Monday, October 11, 2010


I saw the movie, Secretariat, the other night. Did I like it? Yes, and no.

If I suspended my disbelief- looked at it for what it was-a Disney version of the truth and mainly about Penny Chenery- then I did enjoy the film. Especially the racing scenes.
To be honest, there was no way the movie could have lived up to my expectations.

To me,the horse, Secretariat is...beyond words.

I was strolling around the Waldenbooks in the mall, wandering up an down the aisles, trying to find something to read, and waiting for my parents to finish browsing-I must have been in elementary school, because it was before I started making others wait for me in a bookstore- when my dad brought over a book for me to look at.

"I think you would like this one."

A simple statement, but not one often made. For some reason, my parents, though proud of my reading accomplishments- reading sentences and simple books at three, writing by kindergarten- they rarely influenced my literary choices.(I do remember my mother saying I probably would not like a book I pulled from our bookshelves titled The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. I slid it back between it,s neighboring novels where it stayed for years, until I read it anyway. Loved it.)

The book my parents bought for me that night was Secretariat by Raymond Woolfe, Jr., a tome full of glorious photos of a pretty horse, a nice gift for a horse-crazy daughter. Or so I thought at the time. I didn't read the book right away, only flipped through the incredible pictures. I had never seen Secretariat run, had never watched the Kentucky Derby or Triple Crown, I didn't understand his greatness. My mother loved the beauty and tragedy of Ruffian, and, though I think she thought Secretariat was incredible, he was much too perfect for her to truly embrace. I think my mother was an unrealized horse-girl, that she felt that giddy swell in her gut whenever she saw a horse galloping. Or she liked Ruffian because she was a tragic female in a male-dominated sport.

That book began an obsession with a horse I had never seen. I wanted to go to Kentucky to visit him, and there was some talk of doing just that, but unfortunately, Secretariat was euthanized before that trip became reality. It was later, on a VHS tape, "Legends of the Triple Crown", that I finally saw excerpts from Secretariat's races, was able to watch him run, though I had seen the photos. I knew the facts, memorized from the Woolfe book and William Nack's version of the Secretariat legend Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. I have collected every other book on the subject including one about Secretariat's groom, Eddie Sweat.

Going into the movie, I repeated a mantra(borrowed from a post on a horsey discussion forum) "This. Is. Not. A. Documentary." I said it quietly when the facts of the movie were skewed, when the rules of space and time were altered to suit a 90 minute running time, and especially when common-sense horse knowledge was thrown out the window (wouldn't every girl or boy with the horse disease love to have that moment when you gaze into your mount's eye and know...everything.) It's Disney. I was mumbling a lot.

Then the horse began to run. In the Derby, the race footage almost made me feel like I was in the race. I added, through my imagination, the feeling of acceleration- Secretariat, in real life, ran every quarter of a mile faster than the last to break the record. The Preakness in the film was the actual television footage of the race. Goosebumps. He circled the field in the first turn like the other horses were standing still- he devoured the ground with his legs. And there is dispute over whether or not he broke the record there, too.

The Belmont. It's a good thing I brought tissues. I knew. After all, I can't watch the YouTube footage of any of these races without tearing up. There is a moment in the movie, during the Belmont, where there is silence. The camera shows the final turn of an empty track- the white rail, and the ridged sand. Suddenly, the horse thunders into the frame. Alone.

I wept.

There are those who believe that racing is evil. They have a point, there are many horrible stories from the nations racetracks. But no one could have ever watched that race, the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and not understood that this horse was running of his own voilition, for the sheer biological instinct to run that inhabits every horse, and, in that moment, he rejoiced in his own perfection.

In the movie there was a soundtrack of gospel music. At first, it annoyed me, but I understand the choice. Penny Chenery was heard humming a spiritual after the Preakness. And if anything could be truly called God's creature, Secretariat was indeed it.

For all of the inaccuracies in the movie- William Nack and Penny Chenery each have cameos in the film and were advisors, so really, who am I to judge?- I was given the opportunity to feel like I was there as Secretariat ran.

For that, I am grateful.


  1. Thanks for this Ponygirl -- I will pass this on to my father, Raymond Woolfe, I know he will be happy to read your story of your love for Secretariat.

  2. Dear wolfy,
    You cannot know how much your comment means to me. It's cliche, but that book changed my life. I still have it- it's a bit worn from use- and I pull it out every so often and immerse myself in those photos and the story. It remains one of my most precious possessions.
    A heartfelt thank you,