Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Randall Wallace
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis
(PG, 116 min.)
"If I were young, fast, healthy, and had a lot of money and my whole sex life ahead of me, I'd retire - like Secretariat." Dick Butkus
We already know the ending. The characters and the plot are not even approaching edgy. And yes, Disney does take a few liberties with the script. But nothing can take away that heart pounding finish when we watch what is arguably the greatest race horse who ever lived eat up the track at Belmont and leave the rest of the field in his dust.
Full disclosure here. I am a horse lover from way back, when I devoured the entire Walter Farley Black Stallion series in the 4th grade. I even think the smell of horse sweat is better than any perfume and have often thought some bold entrepreneur could make a fortune bottling the stuff. I love musty old barns, the feel of fine saddle leather, and the sound of a horse munching his hay.
*My husband Gary has also caught the horse fever, as you can see if you look to the left margin, authoring Classical Horsemanship, an alphabetical guide for beginning riders wanting to train, show, or simply enjoy their horses. So I am already programmed to love this film.
And you will, too, if you ignore some snarky critics who can’t stand its ebullience. Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir about chokes on “this family friendly yearn about a nice lady and her horse,” calling it “a honey-dipped fantasy vision of the American past, loaded with uplift and glory, and scrubbed clean of multiculturalism and social discord.”
Well, maybe that’s the whole purpose of horses, horse racing in particular, and sports in general -- to get away from the chaos of palpable reality, to soar above it on the back of a half-ton beast, a drinker of the wind who takes us somewhere above it all.
Penny Chenery Tweedy, played to perfection by Diane Lane, is pretty much caught up in her day-to-day reality as a mother of four, arranging quiet client dinner parties for her lawyer husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh). The insular world of their Denver suburb dissolves in one phone call, one that calls Penny to an even more insular world, the Virginia world of thoroughbred horse breeding.
The death of her mother brings Penny back to the rolling green pastures and the whitewashed paddocks of the family farm. But the polished mahogany and glittering crystal can’t hide the red ink in the family account books, or the onset of dementia that has taken hold of her father. “He keeps asking, ‘Where is she?’” Miss Ham ((Margo Martindale) the housekeeper/secretary tells Penny. “But I don’t know if he means your momma or you.”
Director Randall Wallace sets up the meeting with her diminished dad by having Penny take off her jacket and straighten her shoulders before she enters his room. Almost like she is walking into the ring. And then we see a man in the stable telling a little girl. “It’s not whether they think we won. It’s whether we think we won.” The scene dissolves into another room, the man, now frail and aged, sits in a wheel chair only vaguely aware of his surroundings.
And that sets the structural motif of the film – selective vignettes that are rich and detailed, telling us much in brief, telescoping spurts.
Most concern Penny’s encounters with the establishment that sees her as doubly tainted – not only a woman, but a prim, sedate one in well-cut suits and chunky heels more suitable for the Rotary Club than the stables. But the prim little lady begins to chew them up and spit them out, albeit in her ladylike fashion.
She cuts her teeth on the corrupt trainer who thinks he can handle the owner’s daughter like a recalcitrant filly. His disdain for her spews out like bile until she threatens to sue him for fraud for trying to sell off three mares at half their value to another stable he represents. That earns her Bull Hancock’s respect, Fred Thompson playing her father’s old friend with the old Southern gentlemanly charm that is his trademark.
Penny also raises a few eyebrows when she saunters into his all men’s club to get his advice, and she is equally unflappable in her encounter with his recommendation for a new trainer, French Canadian Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich) who is, as Bull Hancock tells her, is trying to retire. As he slices the golf balls like Julia Child practicing on onions, she presents her case. He is not interested and Penny leaves without a fight. But she knows he is hungry, just as she is, and like clockwork, the cranky Lucien is on her doorstep the next day.
But it is her encounters with her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) and husband (Dylan Walsh) that are the most telling. Neither of them supports her series of bold or reckless decisions, as they would call them. They want her to do the sensible thing, put Daddy in a home and sell the ailing farm. But Penny has the bit in her teeth and she likes the taste of its metal, just like the stuff that she begins to realize is in her spine.
Not only will she keep the farm, commuting between Denver and Virginia, while saddling her husband with the four children at home, but she will keep and train the promising colt she calls Big Red, the one she gets on a lost coin toss in a strange ritual her father and the sire’s owner have prearranged. Big Red sets the tone early on, at his birth, rising to his feet immediately after his foaling, something neither Lucien, Penny, nor the trusted stable hand, Eddie Sweet (Nelsan Ellis) has ever witnessed before.
What we see is a tale of empowerment, not the rebellious razzle-dazzle of tie-dies and bra burnings of that era, but something akin to Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist in the velvet glove. It is the owner’s will to win as well as that of the great red thoroughbred that moves the film forward. Nothing will stop them, even when Daddy’s death and the imminent six million dollar estate taxes threaten to take the family farm away –watch out 2011 –Penny is undaunted. A particularly good scene occurs when her brother and husband sandbag her with the desperation of their situation to try to force her hand to sell the now winning colt. The stalwart family secretary, “Miss Ham,” still referred to by this formality by the always-proper Penny, stands up with her, bringing up an unknown provision of the will that shuts down their resistance.
How Penny uses her gut business acumen to somehow wrestle herself out of these straits explains why the still living Chenery, now 89 years old, says she was probably cut out to be a business CEO more than a housewife and mother.
And Secretariat was cut out to be probably the greatest race horse that ever lived, his feet hurtling down that long track at Belmont like Pegasus with invisible wings, taking us along for the ride of our lives.
*To take a look at inside Classical Horsemanship, just click on the red title underneath the picture to the left. You can also order it directly from Amazon at this link.
Though the Kentucky Derby, the run for the roses, still garners most of the racing glamour, the thing that distinguishes Secretariat is his legendary fame as a Triple Crown winner, winning not only the Derby, but the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes as well.
Only 11 horses have managed to do that, and there was a 25-year hiatus before Secretariat captured it again in 1973. Two others added their names to the list in that decade, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. No others since, so it has now been 32 years since this feat was accomplished. And no other horse has ever bested Secretariat’s Belmont record time of 2.24 flat for the 1 ½ mile track, nor his 31-length victory.
The traditional drink for the Belmont Stakes at the time of Secretariat’s win was the White Carnation, a nice combo of Schnapps, vodka, orange juice and a dash of cream.
Or maybe you’d like the Derby favorite, a Mint Julep. Here is a recipe from one of my favorite singers:
A few more movie cocktails to wet your whistle:
Aqua Velva Cocktail from Zodiac
Blue Hawaii Cocktail from A Perfect Getaway
Cold Butterbeer from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Champagne Punch from Priceless
Kryptonite Cocktails from Sperman Returns
Marauder’s Mojito from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Pomegranate Cosmopolitan Cocktail from Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Prohibitions’s White Lady from Leatherheads
Sangria and Seviche from The Shawshank Redemption
Screaming Banshee Cocktail from Avatar
Star Wars Sangria from Revenge of the Sith
Tisana, Venezuelan Party Drink from Up
Vodka Martini from Casino Royale
Vulcan Blood Cocktail from Star Trek
White Russian Cocktail from The White Countess and Salt
Chose your poison and let’s raise a glass to all those “drinkers of the wind” and the fearless men and women who ride them.
The White Carnation, A Triple Crown Cocktail
Serve in Highball Glass
Ingredients for a single serving
2 oz vodka
1/2 oz peach schnapps
2 oz orange juice
1 splash cream
Stir and pour over ice in a highball glass. Garnish with an orange slice.
Recipe Source: drinksmixer.com