Secretariat Or, “The Penny Chenery Story”

Secretariat, despite the title, is less the story of a horse and more the story of the woman behind the horse. Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) finds herself thrust into the world of horse racing after her mother dies and her ill father is unable to manage the once great Meadow Stables on his own. What is meant to be a temporary arrangement becomes long term when Big Red—or Secretariat, as he’s more well known—is born, and Chenery is unable to turn away from the challenge raising and racing a great horse presents.

It’s Chenery vs. the world in this inspirational Disney film. Backed by the likes of failed-horse-trainer-turned-professional-cynic Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and hot-tempered jockey, Bill Nack (Kevin Connolly) among others, Chenery must tough her way through the man’s world of early 70s horse racing while trying to maintain life as a mother of four.

If you’re looking for a movie about a horse and all the trials and tribulations of horse racing as a sport, Secretariat is not the film you’re looking for. Allow me to redirect you to an old favorite: Seabiscuit (2003). However as far as good films go—sport or no—Secretariat is a winner. It’s the characters surrounding the horse that really drive this film forward and give it heart.


Diane Lane gives an emotional performance as Chenery, both vulnerable and tough at all the right moments. The wear and tear of her dual role as housewife and horse owner is interesting to watch, but begins to lose steam toward the end of the film. Secretariat oozes just a little too much Disney. Granted Secretariat was an inspirational horse, and Penny Chenery an inspirational woman, but the film pushes these messages a touch too hard. Chenery gives one-too-many melodramatic “life is alright if you keep at it!” monologues—but since the message is a nice one, I can’t complain too much.

It’s Chenery’s interactions with trainer Lucien Laurin where the film not only redeems itself but strikes gold. Malkovich steals every scene he’s in with his sharp dialogue and sharper outfits—in fact, go see this movie just for Malkovich’s horribly unfashionable hats, which are practically title characters themselves. Malkovich delivers some of the funniest moments in the film with lines like, “[Secretariat] couldn’t beat a fat man encased in cement being drug backwards by a freight truck”, and he does it all in a stoic deadpan. Lane and Malkovich balance each other out well, and their on-screen chemistry is playful, relaxed, and entirely enjoyable to observe. It’s a wonder they haven’t worked together before.

When Secretariat hits the track, the film continues to impress. Director Randall Wallace really picked the right combination of grit and intensity for the cinematography and sound of the races, throwing the audience right onto Secretariat’s back in the middle of the track, mud flying, hooves pounding and all. One of the cleverest choices Wallace made in my opinion was to portray one of the races from the point of view of Chenery’s family at home in their living room. It keeps the on-the-track footage from growing tired, but without sacrificing any of the anticipation and tension the movie seeks to build through the three primary Triple Crown Races.

Throughout the film I found myself on the edge of my seat, rooting not just for the horse, but the many characters facing their own hurdles. Even the minor characters are memorable. Kevin Connolly’s fiery jockey is a pleasure on the screen, and I developed a certain soft spot for the quiet and sensitive handler, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who provides much of the nervous race-side encouragement. Secretariat is an all-around feel-good movie despite some of its flaws—the story line revolving around Chenery’s teenage daughter and her war protest activity felt out-of-place, and while it was meant to showcase Chenery’s role as a mother and not just as Secretariat’s owner, it fell flat compared to the rest of the film.

While Secretariat ought to be called “The Penny Chenery Story” to risk misleading moviegoers, it really is a compelling film for all audiences and all ages. If you leave the theater and your heart doesn’t feel at least a little fuzzy or tingly, then there’s probably something wrong with it. I would get that checked out.