Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review: Secretariat

I recently took time out with my lovely wife to go see the new movie Secretariat: The Impossible True Story. The film is based on the excellent book of the same name written by William Nack, who is played by Kevin Connolly of Entourage fame. Coming in from the small-world file, I went to high school in Virginia with Mr Nack's daughter, Emily.

The movie is thoroughly enjoyable, though not nearly the quality of
Seabiscuit, perhaps my favorite horse-centric film. Coming as it does from Disney, it is fraught with cliches, a sappy soundtrack, and tricks to make the eyes well-up at the right moments (which mine dutifully did). There is nothing particularly exceptional about the cinematography or the acting, though Diane Lane does a nice job of portraying owner Penny Tweedy with southern pluckiness and charm and John Malkovich, playing trainer Lucien Laurin, steals every scene he is in. I think where the movie falters is in trying too hard to make the story more than it is. In Seabiscuit, there was a historical perspective that mattered. The country was in a depression, horse racing was in its prime, and that scrappy little horse gave everyone hope. In Secretariat, the filmmakers attempt to do something similar with the anti-war sentiment of the 70s, but it always feels forced and ultimately takes away from the film as a whole. Similarly, there is an attempt to make this a story of the little guy making good, but in reality, this level of horse racing has always been the sport of the wealthy, so it is a little hard to connect with a protagonist who needs to syndicate her horse for close to seven million dollars to pay an inheritance tax. In the end though, none of this matters, the four-legged subject is too enthralling to worry about film critique.

Why does Secretariat captivate so? America loves the underdog, but this is not Secretariat's story. He came from exceptional bloodlines was not small like Seabiscuit (he didn't get the nickname "Big Red" for nothing). He was favored in the Derby, even after losing the Wood Memorial, and only paid out $2.20 on a two-dollar bet at the Belmont. No, the dirty little secret is that as much as we love to root for the underdog, what Americans truly love is a winner.


Secretariat was an equine freak of nature. After his death, his heart was found to be two-and-a-half times normal size and weighed 22 lbs. When he came on the scene, no horse had won the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948 and only two horses have done it since: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. But what solidifies him as the best race horse ever, and what captured the hearts of racing enthusiasts is the way in which he won: by dominating his peers. He broke a record for the Derby that had been held for 28 years. He probably did the same at the Preakness, though a malfunction of the official timer puts it in some dispute. But the Belmont win is what everyone remembers.

Winning the Triple Crown is no easy feat. Three races in five weeks, ending with the Belmont, the longest of the three at 1 1/2 miles. After pounding out wins at Churchill Downs and Pimlico it is a rare horse that is capable of turning around and winning at distance. Not only did Secretariat win, he won by 31 lengths and still holds the track record after 37 years, a feat that ESPN ranks just behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game on a list of greatest sports performances of all time. Like Michael Jordan, Secretariat is the gold standard all others will be compared against. Is Jordan the greatest? Kobe Bryant might have something to say about that. Is Secretariat? There's a big mare named Zenyatta who is 19-0 and set to finish up with an undefeated career on November 6th (do not miss this race). She may yet take the crown from Big Red. But it takes more than talent and a record to topple a legend, there has to be that extra, that "wow" factor, and Sercretariat's Belmont win oozes with wow.

The story is old, moviegoers know the outcome, yet the heart still pounds during race footage and you still want to stand up and cheer when Secretariat opens up his gigantic lead at the Belmont. There is something about horses; their athleticism, beauty, and nobility, that makes for captivating imagery.
Secretariat, despite its flaws, captivates and entertains, and is worth a look.


  1. I'm curious about the genetic "X-factor" that may have been the origin of his oversized heart. What say you, Dr. S?

  2. Great question Jamie!

    It is definitely a factor (pun intended) and illustrates the importance of the mare line in breeding. Mares with this trait on both X chromosomes are especially valued since they will pass on this trait to every foal they have. The importance of this can be seen in Sham, Secretariat's rival in his Triple Crown Run. Sham's heart came in weighing at 18 pounds, second only to Big Red's in size. It also shows in Secretariat's success as a broodmare sire and mediocre reputation in producing colts, since only his fillies would carry the x-factor. That said, it would certainly be a mistake to focus only on this aspects of a breeding program to the detriment of conformation and hoof quality.

    I think though, that in the truly great athletes there is a bigger, more ambiguous "X-factor" and that is the desire to win. I don't know if this can ever be measured or predicted, because it probably is part genetics and part environmental. Surely a bad trainer could crush this instinct rather nurture it just as bad bone would be a bad frame to carry an enormous heart.

    I heard somewhere that what separates professional human athletes from the rest of us is the inordinate time they spend practicing, not some superhuman physical qualities (though that helps). I don't think animal athletes fall too far outside these parameters; genetics are important but only part of what makes a superstar.

  3. Amen on not have a one-track mind when it comes to breeding! Rumor has it that the emphasis on speed over durability has been quite detrimental to the sport of racing in the last several decades. And then there's the AKC....naw, not tonight.

    Got curious about Somethingroyal's other offspring. According to, Secretariat had two full siblings, both mares. Sixteen half-sibs, 7 female. Given time and a database, it'd be fun to check them all out.