Just as it is required for all Kentuckians to know about all things Clooney, so it is also almost a requirement that they know about all things horse, or at least all those who won the Derby. But Big Red, named Secretariat by the secretary of Penny’s father, was far more than just a Derby winner. Secretariat was that rarest of all horses— a triple crown winner, and not just a triple crown winner. Secretariat won the Belmont by an impossible 31 lengths, still holding the fast time for the Belmont by two seconds, which in horse racing is a lot. This is a record that despite all the advances in breeding and training and feeding horses, that has stood for close to 40 years now. For 2.24 seconds the world stood still and watched one of the most dominating and beautiful performances of any athlete in any sport. Improbably, it was a horse that lost the Wood Memorial who won the Triple Crown—- going away, and blowing away the competition.
Disney has now made a fine movie about this whole drama, starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich (as the French speaking flamboyant trainer, Lucien Lauren). Both of these actors are likely to get Oscar nominations for their performances, and deservedly so. It is a beautiful film with good acting, which zips along almost as fast as Secretariat— finishing in 1 hour and 56 minutes.
This movie is suitable for all creatures great and small, and is notable for its lack of :1) violence, 2) sex, 3) bad language, proving that none of those are necessary at all to make a good movie. Though Secretariat’s story is a heart-warming one for Kentuckians, in fact Big Red was a Virginia horse, born and raised, and his owner, now living in Colorado, was a Virginia girl as well. It is an old southern story– Parents who own farm and horses both die. What to do with both? Loyal daughter who loves horses goes home to set the house in order and up for sale, and then improbably decides that the best way to pay the taxes and keep the estate, is to produce a Triple Crown Winner. Turning down offers of 6-7 million when the horse showed promise and then won the Derby (a sum which would have paid off all the debt), Penny bravely sticks to her guns, knowing that if the horse wins the Triple Crown, the stud fees alone will secure everyone and everything for life. Secretariat gives new meaning to the word ‘stud’ as he brought in double digit millions in stud fees, in large part because this horse ran an astounding 37 miles an horse in the Belmont for a mile and a half. Shoot, that’s better than my college buddy’s old Pinto could do over the same distance.
But the marvel in this story is not the outcome, which everyone knows, but the how come. Why would Penny do this, spending months away from her family in Denver? Why would Penny risk everything, including dragging her whole family into bankruptcy, on what seemed like the longest of long shots after the Wood Memorial? It has to do with faith, and actually it has to do with God. And it also has to do with an African American trainer who played ‘O Happy Day (When Jesus walked)’ when things looked dark and bleak. I will not spoil the poignancy of this story, not least of which is about a woman overcoming male prejudice and baiting to accomplish something remarkable. I will just say that though America loves a rags to riches story, few such stories are based in reality. This one, amazingly enough, is, and its well worth an afternoon at the theater with your family. As the old spiritual goes, this story demonstrates— “Over my head. I hear music in the air…. There must be a God…….somewhere”