As the sun rose over the Belmont Stakes track in Elmont, N.Y., on June 9, 1973, horse groomer Eddie Sweat announced the world was “gonna see something you ain’t ever seen before.” He was indeed correct. On that day, the thoroughbred horse Secretariat became the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years.
Disney’s release of “Secretariat,” directed by Randall Wallace, is the most prominent horse-drama film since the release of Seabiscuit in 2003. As its tag-line reads, the film tells the “impossible true story” of Secretariat and his owner, Penny Chenery and their determination to make history on the race track.
Portrayed by Academy Award-nominated actress Diane Lane, Penny Chenery is a homemaker married to John Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) living in Denver in the early 1970’s. Denver has a beautiful grassy landscape with snow-covered mountains in the distance, an element of cinematography that contrasts nicely with the excitement of the race track. In the process of raising four children, life is rather routine for Penny until her mother dies, calling her back home to Caroline County, Va.
Back at the family farm, Penny grew involved with her father’s horse business and after personally witnessing the birth of Secretariat, starts to train him as a race horse. With the help of her father’s secretary, Margo Martindale (Elizabeth Hamm), Penny enlists trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), as well as groomer Eddie Sweat.
Malkovich’s costumes of unusually colored hats and clothes are symbolic of the uniqueness of Laurin’s training methods. His intensity and energy express his willpower to win, especially when he carries the newspaper clippings of all his losses as a trainer for motivation. Finally, jockey Thorwarth plays a character that is nothing less than the little engine that could. Although tiny, his perseverance does not hold him back from the countless injuries he endures racing.
After Secretariat was named American Horse of the Year in 1972, Penny deemed Secretariat ready to race in the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, she nor her father’s company, Meadow Stables, had the money to sponsor Secretariat. However, as powerfully depicted by Diane Lane, Penny’s determination convinces industry executive Ogden Phipps to sponsor Secretariat as she insists that Secretariat would win all three races and make history; she says in the film, “I’m that sure.”
Soon trouble struck. At the Wood Memorial, prior to the Triple Crown, Secretariat lost his first race and all his handlers started to question Penny’s convictions. After correcting a lip abscess, Penny’s convictions lent on to carry Secretariat and his team of handlers all the way to the Triple Crown, setting track records at the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
Secretariat was an icon of hope for his fans, and this film shows every detail of this iconography. At a time when people are struggling financially due to the economic crisis, the release of this film has a valuable lesson. Secretariat’s story reminds us of the still existent American dream, that anything is achievable with determination, perseverance and faith. Penny demonstrated unwavering faith in her convictions that Secretariat would be a special horse. Penny’s faith helped her make difficult decisions, conquer all obstacles, and ultimately find success.
The gospel hymn “Oh Happy Day” was played twice during the film; the lyrics “He taught me how/To fight and pray,” represent Penny’s struggles as she attempted to make history. As a result of her faith and perseverance it led to her “happy day.” These lines encapsulate the realism and inspiration depicted in “Secretariat,” elements that could certainly lead a viewer to some metaphoric type of “happy day.”