I remember hunkering down in front of the television every Sunday night as a youngster to watch another Disney movie about an underdog triumphing against all the odds stacked against them. Well, Disney seems intent on carrying on that sentiment in its films with its latest based on the true story of Penny Chenery, owner of the Triple Crown winner, Secretariat.
Usually I am a sucker for animal films in that they always make me cry. I went into this one expecting no different. Much to my surprise the waterworks did not happen. Not to say that it wasn't an emotional film because it was, but director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask) and writer Mike Rich (Radio, Finding Forrester) seemed determined not to allow this to become an overly sentimental film.
The year is 1969 and Colorado housewife and mother of four Penny Chenery (Diane Lane – Unfaithful, The Perfect Storm) is preparing breakfast for her family when she gets a disturbing phone call. Penny's mother has died and she and her family travel to her home state of Virginia for the funeral.
Penny's family has been involved in horse breeding for years and own a big ranch. With her mother's death and her father (Scott Glenn – The Silence of the Lambs, Training Day) in the throes of Alzheimer's Penny's Harvard professor brother, Hollis (Dylan Baker – Revolutionary Road, Spider-Man 3), and her husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh – from television's Nip/Tuck), want to sell the horses and ranch. Penny is not so sure that she wants to give up the family industry so quickly; she is definitely Daddy's girl.
After doing some research into her father's books Penny discovers that her father and the wealthiest man in the world, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell – Babe, The Queen), have made a deal that they would decide based on the toss of a coin which of the foals two mares are about to drop each would keep. Phipps wins the toss and goes for the one with the better breeding lines. This does not upset Penny as she always wanted the foal of Bold Ruler (speed) and Somethingroyal (endurance).
Showing that she is committed, Penny travels often in between her home in Colorado and Virginia in order to take care of the horse. She has hired eccentric French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich – Dangerous Liaisons, Burn After Reading) to work with the horse and top notch rider Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth). Everyone is encouraged by the fact that the horse stands very quickly after birth.
Penny is determined that the horse she, groomsman Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis – from television's Tru Blood) and her father's assistant Miss Ham (Margo Martindale – Million Dollar Baby, Dead Man Walking) all call Big Red and would race under the name of Secretariat will become the next Triple Crown winner. No matter what the risks are and who thinks she is just a silly housewife trying foolishly to be a part of the male dominated horse racing world.
Despite the fact that you know that this horse is going to win going into the film it does not take away from the drama of the story. I found myself still amazed at the spirit of the horse and his owner. The message of what can be accomplished when you believe in yourself and what you are doing surfaces again and again.
The film also gives you insight into what an athlete the horse was. Secretariat loved running, loved being in the spotlight and even seemed to recognize which horse was his competition. He would "pose" for pictures and even seemed to stare down who he identified as his top opponent. It is even alluded to the fact that what he did (win the final race and the longest one by an astonishing 31 lengths) was thought to be impossible. We see that the people around him believed he won the race by such a margin because of his courage and desire. Secretariat dominated horse racing like probably no horse before him and definitely no horse since he won the Triple Crown with astonishing ease in 1973.
The relationship between horse and owner is shown as paramount in the horse's success. Secretariat feeds off the belief in him that Penny has. He seemed to recognize that she was his only equal when it came to competitive spirit. This connection between the two is the heart of the film and what the viewer is bound to find most touching.
Don't expect this to be a history lesson or a guide to horse racing film. Its goal is to be a moving film about an underdog horse who accomplished the impossible and the woman who fought for and believed in him.
– Heart of A Champion
– 3 Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by director Randall Wallace
– Music video – AJ Michalka "It's Who You Are"