‘Secretariat’–a movie about what one woman, and one horse–can do

Elena Pelletier


Elena Pelletier

SAN DIEGO — It was a cloudy, rainy day here in San Diego. Unusual, yes. What to do on a Sunday afternoon. What else – go to the movies. What to see? A documentary – Waiting for Superman. The story of the disintegration of our public school system. No. It was already a dreary day. Red starring Bruce Willis? Maybe. Wait! What about Secretariat”? Oh yes! I knew the outcome. But I wanted to feel good on this gloomy day.

Disney’s Secretariat is the true story of the race horse that many consider the greatest of all time. Secretariat was winner of the Triple Crown in 1973. This is not just the story of the horse, but actually focuses on Penny Chenery Tweety (Diane Lane).  She took over the running of her father’s thoroughbred racing operation and horse breeding business after he became ill and incapacitated, eventually passing away in 1973, never seeing his horse do the impossible.

The story follows the history of this giant of an athelete (ESPN listed Secretariat 35th of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, the highest of three non-humans on the list (the other two were also racehorses: Man o’ War at 84th and Citation at 97th), and the determination of a woman who was “just a housewife” and how she became the guiding light and strength of spirit that allowed Secretariat to become an extraordinary champion.

Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery Tweety, (who makes a cameo appearance in the film at age 88), is happily raising her family of four in 1968 along with husband Jack, a lawyer, in Denver, Colorado, when she receives an upsetting telephone call – her mother has passed away. She and her family race back to Virginia to be with her father Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn) and tp attend her mother’s funeral. Her father’s age and loss of his wife have incapacitated him. Penny’s brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) and her husband Jack want the farm sold to pay off many of the debts the farm has incurred lately. Penny will have nothing to do with that. Later we learn that in a legal document witnessed by his loyal, longtime secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), her father gave control of the farm to Hollis, but he gave control of the horses to Penny and she is determined to stay in the thoroughbred business.

Secretariat is a fine film, well-acted and directed, and worth seeing even on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Diane Lane is wonderful as Penny Chenery. She made me believe she was Penny. And John Malkovich – well, what can I say about Malkovich. He always puts his entire self into a part. Some might say that he overplayed his part, but he made it so enjoyable that you don’t mind. And he does it without uttering the “F” word once! And there’s the small but important character of Secretariat’s handler, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis). We see clearly how much he loves this great horse and you’re with him because you love the horse too.

The film, directed by Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers), follows the difficulties Penny has with keeping the horses, being taken seriously as a horse owner, and finding the right person to train “Big Red” as Secretariat was known. She asks one of her father’s best friends, Bull Hancock (played by former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson) for advice. He strongly recommends she hire Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) who is busy trying to “retire.” At first, Laurin is not receptive to her offer but after realizing golf is not for him, he becomes Secretariat’s trainer. A difficult man at best, he is remarkable not only because he “dresses like Superfly” (although Secretariat jockey, Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) says Laurin was conservative in his dress), but his training skills were the perfect match for creating a Triple Crown winner.

Secretariat does not have the overall depth of the 2003 Seabiscuit. Some have criticized it for its lack of grittiness. But this movie’s honesty comes from the strength of each of its characters, even if it is more of a suggestion than what actually happened. The film shows how one woman can make history by just sticking to her guns and not backing down. It is rated PG. Bring the family. Show the kids how one person can stand up to the powers that be.

Pelletier is advertising director for the Summit