“Secretariat” movie is lacking a lot of heart

Oct 11th, 2010 | By TrackSide View | Category: Articles

Ron Correll
Senior columnist

It’s too bad that “Hollywood” has to get involved when Hollywood makes a movie. And the movie “Secretariat” is a case in point. I guess they (producers, writers and directors) think a movie won’t sell unless it is “Hollywooded-up.”

Most of the “drama” that takes place in the movie never happened, folks. In the credits at the end it says that the movie was based on Bill Nack’s “Secretariat – The Making of a Champion.” If that were the case the movie would have been a lot more factual from start to finish.

I know, this is not supposed to be a documentary, but “Secretariat” the movie could have done better by Secretariat the horse. The only thing that remotely resembles fact is that there was a horse named Secretariat and he did win the Triple Crown in 1973.

The “back drama” was totally contrived by Disney. Yes, Penny Chenery’s (Tweedy) parents died and something had to be done to pay estate taxes upon her father’s death, but it was a far cry from how it was presented in the movie.

The syndication of Secretariat for $6.08 million took only four days to accomplish and Ogden Phipps bought the first share of the 32 for the $190,000 offer price. Seth Hancock, the syndicator for Claiborne Farm, actually turned away a couple of people who were interest because there were no shares left.

There was no performance clause in the syndication contract. The only clause dealt with the horse’s fertility. Chenery did not have to keep winning races to keep the horse. The contract allowed Chenery to race Secretariat through his three-year-old year.

The Phipps/Chenery coin toss had been going on for years and it was blown out of context in the movie. If you want to know how Chenery really ended up with the yet unnamed Secretariat, read Nack’s book, chapter 6, pages 28-45.

Penny Chenery’s involvement with Meadow Stud/Stable goes back into the 1960s, not the year Secretariat was born (1970). And speaking of the birth, sorry, Penny Chenery wasn’t there. Neither was her son, Lucien Laurin or Eddie Sweet. Those present were Meadow Stud manager Howard Gentry, a friend Raymond Wood and Meadow Stud night watchman Bob Southworth. Once again, it’s in the book.

Penny Chenery campaigned Riva Ridge in 1972 and he won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year. It’s too bad the movie didn’t at least mention Riva Ridge. Chenery has said many times that Riva Ridge was her horse and Secretariat belonged to the people.

Ron Turcotte rode Riva Ridge in 1972 and that’s how he got the ride on Secretariat. He didn’t meet Penny Chenery at a restaurant hobbling in on a broken leg.

Frank “Pancho” Martin, trainer of Sham, and Phipps were portrayed as “evil people” in the movie, but every hero needs a villain, and Secretariat got two. Martin was a respected trainer and never would have been involved in the “press conference” scenes before the races. He had too much respect for the sport to make it look like the World Wrestling Federation. And like I said earlier, Phipps was a Secretariat supporter from day one.

Lucien Laurin is probably rolling over in his grave at the way he was portrayed. He also trained Riva Ridge the year before and he was not the flamboyant character seen in the movie.

Director Randall Wallace may have wanted to try out some new camera angles to give moviegoers a more in-the-race affect, but he would have been much better off if he would have used actually race footage from the three major races. If you want to see something that will send chills up and down your spine watch the real 1973 Belmont Stakes. It doesn’t need any help in making it more exciting.

The song, “Oh Happy Day,” which played over the Belmont stretch run in the movie, added nothing to the excitement and left me saying, “Are you kidding?”

I know I’m a racing purist and the average moviegoer will think that I’m nitpicking, but when you have the real thing, just tell the story the way happened. It was a magical time and I prefer to remember it the way it was, not the way Disney presented it.

“Secretariat” the movie won’t harm horse racing. It might even bring in some younger fans with the in-your-face attempt at drama. But what the movie didn’t show or even try to explain was why Secretariat was so great. And that is something that comes from the heart.

10 Comments to ““Secretariat” movie is lacking a lot of heart”

  1. John Martin says:

    I also thought Disney took too much dramatic license. I was eight years old when Secretariat ran the three triple crown races. I watched all three. I remember that Belmont the way I remember Neil Armstrong taking that first step on the moon. What I also remembered was Penny Tweedy owned Riva Ridge. I kept waiting for some mention of that great horse that I had rooted for but it never came. I found the historical inaccuracies distracting. If you knew about Riva Ridge it was hard to buy the drama around the finances. I also think they made a huge mistake not going with the race call.

  2. karen smith says:

    I took my 7 yr. old grandson and the first movie for my then 2 yr. old to this movie and they cheered ans clapped and wwhen a2 yr. old can say they are off and run run big red its a great movie and they requesteda copy for christmas and view it over and over, it a great movie!!!!!

  3. Tiger Lily says:

    What, that movie was great! I loved the story line and the story line made the movie exciting. In the movie you always got a villain in this case a competitor or adversary that is what makes life exciting. Movie catch the essence of what happens in a true life movie not a blow by blow life depiction. That’s why it is based on a true story not the actual story. It is about the meaning. I remember the races on ABC but I was young and may not have appreciated the history I was a witness too. The movie gave us a up-close look behind the scenes of what it took to achieve what that horse did which was love, care, training and believing in something beyond what you could see a thing called faith. But the actual footage amazing! Seeing the movie made me want to research the horse, the people and the era of horse racing. You go Disney!!!

  4. Bret Sanders says:

    I love Big Red. There will never be another one like him. The movie was good but the real truth would have made it a great movie. I hope in twenty-five years they will do a movie about Red that will show who and what he really was.

  5. Ron Correll says:

    Sorry Nick, but where I come from, historically accurate is what is meaningful. But today people don’t care about that as long as it is ‘fun.’ And it was not inspring to me. Go to youtube and search for the 1973 Belmont Stakes video. That is inspring.

    Ron Correll

  6. Nick Bujanovich says:

    I didn’t care if the movie was historically accurate. It was fun and inspiring movie with a message for all. Get a life.

  7. Peter Lazar says:

    First, I agree, see the youtube video library on Big Red. The historical collection of all his races is chilling to watch. No movie including this does justice. He was sick for two races he lost, and lost two others due to jockey errors, but when healthy he would explode past every other horse and was known to actually tease the other horses before blowing them away. Most notable was his ability TWICE to blow away older horses, a thing three year olds just never did, including horses like Citation and ManOWar.

    Listen to the race callers in the videos to get a sense of the bursts of speed. they would say things like “…Secretariat is going for the lead and I mean Right Now”, “…Running like a tremendous machine,” And after teasing Kennedy Road for most of the 1 5/8 mile Woodbine, Secretariat explodes away after having already run roughly 1.25 mile and the announcer suddenly sees the rapid separation occur and says “…And there he goes, there goes secretariat!” The visible way in which he could at any time turn on speed no other horse could match, from front to back was his notable characteristic.

    Really chilling is also Nack’s text description of the Belmont in his book, even more shocking than the video for all the things transpiring that you can not tell from the video. Read the book and fall in love with the horse.

    I agree with several of the reviewer’s points but the overall flaver seem a little more negative than I would consider correct. I read the book first then watched the movie, but I did not go into the movie expecting them to duplicate any more than Lord of the Rings or Prince Caspian did. The two GLARING inconsistencies as if consistency were critical to an enjoyable movie: 1) the performance clause totally changed the focus of the tension. The syndicate members SHARED the tension of the big risk they were taking, including Meadow Stables to the 1/32 extent. Meadow farm was of the hook by that point and more interested in accomplishing something historic, and was taking chances with essentially other peoples money, the syndicates interest, not theirs, so much. As a side note, after winning the Woodbine, his last race, secretariat syndication was worth 15 times the horse’s 1200 lb weight in gold! big gamble big payoff 2) Failure to mention Riva Ridge was more than a shame, it totally missed the real tension. At the time of the syndication, Riva Ridge was thought the proven keeper having won 2/3 triple crown races in 1972, and Secretariat was the cipher with a great 2 year old performance but not yet a proven 3 yr old, to weigh against selling, I think the book suggested, as many as 18 mares, virtually destroying the livestock base to save the plot of land. Eventually, Riva Ridge did not prove to be a race winner in 1973 but was a fair stallion. All along, even after secretariat had beaten Riva Ridge head to head and a slate of horses all older than himself, Lauren and Tweedy LOVED truly loved Riva Ridge and, Lauren per the book contended Riva was the better horse, to which Turcotte said per the book if I paraphrase: name the distance and the bet. In the end Meadow had two notable stallions for breeding.

    One other inconsistency: it was Lauren’s son who quit as Meadows trainer leaving them in the lurch I think to go to work for more money. No mention of firing the trainer. Lucien ame in to take his son’s place.

    Some points on which I disagree though I could be mistaken:

    I missed the idea that Penny was involved from 1960, and if she was, it does not seem like it was more than family visits and learning from her father, no way did Mr. Chenery let her mess with the business. she did in fact have a Business degree from Smith, I think, and was not nearly so merely a housewife with no preparation.

    There was a definite sense after the Belmont by almost everyone there that something far beyond the ability of any horse had been witnessed. At least one witness recorded on the ESPN video explicitly said “it was as if God wispered in his ear GO, and he went” Regarding Oh Happy Day, of course there is no relevance for a Christian to Jesus and sins when talking about a horse (no horses go to heaven.) However, the movie preamble from Job and Oh happy day do fit based on the aforementioned sentiment following the Belmont as follows. To God fearing people, whether or not Christian, it is as per Romans Chapter 2: What can be seen of God’s Divine Nature and Creative Power can be seen in what has been created, so that those who do not believe are without excuse.” In part, a way of saying believers see God in places unbelievers do not. This is as true of Astronomers as horse race watchers. So, Job is complaining to God as if God was an equal, actually a serious offense for a those adhering to the Middle East religions, and God points to what can be seen in creation to distinguish to Job his place. The movie very fittingly points to Job Chapter 39 where God asks Job, basically, if he can’t see God’s creative power in the nature of a great horse. So, at the Belmont, everyone is beyond shock and a great many literally in tears. You betcha, those who are inclined to be religious anyway saw a marvelous work of creation unfold. It is a fact that many felt that way, which we remotely in time do not get, and the joyful SOUND totally fits what people felt. Focus on the tenor of the music and the words Oh Happy Day, not the rest of the song text. The double entendre is that EVERYONE who knew the horse knew he LOVED to run. OH HAPPY DAY Indeed! In the entire triple crown, I think Turcotte once put the end of his crop in front of Secretariat where he could see it. there by contrast is Pincay beating the hades out of Sham every race, and secretariat did it all with out the first urging or strategy input from Turcotte. Can you imagine breaking all world records on dirt from 1 3/16 through 1 5/8 mile in one race with no competitor within a 1/16 mile against which to pace/race, no driving incentive, and no wipping or exhorting by the Jockey? The Happy Day for the HORSE in running that day is the point, too. (Secretariat went so fast, in slowing down after the finish, he unofficially beat Swap’s 1 5/8 mile record covering the 1/8 mile past the finish in 13+ seconds)

    • Lisa says:

      Thank you Mr. Lazar for writing a very detailed and informative comment. I have yet to read Nack’s book, but am so looking forward to it.

  8. craig says:

    Ron, I totally agree with you about ‘Oh Happy Day’ playing in the stretch run. It was actually at that moment when I thought to myself “Disney has NO BUSINESS making a historical sports movie and it shows!!” It absolutely took me out of the moment and nearly ruined the entire movie.

    Otherwise, I agree with you about stretching the truth, but I guess as a movie fan I’m also OK with it.

  9. Catherine Mivelaz says:

    Dear Mr. Correll,

    I understand your anger/frustration at how Secretariat was depicted in Disney’s movie; however, sitting in the audience yesterday afternoon with people mostly my age (56) there were no dry eyes to be found and emotional clapping of hands throughout the movie. The excitement of this time in history is what I believe Disney was trying to achieve, and if I may say so, they did it brilliantly. If they had simply done a documentary, as you suggest, I doubt it would have played out the same way.

    I “grew up” at the racetrack with my Father, and actually hated the fact that he spent so much time and money there. Yet, watching this movie brought to me the excitement and joy he must have felt during those days gone by and for that, I thank Disney. They gave me something invaluable, giving me back moments in time I thought were lost forever. Yours was a personal journey and so was mine…only different.

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