Winning tale of superhorse gets the Disney treatment

Secretariat captured US hearts with his Triple Crown victory but can he reach a new generation?
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The Independent Culture

"That is a record that may stand for ever," exclaimed the television commentator Chic Anderson when a horse already humanised into a national hero streaked to victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. The delirium is still infectious on the old clips. The colt, Secretariat, had just become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

Forgive a commentator for getting carried away. At one point in the race when Secretariat was already uncountable lengths in the lead, Anderson declared madly he was "moving like a tremendous machine". He was right about the record though – 1.5 miles on dirt in 2.25 minutes. It still stands today.

What Anderson couldn't have known then is that while Secretariat didn't race beyond the age of three and had, in fact, on that day already reached the apogee of his career, his achievements would live on in horse- racing nostalgia not for years but for decades. The speed record helped of course, as did his appearing before Belmont on the front covers of not only Sports Illustrated but Time and Newsweek too.

But in case anyone has forgotten the impact of that win, or perhaps wasn't born by 1973, a new film from Disney is for you. It is big-orchestra, fairy-tale schmaltz, but the power of the story is not lost. Sporting prowess can lift a national mood; America at the time was about to be plunged into the oil shock. But the object of the nation's adoration was neither an athlete nor a team.

Secretariat took on a stature that was, if not god-like, then certainly manlike. Played by five different horses in the film called simply Secretariat, with Diane Lane as his owner, he was added to ESPN's Greatest Sports Performances list in 2005, the only non-human on it.

He is also number 35 on The Hundred Greatest Athletes of North America of the 20th Century, also compiled by ESPN, the sports cable channel. The 16-hands, monstrously muscled horse thus finds himself in the company of sporting greats Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Michael Jordan. Three years ago, Secretariat became the first animal to be inducted into the Kentucky Hall of Fame.

Secretariat died at the age of 19 in 1989 after developing a disease of the hoof. When they performed the necropsy, they found he had a heart that weighed 22 pounds, (9.9kg) about two-and-a-half times the size you would expect in a horse his size.

If the film-makers had a potential problem with Secretariat, it was that he was never much of an underdog, like, say, Sea Biscuit, another racing legend immortalised on the silver screen, but one who came from behind. At the stables where he was born in Virginia, it didn't take them long to see he was a winner.

But they did have an interesting story to tell about the owner, Penny Chenery. A comfortable housewife in Denver, her life changed when she travelled to the Virginia farm for the funeral of her mother. Finding that her father, with dementia, was unable to carry on alone, she took over. And the young colt became hers.

Had Chenery never travelled for the funeral, the wonder of Secretariat might never have been. For this is also the story of an accidental feminist, negotiating her horse to pole position in a sport that until then had been notoriously male-dominated. After his racing career ended, she sold shares in him as a breeding stallion.

The reviews of the film as it opened in the US on Friday were mixed. One critic warns: "Don't expect any gritty portrait of the racing industry – Secretariat is as edgy as a Kentucky Derby bonnet. Scenes are awash in golden light and underscored with voiceover Bible quotes and gospel music."

The legions of Secretariat fans may meanwhile be disappointed that the film is almost more about humans than horses. But as we know, this horse might as well have been human anyway.