As someone who usually is critical of racing movies, because of their constant inaccuracies, sappy scripts, ludicrous staging of races (excluding "Seabiscuit"), and liberties with the truth, I am going to go out on a limb and write a review preview (or is it preview review?), saying that "Secretariat" the movie is going to be right up there with "Phar Lap" and "Champions (excluding the never-ending hospital scenes)" as one of the top horse racing movies of all time.
I can't help but think back to the premiere of "Seabiscuit," at the Palace Theater in Louisville. I had mixed feelings about the movie, due to the number of times they skirted around Laura Hillenbrand's fantastic book and fabricated the truth for the sake of "Hollywood." War Admiral, 18 hands? Yes, it's trivial in the main scheme of things, but that was just one of many examples. Seabiscuit being a small horse wasn't good enough. They had to portray War Admiral, who was the same size as Seabiscuit, as this big, bad Goliath of a horse, making their confrontation equivalent of Mickey Rooney wrestling Andre the Giant.
As the audience cleared out of the theater and onto Fourth Avenue, one of the first people I saw was Penny Chenery, who proceeded to list all the things about the movie she didn't like, mainly the inaccuracies. This pan came not as a movie critic, but as the "First Lady of the Turf," who had little tolerance for such Hollywood antics. Everything she said was correct, and I knew right then and there that any movie about Secretariat would be based on accuracy, and would let racing shine through on its own and not be blinded by Hollywood's glaring spotlight.
With the Secretariat movie focusing on Penny, I am even more convinced it will be done with class, accuracy, and intelligence. It will be everything the recent Ruffian movie wasn't.
I do have to admit to a certain amount of prejudice, having had a "crush" on Diane Lane since seeing her in "A Little Romance" and then "Lonesome Dove." Don't get the wrong idea; I know she was only about 14 when she made A Little Romance. I use the word crush in an innocuous way. Yes, she is strikingly beautiful and a terrific actress, but she has the class needed to portray someone like Penny Chenery (then Penny Tweedy). And don't forget, parts of A Little Romance were filmed at Longchamp Race Course, so she was thrust into racing right from the start.
I have interviewed numerous celebrities over the years, including Bo Derek, and I am not one to get starstruck or fawn over some beautiful actress. My blasé attitude often drives my wife and daughter up the wall. But I have to admit I'm almost glad I wasn't aware that Diane Lane was in the paddock on Belmont Stakes day, because I probably would have turned into a bumbling idiot.
Getting back to the Secretariat movie, the story of Chenery is a compelling one and does not need much tweaking from Disney. Hers is the quintessential story of girl leaves old established horse farm to start her own life; girl returns to dying father to help save the farm; super horse comes along to win the Kentucky Derby, saves farm and becomes a national hero. Only this time, it was two horses who came along to save the farm. Let's not forget Riva Ridge. This is right out of the mother of all racing movies, "Kentucky," released in 1938, with Loretta Young pretty much playing Penny Chenery. Other movies with basically the same plot, such as "Glory," (this time with the Chenery character played by Margaret O'Brien) followed over the years. Only now, it's going to be a true story, with the best technical adviser anyone could ask for - Chenery herself.
The main question is how they are going to film Secretariat's races. I guess it's not too hard to stage a race where the winner wins by 31 lengths. And wait until you see the riders strangling their horses as Secretariat blows by them on the first turn of the Preakness. Will they gloss over the losses to Onion and Prove Out? Will they be able to find a skinny, lop-eared horse to play the lovable Riva Ridge? Will they dramatize the now infamous mouth abscess before the Wood Memorial that no one knew about at the time? Will we see Diane Lane get heated after the Wood Memorial loss to stablemate Angle Light? Maybe they need a turf writer (ahem) to ask her before the Kentucky Derby: "So, Penny, do have any concerns about a Bold Ruler getting a mile and a quarter?" I don't mind looking like an idiot. I've asked dumber questions than that.
Will they be able to make a horse, or horses, look like Secretariat as well as they made the equine actor/actors look like Phar Lap? What this movie also has going for it is that there are now several generations of racing fans who only know Secretariat as some Pegasus-like creature from racing folklore. To actually get a chance to see and feel what it was like to have witnessed this magnificent Thoroughbred in person, you can be sure it will bring them out in droves. And, unlike the Ruffian and Seabiscuit movies, no one gets hurt.
Of course, the technical questions still need to be answered. But at this point, I can state unequivocally that with Penny Chenery, Diane Lane, and Disney, "Secretariat" will be a smash success.