Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Secretariat’: The Greatest Who Ever Lived

September 18, 2020 Updated: September 18, 2020

PG | | Biography, Drama, Family | 8 October 2010 (USA)

We enjoy tried-and-true food recipes, but we for some reason enjoy complaining about longstanding, successful film formulas. “It’s sooo formulaic!” How come you never hear that regarding an impeccably cooked steak? Time-tested film formulas are just as tasty. One such tasty movie would be Disney’s “Secretariat,” a standard sports-formula film about the most phenomenal race horse of all time, and his owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane).

woman pets horse in "Sectariat"
Diane Lane, who plays Penny Chenery, standing with one of the five horse actors portraying Secretariat, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

In 1973, the peerless Secretariat won the horse-racing Triple Crown, which includes the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. It’s a feat more or less akin to Usain Bolt going to the Oympics and winning the 100 yard dash, the 880, and the marathon. It hadn’t been done in a quarter century, and that superhorse set jaw-dropping records that stand to this day.

Jockey riding horse in "Secretariat"
Actual jockey Otto Thorwarth playing Ronnie Turcotte, riding one of the five horse actors portraying Secretariat, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The Horse

Secretariat, a chestnut thoroughbred stallion who went by the nickname “Big Red,” was an animal athlete without peer. (The only other horse in his league in history was Man o’ War, of the 1920s, who, interestingly, was another big chestnut nicknamed “Big Red.”) Secretariat had a highly charismatic, unique, and amusing personality, similar in many ways to one of his human contemporaries—Muhammad Ali. Both of them were the greatest of all time, and both of them knew it.

Secretariat liked to strut up to the starting gate, imperiously staring down not only rival horses but also, hilariously, their jockeys. He knew exactly what was going on, and loved the competition. Then, being the quintessential closer of all time, he’d lounge at the rear of the stall, come out of the gate like he just woke up, drop to dead last in the pack, have a coffee, smoke a cigar, read the newspaper, look at his watch, and smirk, “Oh, shoot, look at that. I probably oughta get going.”

Thoroughbreds leave starting gate in "Secretariat"
Horses out of the starting gate at Churchill Downs (Secretariat, 2nd L) in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

He’d then hit full afterburner (it’s a jet metaphor now) and smoke the entire field of world-class competitors. And I mean smoke. Afterward, he’d saunter into the Winner’s Circle and—knowing full well what a camera was for—start posing for pictures.

6 people, 1 horse covered with rose garland in "Secretariat"
(2nd L–R) Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, and John Malkovich in the Winner’s Circle in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The Owner

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), a classic, early 1970s, plaid-slacks-wearing, stay-at-home Denver housewife, was raising four kids. When her mom died, Penny went to Virginia to take care of her dad (Scott Glenn) and see about the family stables. As opposed to her brother (Dylan Baker), she tentatively wanted to keep Meadow Stable going out of a sense of nostalgia.

family rejoices in front of TV in "Secretariat"
(L–R) Kate Tweedy (AJ Michalka), Chris Tweedy (Sean Michael Cunningham), Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), John Tweedy (Jacob Rhodes), and Sarah Tweedy (Carissa Capobianco) cheer their mom’s horse on, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Then, baby Secretariat was born and Penny’s plans—after she sensed a powerful bond with the little red colt with the white star on his forehead and three white socks—changed from a whim to an ironclad obsession. In an unheard-of foreshadowing of greatness, little Big Red stands up almost immediately after being born.

woman pets horse in "Sectariat"
Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

At the film’s outset, we learn that Penny lost a traditional coin-toss to her dad’s long-term rival, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), regarding who’d get the first pick of the two offspring produced by Phipps’s stallion, Bold Ruler, and Chenery’s mare.

Penny, displaying a keen horse sense and deep intuition about bloodlines and where the ball (of racing talent) would drop on the roulette wheel, knew which horse Phipps would pass on. Phipps, to his credit, later acknowledged he got burned by an inexperienced housewife clearly smarter than himself.

The Trainer, et al

Using that same, all-that-glitters-is-not-gold instinct, Penny picks flamboyant, dandified (“He dresses like a pimp!”) Québécois trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train Big Red. Malkovich’s mugging bag-of-tricks is brought in for comic relief, and while his performance lowers the film’s quality by bringing a slightly jangling whiff of bad taste, it still works just fine.

man and woman yelling in "Secretariat"
Diane Lane and John Malkovich as owner and trainer, cheering their horse, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Bringing up the rear of Penny’s entourage of unsung and underdog heroes are the tough-as-nails Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) as the trainer and groomer tuned into the soul of his horse, and the steadfast Ms. Ham (Margo Martindale) as Penny’s personal assistant of 35 years, who was responsible for naming Secretariat. 

four people watch horse being born in "Secretariat"
(L–R) Jacob Rhodes, Diane Lane, John Malkovich, and Nelsan Ellis watching the birth of Big Red in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

While much is made of Penny’s challenging, in satisfying fashion, 1960s-type misogynistic snide remarks from the good old boy club of thoroughbred racing, “Secretariat” is at its best when it keeps the focus on its subject: the buildup to Secretariat’s stunning, unbelievable, never-occurred-before-or-since, 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.

Secretariat is ranked No. 35 in ESPN’s 1999 Top Athletes of the 20th Century, the only nonhuman athlete on that list. Formulaic sports film? This one’ll have you on your feet cheering Big Red on—guaranteed.

horses on the track in "Secretariat"
Secretariat (C) getting ready to make Sham eat 31 lengths’ worth of dust in the most astounding horse-racing win in history, in “Secretariat.” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

‘Secretariat’
Director: Randall Wallace
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn
Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2010
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch