In 1973, a 3-year-old chestnut stallion made headlines across America when it became the first racehorse in 25 years to win the coveted Triple Crown, beating out the competition at the Belmont Stakes by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths. That record remains unbeaten till date, and "Secretariat" – named after the legendary horse – traces the inspirational back-story behind that historical achievement.
Formulaic from start to end, this film is nevertheless compelling because it pushes all the right emotional buttons. Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, the Denver housewife and mom, who took over her father’s horse farm in Virginia when he became too ill to run it. Despite her family’s misgivings about sticking with the loss-making ranch, she gathered a team of allies and started to pull things together. It helped that losing a coin toss to a wealthy local businessman put her in possession of two colts, the younger of which – Big Red – went on to become the great Secretariat.
The film’s key themes of standing up to opposition and hanging on to one’s dreams, are likely to appeal to those who find comfort in the familiar. There’s also a winning performance by John Malkovich who plays the eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin, whom Penny convinced to take on her horse. But the real reason why this film works is the thrilling recreation of those Triple Crown races that Secretariat dominated with such style. There is a genuine nail-biting urgency to those scenes that appear to be filmed from every conceivable angle.
Although "Secretariat" isn’t as original or inventive as 2003’s "Seabiscuit", it keeps you fascinated and engaged because it’s a true story. I’m going with three out of five of "Secretariat". Even the most cynical viewers won’t be able to resist cheering for that great horse in the final race!