This is the story of two champions. One is the most celebrated horse of the 20th century, the only non-human athlete to be included on Sport’s Illustrated’s 1999 list of the top 100 athletes of the last hundred years for achieving one of the most sought-after titles in sports, the racing triple crown, with records unbroken decades later.
The other was the housewife who won him by being on the losing side of a coin toss.
Secretariat, called “Red” by everyone but the officials and record-keepers, was a winner from his very first moments, when he astonished the small group who observed his birth by standing up more quickly than any foal they had ever seen.
His owner was a bit more of a long shot. Penny Chenery Tweedy was a housewife and full-time mother when she took over what she and her family thought of as temporary management of her ailing father’s farm. The farm was in trouble. Its one asset was the upcoming coin toss to determine which of two foals about to be born would remain with the farm, and which would go to the owner of the stud horse. Penny (Diane Lane) lost the coin toss but won the horse she wanted, bred for both speed and stamina. She called him Red.
Director Randall Wallace knows how to make an audience cheer (he wrote “Braveheart” and wrote and directed “We Were Soldiers”). By focusing on the least likely character to succeed and the challenges she faced, he adds some tension to the story. We know Secretariat is going to win, but do not know whether Penny will be able to keep him, or how her decision to take over the farm will affect her family. And he introduces us to Secretariat’s team, played by a superb supporting cast. John Malkcovich adds flair as Quebecois trainer Lucien Laurin, who “dresses like Superfly and is trying to retire.” Senator/”Law & Order” star Fred Dalton Thompson plays mentor Bull Hancock with just the right avuncular rumble. Margo Martindale, one of those know-her-face-but-don’t-know-her-name character actors, delivers the perfect combination of asperity and loyalty as the devoted assistant who came up with the name Secretariat. Newcomer Otto Thorwarth shows us why the right jockey matters so much, and “True Blood’s” Nelsan Ellis is enormously moving as the man who spent more time with the triple-crown-winner than anyone else. And what a pleasure, as always, to see the exquisite Diane Lane, at last in a role worthy of her talent and beauty. In this movie, she is the champion who gets to run the race she was born for.