Fact And Fiction: Reality And Embellishment In Favorite Racing Films

by | 11.23.2016 | 12:45pm
The story of Secretariat was made into a feature film in 2010

It isn't hard to ruffle feathers among horseplayers and racing fans; they argue about which horse is most likely to win a race, which issues the industry should be most concerned to solve, and who should be Horse of the Year. Get them going on movies, though, and you may well discover even deeper rifts between them. There are those who immortalize Let It Ride, but couldn't stomach Dreamer; those who adored Seabiscuit, but were appalled by Disney's version of Secretariat's life story. (Then there are people like me, who never tire of The Black Stallion, no matter how unrealistic its storyline was.)

The more often I return to favorite racing films, I wonder more about how each movie came together. I also wonder how much of each storyline is real, and how much got the Hollywood sparkle treatment, enhanced or fabricated for extra drama.

At the recent Thoroughbred Owners Conference, a few influential people surrounding Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and 50-1 gathered to share their thoughts on racing stories brought to the big screen in a panel discussion titled Racehorses in Hollywood.

Moderator Nick Clooney's favorite question for each panelist was whether the movie was totally accurate to the real-life story it professed to tell. The prevailing answer was: not particularly.

“No,” said Katie Chenery Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat owner Penny Chenery Tweedy. “Most people who know horses will know that they left out a few things. One of them was Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before Secretariat. And of course we talked to the director and screenwriter and said, 'Where's Riva Ridge?' and he said, 'You can't have two high points in the same movie. You can't win the Kentucky Derby two years in a row and have people really excited.' And of course, that's true.”

Disney's Secretariat was never meant to be a documentary, Tweedy said, and Penny Chenery knew that when she agreed to let the studio make it. Many things were reasonably true to life (although sharp eyes will notice Keeneland masquerading as Belmont Park, and horsemen still wince during a scene where Secretariat is ground-tied while his humans have a water fight around him). Tweedy was portrayed as the hippie rebel of the family, which was accurate in her view. It was actually a bit awkward for her to attend college as a political activist whose family was a big part of the Sport of Kings; at first, she admitted she didn't tell friends at school she was part of the Tweedy clan who owned the famous Big Red running for trophies on the East Coast.

Chenery, played by Diane Lane in the movie, is portrayed as having a horse whisperer type of relationship with Secretariat. Katie Chenery Tweedy said in truth, her mother didn't have that kind of connection with the colt, but she did have it with another horse.

“She was very close to Riva, because Riva was the one who saved the farm,” said Tweedy. “She always said Riva was her horse and Secretariat was America's horse. So even though she loved Secretariat, I think the bond was not quite as strong as they show in the movie, but she had that bond with Riva.”

Other great movie moments that may have seemed like fiction were based on reality, Tweedy said. Although the Lucien Laurin she knew wasn't as clownish as actor John Malkovich portrayed him, he did indeed shout at rider Ron Turcotte, “Just don't fall off!” during the stretch run of the Belmont Stakes. He also dismissed Secretariat in early training (though not as colorfully as Malkovich did in the movie).

“Lucien actually did say to Mom, 'You know, your big ol' Bold Ruler colt, he don't show me nothing,' and that was true,” said Tweedy. “Everybody had hopes, but it took a while for Secretariat to get his legs under him.”

Penny Chenery and Riva Ridge, looking radiant in the winner's circle

Penny Chenery and Riva Ridge, looking radiant in the winner's circle

Chenery had her doubts, as well – Tweedy found a farm log book in which her mother had written alongside a young Secretariat's entry: 'Lovely, but can he run?'

Laura Hillenbrand, author of best-selling book Seabiscuit said the film based upon her book didn't have as much of that Hollywood slick. She was surprised and relieved when she saw how true director Gary Ross remained to the story.

“I was told before starting the process that, as a writer, having your book made into a movie is one of the most miserable things that can happen to you,” said Hillenbrand, who emotionally distanced herself from the film project. That turned out not to be true, Hillenbrand said, adding how happy she was with the process and the final result.

“I was very impressed with moments when I'd watch an actor say words that were said to me in an interview by a 90-year-old guy.”


One of those phrases, for those who haven't read the book: George Woolf's cocky declaration to jockey Charles Kurtsinger of “So long, Charlie!” before asking Seabiscuit for a burst of speed in his match race with War Admiral. Hillenbrand spoke to a man who, as a child, sat on the rail and heard the jockeys exchange those words on the way by.

Hillenbrand made a deal with Ross for the movie rights based on a longform article she published about Seabiscuit before she had even written the book (and yes, the idea of selling rights to a story you haven't written yet is indeed as nerve-wracking as you'd think, she said). She turned down more lucrative offers from other directors because she suspected their priorities weren't rooted in producing a movie true to the book.   

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron agreed Ross' commitment to detail was incredible, which racing fans can see in the close-ups of the horse races shown in the film. McCarron had retired from racing not long before the movie began shooting and was hired to consult on the racing scenes, as well as to play Charlie Kurtsinger. Horses didn't always make it easy to keep things real, however; McCarron recalled a debacle during the filming of the stretch run of Seabiscuit's match race with War Admiral. Ross insisted jockeys not be obviously restraining or failing to ride horses when they were meant to be losing a race, so McCarron selected what he thought was the slowest dark bay/black horse in the available pool to 'lose' to Seabiscuit.

Nick Clooney, Laura Hillenbrand, and Chris McCarron

Nick Clooney, Laura Hillenbrand, and Chris McCarron

McCarron and Gary Stevens, who played jockey George Woolf in the movie, began galloping and hit their mark at the 3/16 pole. The cameras began rolling. When Stevens looked over and said his line, “So long, Charlie!”, McCarron, who was aboard 'War Admiral,' tapped his horse with his whip to make the ride looked authentic. The “slow” equine actor took off and proceeded to hit the wire a half length in front of “Seabiscuit” and Stevens.

“We go to video village and Gary's like, 'Chris, what was that?'” McCarron recalled. I said, 'I think I picked the wrong horse, but don't worry, he'll be tired this time.'”

A second take produced the same result, despite McCarron trying to hold the horse with the part of his rein that was out of camera frame.

“So long Charlie, so long Chris,” laughed McCarron. “And here comes Gary Ross, and the steam is coming out of his ears. He goes, 'I'm losing the light, my DP said I've got 45 minutes left and we can't come back tomorrow! We gotta get this done. You tell me what the heck's going on!'

“I said, 'What can I say boss? I've still got it.'”

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