"Secretariat:" Seeing is believing


Baltimore Sun reporter Sandra McKee has covered the Preakness for 30 years. She recently saw "Secretariat." Here are her thoughts about the movie.

Horse movies -- the good ones -- tell stories about heart, love and achievement. It's a formula that has been successful for generations -- from Al Jolson's "Big Boy" in 1930 to "Secretariat," which will be released next month.

There are many fans who believe "A Day at the Races," the 1937 comedy starring The Marx Brothers -- Groucho, Chico and Harpo -- is the best movie about horse racing ever made. It's the story in which the trio struggles to help keep a sanitarium open with the help of a misfit racehorse. It's slapstick. It's fun. It has little to do with horses or racing.

But there is no denying it brings joyful laughter.

When I was growing up, I got the same satisfaction in the more serious 1944 production of "National Velvet." The movie starred a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown and Mickey Rooney. It's the story of a young girl who works with a hired hand to turn a horse named Pie into a Grand National competitor that runs to glory with Velvet as his jockey.

So exciting to a little girl who dreamed daily of waking up on Christmas morning or her birthday to find a horse tied to the pear tree in her backyard. That dream never came true, but years later I did get to photograph the real Grand National in Liverpool, England, for the now defunct United Press International and Pie did come to mind.

But the best horse stories are the real stories. The ones you just can't imagine would be true. They seem too good to be true. They're like fairy tales, really, but more amazing than most things dreamed up in imagination.

"Seabiscuit," the 2003 hit and the 1949 version starring Shirley Temple that includes documenary footage of the real Seabiscuit's races, is a perfect example. It's the true story of the undersized -- one might say pint-sized -- horse whose success uplifted the entire country during the Great Depression. If Seabiscuit could win, couldn't everybody?

"Hildalgo," though primarily a vehicle for Viggo Mortensen fresh off his success as Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was not a huge box office smash. But it is another wonderful, true horse story that hit the movie screens in 2004. It told the 1890s tale of an ex-pony express rider, Frank Hopkins, and his formerly wild colt who went to Arabia to compete in the longest horse race in the world. Together they overcame the desert, deception and malice to win.

And now, the latest proof of "truth is better than fiction" comes in the form of "Secretariat," to be released Oct. 8.

"Secretariat" is the quintessential horse movie. It has everything. The heart, the love, the achievement -- and the story that's too good to be true.

It has the strong competitor, Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner who inspired the story. The strong benefactor, his owner Penny Chenery, who believed in him enough to risk not only the family horse farm, but her marriage and family, as well.

Like all good horse movies, this one carries a life lesson. Chenery and her family come through it all stronger, just as Secretariat does.

While the movie's writers take some liberties with the story, there was no rewrite on the tale's incredible happy ending, "Secretariat" is definitely for the optimist in each of us.

To be in horse racing a person by nature has to be an optimist. Having covered the sport for a few years now, I can say I've never met a pessimist who owns, trains or rides a race horse. To be in the business a person has to believe the best is going to happen: how else to overlook all the hazards on the road to bringing a foal eventually into the winner's circle?

The night I saw the preview, it inspired the entire audience to break into spontaneous applause three times in appreciation of the big red colt's achievements. The most amazing of those being Secretariat's 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, a performance still believed to be the greatest horse-racing performance of all time, and is usually listed among the Top 100 sports performances of all time by any athlete.

The big red colt, by the way, is played by five big red colts. Yes it evidently took five horses to play the part. Four of them Thoroughbreds and the other a quarter horse.

"However," said Chip Namias, president of Athlete & Event Sports Public Relations in Santa Monica, Calif., "there were two primary 'star' horses. One was Trolley Boy, who was the winner of the 2008 Secretariat Look-a-Like Contest at the Secretariat Festival. The other was Longshot Max, who was one of the submissions from the public from the Secretariat.com casting call.

"Every day on the set, they had to painstakingly paint the real Secretariat's three distinctive white "socks" and the facial white stripe and star on each of the horses."

Namias didn't say how Trolley Boy and Longshot Max could be Secretariat "Look-a-likes" and need so much makeup. Only in Hollywood!

One of the nicest things, though, about the film is not only the photography that brings you eye-to-eye with the horse, but the fact that while everyone may not know the back story that makes this movie engaging, almost everyone knows Secretariat's racing history. What that means is there is no anxiety here.

When Penny Chenery (aka Penny Tweedy), played by Diane Lane, looks out in her pasture and sees Secretariat, there are no worries for this movie's audience. The real Penny Chenery probably felt her heart skip a few beats as she looked at him, understanding that at any instant in the field or along the road to the Triple Crown her horse could be injured or worse. But that didn't stop her from so confidently promising her investors a Triple Crown: "Are you that stubborn?" she is asked. "I'm that right," she replies.

Nearly everyone knows Secretariat's destiny. There are no missteps. There is no heartbreak. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

It's a nice touch, when the real Penny Chenery is revealed to be part of the crowd in the Belmont scene.

And the only bone to pick, at least from the casual entertainment side, comes at the very end, when the movie is over, but the story is continued on screen with captions relating what happened to Secretariat and the people around Secretariat.

The big red horse died young for a stallion in the fall of 1989, when he developed laminitis, a now familiar, devastating ailment known to many beyond the horse world since 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro died from it eight months after breaking his leg at the start of the Preakness.

What wasn't mentioned about Secretariat, however, was that after he died an autopsy revealed his heart to be bigger than normal. William Nack, writing for Sports Illustrated at the time -- and the author of the book, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," the book this movie is based on --wrote about his outsized heart.

This is how he described it for the magazine:

"The colt came to it [The Belmont Stakes] with more than the winds of history at his back. Secretariat was a prodigious eater -- he was devouring 15 quarts of oats a day during his Triple Crown season -- and he needed extremely hard, fast workouts to burn this off and keep him fit. He was a morning whirlwind. Working out eight days before the Belmont, he bounded a mile in a sensational 1:34[4/5] and galloped out nine furlongs in 1:48[3/5], stakes-race time. Clockers were checking their watches with each other.

"What was going on here? The definitive answer would not come until 16 years later, on the day Secretariat died, when Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, removed the animal's heart while performing the necropsy. Normal in all other ways, Secretariat's heart was about twice the size of the normal horse's pump and a third larger than any equine heart Swerczek had ever seen. 'We were all shocked,' he said."

In fact, Secretariat's heart weighed close to 22 pounds, while the average Thoroughbred heart weighs 9 pounds. Secretariat's heart is the largest Thoroughbred heart on record..

Given so much was made of the horse's huge heart during the movie -- and it was clearly on display during his 31-length victory in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont -- it seems odd that such a detail, reported by Nack in Sports Illustrated at the time and remembered for how incredible a fact it was more than 20 years after I had read it, was not mentioned at the end of this movie.

It would have been one more unbelievable detail in an unbelievable but true story, which is what horse-racing movies based on truth are all about.

-- Sandra McKee

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