Secretariat was not Pegasus.
On the day he died in 1989 at 19 years old at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, a necropsy performed by University of Kentucky veterinary scientist Dr. Thomas Swerczek revealed that Secretariat's heart was roughly twice the size of a normal horse's heart. It was little wonder then how Secretariat 16 years earlier pulled off a feat that hadn't been witnessed in nearly half a century, and did so with a domination that theretofore could only be imagined: he won the 1973 Triple Crown while setting course records in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont that still stand.
The truth, however, wasn't good enough for the director of Secretariat, the movie about the horse's spectacular run scheduled to debut Friday. For Randall Wallace, who grew up steeped in Baptist churches in the South and majored in religion at Duke, Secretariat was bathed in divine intervention. Indeed, one of the turning points in the film -- as if the greatest racehorse, with literally the biggest heart, needed one -- is when Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane, photo below) and groom Eddie Sweat (played by Nelsan Ellis) wash him down after a rare loss to the tune of the Edwin Hawkins Singers' hit soul gospel Oh Happy Day. It's the one with the refrain, "When Jesus washed, he washed my sins away."
I don't know what the sin was, or who the sinners were, in Secretariat's biography.
Secretariat (portrayed above by a stand-in that walked the red carpet at the movie's debut in Hollywood recently) was real and was blessed from birth. He was the son of great thoroughbreds. He was, as the necropsy discovered, a genetic marvel.
He wasn't Seabiscuit, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's brilliant Seabiscuit: An American Legend that became a bestseller in 2001 and a best picture nominee at the 2003 Academy Awards. He wasn't undersized and funny-legged. He didn't have to come back from injury. He wasn't an underdog.
Secretariat was literally and figuratively, in the vernacular of sports, a beast. He was supposed to win and did in amazing fashion, stalking his prey before knocking them down one by one. He turned his Triple Crown winning Belmont Stakes race into a one-horse show, winning by an astounding 31 lengths. That's akin to a full stretch.
Dominance doesn't make for great drama, however. So Wallace, who wrote the script for the zealous Mel Gibson-directed Braveheart, and Disney invented some drama to give their interpretation of Secretariat's unparalleled greatness some suspense.
Secretariat is a typically cute movie in a Disney-fied sense. It just plays unnecessarily, if not unconvincingly, with the facts, like too many histories Hollywood gets its hands on.
The Daily Racing Form columnist, longtime turf writer Steven Crist, posited earlier this week that at least Secretariat wasn't likely to turn off any potential new fans to what once was a favorite American pastime. I'm not so sure. For one of the dramatic vehicles Wallace and Disney drove into the movie was of Chenery's family farm -- The Meadow in Doswell, Va., where Secretariat was born -- being on the brink of financial ruin.
"The idea that Secretariat had to win the Triple Crown to save Meadow Stud is sheer fiction," Crist wrote, referencing William Nack's seminal text on Secretariat titled Big Red of Meadow Stable. "[It] also ignores the contributions of Riva Ridge -- who won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes for Chenery the year that Secretariat was a 2-year-old but is not once even mentioned in the movie."
Nonetheless, the story goes in the movie, Chenery's family farm saw its better days many years before. The patriarch of the family is in failing physical and mental health. The matriarch dies unexpectedly. The books for the farm were bleeding red. Chenery and her brother don't have the money to save it and the brother and Chenery's husband want Chenery to divest the farm. The only asset they see is Secretariat and Chenery puts her hoof down in refusal of the idea of selling Secretariat.
Yet Chenery is portrayed in the most-unseemly of narratives in horse racing, running a horse to save the family grounds even against warnings that running him so much and so hard could be cataclysmic. It could kill him. She even hires jockey Ron Turcotte (played surprisingly well by real jockey Otto Torwarth) despite his reputation that he once rode a horse so hard that its heart burst.
It is a perverted sense of love of animal that has come to permeate the horseracing industry. It gets called the "sport of kings" and glamorized as a playground of the wealthy who treat their beasts better than many people are able to care for themselves and their progeny. But Secretariat reminds of the sad truth that the sport's main motive is profit, and animal welfare may not be.
Horses today are allowed to run on drugs. Some tracks are fighting racing on synthetic surfaces that some think are less injurious to horses and reduce horrific episodes like that Barbaro suffered a few years ago in the midst of a Triple Crown bid. Horses get injected with milkshakes of chemicals to lessen lactic-acid buildup in their bodies that causes fatigue and warns of potential breakdown.
None of that happened to Secretariat that we know of, but the incentive to run Secretariat as portrayed by the movie is the foundation to all of it. There are so many people in horseracing who want to win no matter what and simply to put their horses up for stud.
Breeding shares for Secretariat were, in fact, sold before he won the Triple Crown. The movie gets that right. It's just frustrating it invented so much wrong for what was a mortal and not mythical story out of the gate.