Randall Wallace

 I had an interesting experience yesterday when I went to another screening of Secretariat in Washington, D.C.

It was interesting because I met the director (Randall Wallace, a Virginian, who wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor and who has directed a number of films including We Were Soldiers) and I had a completely different (and better) reaction to his film. Come to find out, I wasn’t the only one.
Right out of the gate, let’s get one thing established — this movie is NOT a documentary.  It’s a feature film, not an accurate depiction of historical events.  When I first saw Secretariat about a month ago, I was very worried, maybe even nervous, about how the movie would ultimately depict our favorite son, our industry and, in some ways, ourselves. I was seated with Bill Nack, and he seemed twice as nervous since his book was the basis of the screenplay.

As a result, I was very distracted by the technical inaccuracies and the Hollywood version of various events. I was so caught up in my inspection of the details, that I didn’t fully enjoy the movie for what it is – a moving (mostly accurate) version of Big Red’s story.

When it was over, I wrote a review and I was primarily focused on the inaccuracies, the “distractions” and the way the film compressed time and space to move the story forward. I know the Belmont Ball is held at a hotel in Manhattan not at Belmont Park, but to a movie-goer in Kansas, does it really matter? Short answer: No. I understood that intellectually, but I wanted everything to be “right.” Yesterday, I let that go.

Steve Haskins at the Blood-Horse posted his review today and he seems downright upset with the historical tinkering and Hollywood stylizing.  Haskins, like Nack, saw Big Red’s history unfold right before his young eyes.

Yes, the story of Secretariat is extremely compelling to those of us involved in the industry, but Wallace set out to make a movie that would inspire and tantalize non-horse folks as well. We might be moved and thrilled by a documentary about Secretariat, but a major motion picture company looking to invest millions needs butts in the seats. Subsequently, the movie has to try to entertain a broad spectrum of people – not just racing people. I think Wallace has achieved that.

Bill Nack, Vick Harrison, Executive Secretary of the
Virginia Racing Commission and Glenn Petty

Feel free to read both reviews, but don’t get hung up on how realistic everything is or if it’s accurate to the last furlong. I did that, and I think a lot of other horse people will do the same, and, simply put, you’ll miss the point and a good bit of the fun.

First time around, I was uncomfortable with John Malcovich as Lucien Lauren. The second time around, I really enjoyed Malcovich in the role even though neither he, nor his performance, resembled the real trainer. If Wallace had depicted Lauren accurately, the film wouldn’t be as entertaining (or perhaps compelling to the “man on the street.”) The movie needed a big character to help highlight Penny and her horse and Malcovich pulls it off with glee.

Same with Pancho Martin and the unlucky Sham being cast as villains of sorts. The story needed to punctuate the “us vs. them” aspect of Secretariat’s racing career and Tweedy’s efforts to save the family farm. In order to create some dramatic tension, the rivalry had to be heightened. Remember in Seabiscuit when the 15.2 hand War Admiral turned into the 18 hand movie version? Same technique.

More importantly – and here is the crux of the matter – the first time I saw the movie I saw the flaws, but I missed the ride. And what a fun ride it is when you just let go and respond to Wallace’s work.

After the movie, I ran into Nack. The first words out of his mouth were “I enjoyed it much more that time.” Me too, I said. Now, I’m actually looking forward to seeing it yet again on Wednesday night and again still when I take my children next month.

If you “suspend your disbelief” (as Rob Banner so eloquently said it to me on the phone this a.m.) and let Wallace’s version of the story pull you in, you will be surprised at what a strong emotional reaction you can have to events for which you already know the outcome. It’s a pretty good piece of film making if you can leave your audience moved by something so predictable as this well-known piece of horse racing history. Yesterday, folks applauded when Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby and cheered out loud and wiped tears from their eyes when he predictably won the Belmont Stakes (at Keeneland).

Long story short, don’t nit-pick Secretariat like I just did in that last sentence. Don’t go in looking for an exact depiction of his two- and three-year-old racing campaigns. Don’t scoff at the depiction of Tweedy, her son John, Lauren and Eddie Sweat witnessing his birth when it was really Meadow manager Howard Gentry and the night watchman with Gentry declaring the then Little Red a “whopper.” If you can let these “flaws” go, you’ll enjoy every minute of Secretariat. All the big important stuff is right where it’s supposed to be. Don’t sweat the details.

If you can’t look past Eddie Sweat holding the reigning Horse of the Year with one hand and bathing him with the other, just see it a second time. If you accept Wallace’s version of Big Red’s reality, his movie will deliver a much more powerful punch. – Glenn Petty