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PENNY CHENERY TWEEDY AND COLLEAGUES GUIDE HER LONG-SHOT BUT PRECOCIOUS STALLION TO SET, IN 1973, THE UNBEATEN RECORD FOR WINNING THE TRIPLE CROWN.
The "greatest racehorse of all time" mantle fits easily around the neck of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. So why not a movie version of this champion's life? Secretariat begins in the late '60s, with some good behind-the-scenes material on how thoroughbreds come to be there's flavorful atmosphere inside the horsey world, including an account of Secretariat's ownership being decided by a coin flip as part of an old-school agreement. A highly lacquered Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, the inheritor of her father's stables, who segues from being an all-American mom to running a major horse-racing franchise; reliable character-actor support comes in the form of John Malkovich, as a gaudily outfitted trainer, and Margo Martindale, as Chenery's assistant. Screenwriter Mike Rich and director Randall Wallace must do some heavy lifting to make Lane's privileged millionaire into some sort of underdog--luckily, the hidebound traditions of the male-dominated racing scene provide some sources of outrage. The need to stack the deck even more leads the movie into its more contrived scenes, unfortunately, as though we needed dastardly villains in order to root for Penny and her horse. Meanwhile, attempts to reach for a little Seabiscuit-style social relevance don't come off, and a curious religious undertone might make you wonder whether we're meant to assume that God chose Secretariat over some less-deserving equine. The actual excitement of the races can't be denied, however, and Secretariat's awe-inspiring win at the Belmont Stakes remains a jaw-dropping, still-unequaled display of domination in that event. And maybe in sports. --Robert Horton