after seeing, again, ESPN’s Sports Century of the real Secretariat yesterday, I may keep my money. Those sweet triple crown races can never be duplicated…the Preakness first turn rush…or Big Red and Sham in the Derby stretch, or the Belmont baskside.

  • joe c.

    oops, make that backside.


    there was a certain Trainer that was from CANADA…AS THE OLD TIMERS KNEW>> the best stuff came from CANADA…i was there at that track (not in canada) & asked that fellow that was a few barns away from me if he woild be kind enough to sell me alittle bit…he said NO….”I am the only one that has it & its going to stay that way” Well that the way it started & thats the end of that story from the YESTERYEAR…….”OH FOR THE YESTERYEAR”

  • My God ,Yes, Funny Cide! The real Peoples Horse. Another great story.

  • Jim C.

    The highlight of the movie is when Secretariat urinates on Andrew Beyer.

  • LJBroussard

    I’m with you, Rotund Haberdasher: “You want the perfect Secretariat movie then go make it yourself.”


  • joe

    joe c says: “I hope “Secretariat” does something for racing; “Seabiscuit” in the end did little, despite similar high hopes during what was really the year of a GREAT on track story, Funny Cide.”

    A movie cannot do much for racing even if it was a fantastic documentary about Secretariat or a movie as dedicated to accuracy as Dances with Wolves. Racing, not a movie, needs to do something for racing. We all know what needs to change but racing don’t wanna change because despite it all, it is still too fat, too arrogant and dangerously stuck to its code of silence. Some people like Mr. Greathouse would prefer that critics shut the hell up for daring to look through the cracks then tell it like it is to help stop self-destruction. So who truly cares most about the health and future of racing? The critics win by 31 lengths.

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