Skeptical of ‘Secretariat’

September 20, 2010

Publicity still from the film Disney film Secretariat, courtesy of Disney.


The new Disney film Secretariat tells the true story of an exceptional horse that, in 1973, won the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing—and one race in world-record time. A housewife named Penny Chenery reluctantly becomes involved in horse racing when she inherits her father’s horse farm. Chenery takes a big risk on an unproven foal, literally betting the farm on his potential. She hires a brilliant-but-quirky trainer (played by John Malkovich) to help her; we know he’s endearingly eccentric because he wears flamboyant clothes and mutters French phrases now and then. The horse goes on to win races, and that’s pretty much the story.


Secretariat 's writer, Mike Rich, apparently felt that the story was not uplifting (or preachy) enough and labored mightily to assure that one or another character issues an earnest platitude about every five minutes. Sometimes it’s about following your dreams; other times it’s about not giving up; still other times the message is doing what’s right. Perhaps Rich recognized that there wasn't really much drama or narrative arc in the real Secretariat story and decided to pad it out with pap.


Ironically, the real Secretariat story is less about courage and heart than science and genetics. Secretariat was carefully bred from champion stock, and upon autopsy it was discovered why the horse could run so fast: his heart was about two and a half times the size of a normal horse’s heart. This genetic abnormality clearly provided a physical advantage over other horses.  


Not to take anything away from Secretariat’s accomplishments (nor that of his trainers and jockeys), but I’m more impressed by a normal athlete who excels not because he or she is born physically superior, but through persistence, training, and effort. A basketball player who is nine feet tall might become a world champion despite being relatively unskilled—would that be an example of courage and heart, or merely exploiting a genetic abnormality? Seems like a fair question to me-- but of course I'm not a teenager hoping to be inspired by a Disney movie.