Sus­pense in the past tense

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Lau­rel Glad­den For the New Mex­i­can

Sec­re­tar­iat, his­tor­i­cal horse-rac­ing drama, rated PG, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 2 chiles

IThirty-seven-year-old spoiler alert! Dur­ing the pre­view of this film, when thor­ough­bred Sec­re­tar­iat crossed the fin­ish line to win the 1973 Bel­mont Stakes, the au­di­ence burst into ap­plause. Were they sur­prised? Even if this crowd-pleas­ing Dis­ney pro­duc­tion weren’t based on a true story, surely they could see that happy end­ing com­ing from 31 lengths.

Some­times I won­der why any­one both­ers to make movies like Sec­re­tar­iat. Re-cre­at­ing real-life events — mak­ing them sus­pense­ful, sur­pris­ing, or at least en­gag­ing — has to be a chal­lenge. A film about a his­tory-mak­ing horse can’t hinge on the races, be­cause al­most ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence knows the out­come from the start­ing bell.

What can drive a film like this is the peo­ple who helped the horse get to the gate. In this case, one of them is Penny Chen­ery (Diane Lane), Sec­re­tar­iat’s owner. When the film opens, she’s a house­wife and mother of four hap­pily en­sconced in her ranch­style home in Den­ver, circa 1969. Her fa­ther (Scott Glenn, whose tal­ent is wasted) runs a 2,500-acre horse farm in Vir­ginia; when his health de­clines, she takes the reins to keep the farm afloat. She doesn’t know much about the male-dom­i­nated thor­ough­bred busi­ness, though, so she hires vet­eran trainer Lu­cien Lau­rin (John Malkovich) to help her get her foot­ing. To­gether with groom Ed­die Sweat ( True Blood’s fan­tas­tic Nel­san El­lis) and jockey Ron Tur­cotte (Otto Thor­warth), they raise and train Sec­re­tar­iat, per­haps the great­est race­horse of all time.

The trou­ble with fo­cus­ing on Chen­ery is that frankly, she — or at least screen­writer Mike Rich’s ver­sion of her — isn’t very in­ter­est­ing. Her story is short on dra­matic ob­sta­cles, so Rich turns mole­hills into moun­tains to cre­ate ten­sion — and then, be­fore any­one in the au­di­ence gets too wor­ried, turns them right back into mole­hills. We’re sup­posed to be­lieve that Chen­ery will go to great lengths to main­tain her fa­ther’s legacy, but the film’s limited, quick flash­backs

A tale of sport­ing tri­umph and fashion fail­ure:


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