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June 7th, 2008, 11:18 PM
June 8, 2008

The Belmont Stakes

Big Brown Tires as Sweep Proves Elusive Again



This was supposed to be the day a proud but tattered old sport was to be suspended in a state of pure beauty and awe. Big Brown, the undefeated colt who had crushed all comers, was supposed to run off with the Belmont Stakes and be anointed here Saturday as the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first since Affirmed had swept the series in 1978.

His trainer, Rick Dutrow, had said so. No, he had guaranteed it, saying last week that Big Brown’s victory here in the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, as the Belmont Stakes is known, was a “foregone conclusion.” So, when Kent Desormeaux approached the final turn and asked Big Brown to engage those booster rockets that had slung shot him to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, a hot and sweaty crowd of 94,476 stood and roared, anticipating that he would swoosh past the grandstand and into immortality.

Instead, nothing happened. Big Brown spun his wheels, unable to make up a single step on Da’ Tara, who had one victory in seven starts and was sent off as a seemingly impossible 38-1 long shot. In less than a mile, Big Brown was done, finished, through. Desormeaux eased him up, guided him outside and loped him the final half mile home.

“I had no horse,” he said. “There’s no popped tires — he’s just out of gas.”

The 140th running of the Belmont Stakes is in the books. It will read that Alan Garcia rode Da’ Tara to a gate-to-wire victory in the relatively slow time of 2:29.65. Backers of Da’ Tara, a son of Tiznow and the mare Torchera, were rewarded— $79 for a $2 bet to win. And Da’ Tara’s trainer, Nick Zito, once more proved a giant killer. In 2004, his colt Birdstone thwarted the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones at 36-1.

“I salute Big Brown,” said Zito, who now has five Triple Crown victories — two in the Derby, two in the Belmont and one in the Preakness. “He’s still a champion. He wasn’t himself today, and we took advantage of it.”

What happened to Big Brown? Was it the smothering 96-degree heat? The popped quarter crack on his left front foot that kept him from the racetrack for three days?

“He was in no way, shape or form lame or sore,” said Desormeaux, who was the only member of the Big Brown camp to answer questions immediately after the race.

Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, agreed.

“When he pulled up, the doctor on the racetrack looked at him and there was obviously nothing wrong,” Bramlage said. “I was watching him when he came down the stretch, and he was not showing any lameness.”

Could the big bay colt have had an adverse reaction to Dutrow’s decision to discontinue the use of anabolic steroids, which he said he did on April 15?

“I doubt if that comes up to be the answer, because it’s not that kind of situation where it’s going to be a stimulant for him,” Bramlage said.

Maybe the racing gods tired of the boasts from the brash and irrepressible Dutrow and decided that no matter how talented a colt Big Brown was there was no room in the pantheon of greats for a trainer who acted more like Muhammad Ali than the stoic Hall of Fame trainer Ben Jones.

“The horse kind of looks fine to me,” Dutrow said as darkness settled on this grand old racetrack on Long Island. “I’m sure it’s not the horse’s fault, so there’s nothing to be down on him.”

The colt’s co-owner Michael Iavarone of the International Equine Acquisitions Holdings was not around to answer what happened to Big Brown in that final turn, or what is next for an obviously talented runner.

Last September, I.E.A.H. bought 75 percent of Big Brown for $2.5 million after the colt won by a 11 1/4 lengths at Saratoga.

Three weeks ago, it sold Big Brown’s stallion rights to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky.

Its partners had already declared that Big Brown was not going to run next year as a 4-year-old. They expected to be popping Champagne Saturday night, celebrating that they were the owners of the only living Triple Crown champion — worth $120 million in the breeding shed.

Instead, they are in the same place that 10 other previous owners since Affirmed have found themselves: heartbroken and without a Triple Crown. Worse, they are the first of the 19 Triple Crown contenders to finish dead last in the Belmont Stakes.

The big bay was supposed to roll down the stretch and into equine stratosphere here along side Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. He was supposed to bring magic back to a tattered old sport.

Perhaps, he did. Desormeaux swore again that Big Brown was the best horse he has ever ridden. Still, he marveled at the 11 Triple Crown champions.

“Maybe it was the foot,” he said. “Who knows? I was talking in the jockey room and I can’t fathom what kind of freaks those 11 Triple Crown winners were.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

A few days ago...


Secretariat is still the standard



June 2, 2008

Known fondly by racing insiders as Big Red, the stallion who remains the gold standard of thoroughbred racing is central to the current conversation considering Big Brown's threat of a Triple Crown sweep.

This happens every time a horse completes the Kentucky Derby- Preakness double to arrive as favorite in the so-called Test of the Champion. With Big Brown's impressive march toward Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the Secretariat comparison must be applied again.

On 10 occasions since Secretariat's 1973 triumph, the Triple Crown quest failed. Twice (Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978) back-to-back-to-back victories were completed, earning those champions the venerable historic juxtaposition to the sport's all-time superstar. Once (Seattle Slew), a 3-year-old carried an unbeaten career record right through the Belmont, something that even Secretariat didn't accomplish but Big Brown (5-0) could.

But still Secretariat remains the exemplar, the genius equus of the genus equus.

He is the only creature in history, human or otherwise, ever to appear on the covers of the nation's three most prominent weekly magazines - Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated - the same week (June 11, 1973). He is the only non-human to be named in the top 50 - at 35th - in ESPN's "SportsCentury" series on the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

His bronze likeness, in full stride, forever welcomes lesser creatures to Belmont's paddock.

In 1999, Secretariat appeared on a 33-cent stamp as part of a U.S. Postal Service campaign celebrating symbols of the past century. (As of last week, the opening online bid for an unused Secretariat stamp was $26.) His surpassingly dominant '73 Belmont victory - by 31 lengths in a record time that remains a full two seconds better than the best of the 1,007 other Belmont Stakes starters over 139 years - likewise seems to gain in currency with passing time.

"He is burned into our brains," said veteran racing reporter/handicapper John Pricci, executive editor of HorseRaceInsider.com. "He is the poster child of the sport. He was extremely fast, extremely powerful, extremely charismatic. Those three [Triple Crown] races were among the most memorable efforts of all time."

Seattle Slew's perfection and Affirmed's riveting head-to-head, nose-to-nose duels with Alydar through each of their Triple Crown showdowns clearly command their share of homage from horse people. But even John Veitch, who trained Alydar and argued that the Affirmed rivalry was the greatest in the sport's history, never to be forgotten, allowed that "the manner Secretariat won the Belmont was so impressive, along with his other two victories, that it just gave him a spectacular fan-based appeal. No horse ever won the Belmont like that. That's had so much to do with his lasting memory and fame."

To Edward Bowen, president of the Grayson- Jockey Club Research Foundation and former editor of The Blood-Horse magazine, that 31-length gap in the Belmont, and the 25-year chasm between Secretariat and the previous Triple Crown winner (Citation in 1948) contributed mightily to Secretariat's singular status.

"If he had been life-and-death to hang on and win the Belmont," Bowen said, "we wouldn't be having this conversation. And I don't know who the TV guy was who had the reaction [to pull back into a wide-angle camera during the Belmont], but that allowed the audience to see how far he was drawing away.

"The fact that he was the first televised Triple Crown winner was a factor. And between the time TV began to be a big entity in racing, there had been a whole bunch of great horses who'd gotten close and didn't make it. Which added to the mystique of it."

Carry Back in 1961, Northern Dancer in 1964, Forward Pass in 1968, Majestic Prince in 1969, Canonero II in 1971 all were Derby-Preakness winners, knocked off in the Belmont on national television.

"That dearth of Triple Crown winners created an aura about the series that it hadn't had before," Bowen said. "And Secretariat was the one who scaled that peak.

"There could be a coterie of turf writers who still remember Citation and might argue [against Secretariat's best-of-all-time credentials], but even if you don't remember Citation, you remember it was a hell of a long time between Triple Crown winners, and that created this sense that Secretariat is the standard, in terms of excellence."

Jessica Chapel, a New York-based writer/editor who operates the Railbird Web site and is writing a book on America's greatest racehorses, said her ranking of the best in history "always comes down" to Secretariat, Man o' War - a non-starter in the 1920 Kentucky Derby but winner of both the Preakness and Belmont - and Kelso, the enduring gelding who didn't make his name until after his 3-year-old season, to which the Triple Crown is limited.

Though Secretariat didn't race beyond his 3-year-old campaign, he already had been named Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, and "his star was so bright," Pricci said, "that you couldn't deny him for his lack of longevity."

Chapel noted that Secretariat's Belmont "was such a singular athletic achievement that, watching that now, even on YouTube on a tiny screen, is to see this sublime athletic performance. It's perfection. No other horse has come close to that."

Soon enough, that perfection will expand to the big screen, now that Disney has purchased the rights to Bill Nack's book, "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," for a screenplay. Now a freelance writer and film consultant, Nack was Newsday's racing beat writer when Secretariat was taking thoroughbred observers beyond the racing frontiers of anything they had known.

Secretariat's winning Triple Crown times remain "a testimony to his brilliance," Nack said in a telephone interview. "The great turf writer Charlie Hatton [who invented the term 'Triple Crown'] said Secretariat was the greatest race horse he ever saw, and he was a young man when Man o' War raced.

"He was the best-looking of all, with a certain aesthetic appeal; like Muhammad Ali, a real pretty boy, a big, muscular, good-looking horse. [Veteran race promoter] Chick Lang said, 'It's like God decided to create the perfect racehorse.' And that Belmont is the one that embedded Secretariat in the national consciousness."

So now, along comes Big Brown, bidding to be only the 12th Triple Crown winner, and it is Secretariat's memory that is first invoked.

"It's shorthand," Chapel said. "How can you quibble with Secretariat? It's reducing the argument of best-ever to the simplest expression.

"People say, 'Big Brown's not Secretariat.' Of course he's not."

Record run

Thirty-five years later, Secretariat's blazing victory in the Belmont Stakes still stands as the record for the event. He also holds the record for the fastest half-mile, three-quarter mile, mile and 1 1/4 miles in the Belmont.

His 1973 fractions

1/4-mile :23 3/5

1/2-mile :46 1/5

3/4-mile 1:09 4/5

Mile 1:34 1/5

1 1/4-mile 1:59

1 1/2-mile 2:24

Fastest Belmonts

2:24 Secretariat, 1973

2:26 Easy Goer, 1989

2:26 A.P. Indy, 1992

2:26 2/5 Point Given, 2001

2:26 2/5 Risen Star, 1988

2:26 4/5 Affirmed, 1978

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

1 1/2-mile 2:24Took 2 seconds off the record. Still the fastest time on a 1 1/2 mile dirt track.

You could tell from the Kentucky Derby that Big Red was a special horse. Not only did he run the first Derby in under 2 minutes (only happened once since), but his splits for each 1/4-mile were successively faster: 25 1/5, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5 and 23.

Although much in New York was deteriorating in the 70s, thoroughbred racing was still at its peak.

It was the greatest race I'd ever seen. Not a race against horses - there were only four other entries and no show-bets were allowed. It was a match race into the backstretch as Sham and Secretariat went stride for stride until spent, Sham dropped back to finish last.

It became a race against the clock, a race into history. The call-of-the-race is still surprisingly exciting.

1973 Belmont Stakes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS4f6wiQJh4)


June 8th, 2008, 02:48 PM
June 8, 2008

Sports of The Times

Wondering if Steroids Fueled a Run At Glory


He blew away the field at the Kentucky Derby. He made the Preakness field look like circus ponies. But on the day that would solidify his legacy and give racing a respite from intense scrutiny, Big Brown crumbled. He crumbled so badly that one could legitimately wonder whether he was nothing but a chemical horse, a paper tiger propped up — and propelled — by steroids. After three months of dominance, Big Brown became the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish dead last at the Belmont Stakes. His jockey, Kent Desormeaux, said that heading into the final turn, when he called on Big Brown to give him that special reserve, he realized, “I had no horse.”

The racing public has the right to ask: Did he ever have a super horse?

On Friday, the trainer Rick Dutrow told reporters that he had not given Big Brown a shot of the anabolic steroid Winstrol since before the Kentucky Derby and would not use it Saturday at the Belmont.

Earlier, Dutrow admitted that he gave Big Brown and all his other horses shots of Winstrol on the 15th of each month. He said he did not know what it did.

A day that the troubled racing industry hoped would temporarily focus attention on a historic achievement wound up raising more questions about the horse and the industry.

On the other hand, Big Brown’s dramatic fall may be the sobering kick this industry needs. There will be long-term debates about breeding, about racing surfaces, about the age at which horses should race. There should be no debate about drugs.

“The legacy of Big Brown will be a consensus in this sport that it’s time to end the use of steroids, to ban its use in horse racing for good,” Alex Waldrop, the president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said in a telephone interview on Saturday.

“This industry understands that the time has come and I am confident that steroids’ days are numbered in the game.”

After Big Brown’s collapse, there were suspicions, fairly or not, that the horse, who looked unbeatable in April and May, was a fraud.

Winstrol, a synthetic steroid used to build muscle mass and promote weight gain and healing, is banned in 10 states, but not in the three where the Triple Crown races are held.

“Anyone who is on the fence about steroids and racing now sees that by allowing the use of steroids, we unnecessarily raise questions about our stars, and that needs to end,” Waldrop said.

From the moment Big Brown galloped into national view as the Kentucky Derby winner, the 3-year-old colt shared the spotlight with controversy. He claimed a magnificent victory at Churchill Downs after running the race of his career.

The moment of glory turned sour when a filly named Eight Belles ran the race of her life as well. It was her final race. As Big Brown strutted in victory, Eight Belles, her ankles shattered, crumpled to the track and was euthanized, stunning a national television audience.

Against this backdrop of triumph and sadness, Big Brown took the Triple Crown stage as a potential savior, an almost transcendent figure in a sport that has been forced to examine and, in many ways, explain itself beyond the spectacle of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

Dutrow, whose brash, bragging style and personal history often overshadowed his gifts as a trainer, practically guaranteed that Big Brown would secure the Triple Crown. Shortly after Saturday’s stunning loss, Dutrow initially brushed reporters away and went to attend to Big Brown.

There would be no validation for Dutrow, no redemption for jockey Kent Desormeaux. Asked to describe his feeling after the race, Desormeaux said: “I’m numb, really, a little lost. Just feeling no emotion whatsoever. Blank.”

The greatest beneficiary of a Triple Crown champion would have been the thoroughbred industry itself. With the deaths of Barbaro, and then Eight Belles, racing needed a great moment, a great accomplishment, an achievement the sport had not seen in 30 years.

In 2004, Smarty Jones was a half-mile from history; he had a four-length lead, but he was caught by Birdstone and lost by a length.

One great day would not have healed racing’s wounds, but a great victory by Big Brown could have validated an industry consumed with breeding, but one still unable to come up with a horse fast enough, strong enough and durable enough to win the Triple Crown.

From Barbaro to Eight Belles, racing has endured an arduous few years.

As jockey Edgar Prado said in 2004 as he apologized for defeating Smarty Jones, “This sport needs heroes.”

No. This sport needs reform.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Big Brown had no competition, and his Derby and Preakness times were average. Nothing but an owner hyping a horse for money.

In the 1973 Preakness, Ron Turcotte settled into last place out of the gate. Sensing that the pace was slow by the clubhouse turn, and turned his horse loose. Secretariat went three-wide and passed the entire field in 100 yards, took a 1 1/2 length lead over Sham, and held it to the finish line.

1973 Preakness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubQN-31CaSU)

June 8th, 2008, 05:33 PM
Feet of clay.

June 8th, 2008, 05:51 PM
MY brother (an expert handicapper) and I agreed a few years ago that it was finally time for a great horse to come on the scene and break some records.

But not Big Brown. We were quite happy that the record he set was finishing last.

Optimus Prime
June 9th, 2008, 05:24 PM
I still think the best horse of recent years was Afleet Alex (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfFzODoD7YY), but because he lost the Derby (thanks in large part to an inexperienced jockey and two rabbits setting a blinding pace), he wasn't hyped like Big Brown. He did take Arkansas by 8 lengths, the Preakness by 4 3/4 (after falling to his knees at the top of the stretch), and the Belmont by 7 with the fastest final quarter in over 30 years. Incredible, incredible horse.

June 10th, 2008, 11:24 PM
Haskell Invitational has eye on Big Brown

by Tom Luicci/The Star-Ledger Tuesday June 10, 2008, 7:44 PM

Monmouth Park will take "an aggressive approach" in trying to land Big Brown for the Aug. 3 Haskell Invitational if the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner starts on the comeback trail late this summer as expected, a track official said today.

And Paul Pompa Jr., one of Big Brown's owners, said Monmouth's $1 million showcase race is "definitely a possibility" for the colt, who failed to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner after he was pulled up at the top of the stretch in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

"We've been aggressive in the past and we will be with Big Brown. That will be our approach," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth Park's vice president and general manager. "I want to get a handle on what their plans are and what they want to do first. Obviously we're going to do everything in our power to get him if he's available and if the horse is coming back in August."

The Haskell does have a built-in bonus of $25,000 for each leg of the Triple Crown a horse wins for both the owner and trainer -- meaning trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. would pocket $50,000 just for showing up at the Haskell with Big Brown. Dutrow, who did not respond to a message left for him on his cell phone today, has a string of horses at Monmouth Park.

Pompa said he and members of IEAH Stables, the horse's majority owners, will meet this week to map out a possible course of action.

June 11th, 2008, 05:10 AM
No one cares anymore.

Ownership is just trying to recover from shattered stud-fees.

June 11th, 2008, 11:42 AM
Hate to say it, but they should have 'roided him.

Not that that would have guaranteed a win, but sayingthat doing this before the other races (or on a regular basis) and not doing it before this one had no effect is just plain stupid.

ANY substance that is broken from its usual schedule will have an effect on the psychology and physiology of a critter (humans being a big one in that, just look at coffee). The jockey saying that he did not have any "horse" kind of leads me to believe that the horse really did not care as much as he did in the others.

Maybe he was feeling bad, but I think he just crapped out.....

Curiosity, is this why you guys were not thrilled with him being a candidate for winning? Is steroid use common in TB Racing? What has made you guys blah about something you obviously follow?

June 11th, 2008, 02:54 PM
My problem was with the owners. Phony hype for a horse that was better than a lousy field.

Steroids have been used in racing for over 40 years, as a healing aid. Now, they are given to horses at too young an age and even to mares, which is not recommended.

Horses have gotten really big, but fragile. The filly Eight Belles, who broke down in the Derby, was 17 hands tall (Secretariat was a big horse at 16.2)

Horses are natural runners. They are herd herbivores, prey animals that will fight-or-flight when threatened. Their spleens are unusually large to hold oxygenated blood. At full gallop, their breathing is synchronized with their stride, like a bellows.

Steroids are banned in all but 10 states - which includes KY, MD, and NY. I expect a renewed effort to ban them outright.

October 14th, 2008, 07:02 PM
NY joins 2 other states in steroid ban on horses


Oct,14 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — New York toughened its steroids policy for racehorses Tuesday, following the lead of the two other states that hold Triple Crown races.

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board said the new rules take effect Jan. 1 at all thoroughbred and standardbred tracks in the state. That includes Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. The new rules set limits for steroids that are permitted.

"We have moved to eliminate anabolic steroid use from the horse racing industry in New York State," said John Sabini, chairman of the racing and wagering board. "Steroids are no better for four-legged athletes than they are for two."

Prompted by the death of the filly Eight Belles at the end of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky and Maryland moved quickly to institute steroid restrictions. Trainer Rick Dutrow acknowledged using an anabolic steroid on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown.

The issue of drugs in horse racing has come under increased scrutiny since the Triple Crown races, and several other racing authorities have responded by instituting new policies. Horses competing in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., on Oct. 24-25 will be tested for drugs, including steroids.

"My hope is this is the beginning of no steroids in racing. A diet of hay, oats and water should be our goal as we move towards a racing industry that is drug free," board member John Simoni said.

Charles Hayward, president of the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, joined officials of the racing and wagering board at a news conference.

"I think it's a really bold and great thing that the state racing and wagering board is doing," Hayward said. "We're thrilled and are very supportive of their efforts, and we're going to work closely with them to get the testing protocols in place."

What Sabini characterized as trace amounts of four steroids will be allowed in New York, with only one of the four permitted in a horse's system at any given time.

"For the sake of the betting public, we want to do everything in our power to ensure that racing runs on a level playing field," Sabini said. "By imposing rigid new limits on four steroids and banning all others, New York is taking a leadership role in promoting integrity in racing. The message to owners and trainers should be clear: If you flaunt our steroid rules, you will be held accountable."

The steroids that are permitted in restricted amounts are stanozolol (Winstrol), boldenone (Equipose), nandrolone (Durabolin) and testosterone.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

October 7th, 2010, 05:35 PM
I don't know what the film Secretariat will be like; just hope it's not awful.

There's not much video documentation of the 1973 Triple Crown, and I'd be happy if they just did a great job on the three races.

October 7th, 2010, 06:54 PM
Rotten Tomatoes shows it in the + zone (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/secretariat/) ... not overly so, but many good notices for both Diane Lane and the racing sequences.

October 8th, 2010, 10:45 AM
October 7, 2010
Movie Review | 'Secretariat'

Putting Faith in Speed and Sinew


Diane Lane might be the two-legged star of “Secretariat,” a gauzy, gooey, turf-pounding, Bible-thumping tribute to the celebrated 1970s thoroughbred from the wonderful weird world of Disney. But the bigger and truer stars of this enjoyable, sometimes accidentally entertaining movie are the five horses that take turns playing Secretariat — one was used for running, another posed for the cameras — along with the memory of that original breathtaking beauty. This was a champion whose races thrilled the usual society swells and off-track gamblers along with a larger public swept up by the story of the big red horse who could and did.

Squeaky clean and as square as a military flattop, “Secretariat” doesn’t take the wide or long view when it comes to horse racing or anything else, despite an occasional oblique nod to Vietnam. Instead it sticks to the Disney gospel that life means following your dreams, which here belong largely to those who surrounded Secretariat in his glory years, including his owner, Penny Chenery (Ms. Lane, sincere and dulled down), and trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, insincere and showboating). Don’t fret, though: there are plenty of pretty horses — and a few hilarious close-ups of Secretariat and a rival at the starting gate eyeballing each other like boxers in the ring — even if the triumph here is of the human spirit and not the horse.

That tale gets swishing in Denver in 1969 with Penny, immaculately dressed and coiffed, whipping something up for her four children and husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh). One phone call later and Penny and brood are back in her Virginia childhood home, burying her mother. She stays to care for her ailing father, Chris (Scott Glenn), a horseman whose mind and farm are slipping away. After a Kodak-moment flashback of her father and her as a child, Penny determines to save her patrimony, telling her husband that she’s taking care of business, a declaration of independence that might resonate more inspirationally if the movie actually showed you how she managed to care for the farm and her children (two of whom look under 12).

But uplift is the name of the game in “Secretariat,” not little details like life. Directed by Randall Wallace with his previous lack of subtly (“We Were Soldiers”), it opens with a shot of the sky and Penny reading in voice-over a passage about horses from the Book of Job: “Do you give the horse his strength?” (That passage, in a different translation, is also used in Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus.”) The rest of the writing can be blamed on Mike Rich, whose screenplay was, as the credits put it, “suggested by” William Nack’s book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.” It’s hard not to think that the folks behind “The Blind Side” — last year’s inspirational about a steel magnolia of faith and a sports hero — deserve some credit too.

Alas, Ms. Lane, smoothed and nearly emptied out, doesn’t have the material or direction that Sandra Bullock enjoyed in “The Blind Side” (or the flattering costumes). Penny Chenery’s story is not uninteresting, and she certainly doesn’t appear to have been the paper doll of the movie. The real woman (http://www.secretariat.com/spotlightpenny1.htm) hired the William Morris Agency to book Secretariat’s appearances, and said of her horse-racing life, “I love the prestige, the excitement and the money.” The movie’s Penny spends a lot of time fretting and every so often stares meaningfully into Secretariat’s eyes (or muzzle). That said, in one mad, delicious moment, she does bathe Secretariat alongside his black groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, from HBO’s “True Blood”), the two humans working up quite the lather and harmonious vision to the sounds of “Oh Happy Day” (When Jesus Washed).

What did Secretariat think at that moment? The question seems reasonable given how the movie treats its animal star (familiar Disney meat) as both a cute-and-cuddly and a spiritual messenger. It was said that Secretariat liked to be photographed, a delightful idea that the movie embraces by showing him turn to the cameras. And certainly the movie flirts with the standard Disney take on animals as sentient creatures in command of their destinies and serving human needs. Yet this fuzzy humanism is at odds with the movie’s other message — deliriously blasted during the final race of the Triple Crown with reprises of Job and “Oh Happy Day” — that Secretariat galloped down the stretch guided by something other than the jockey’s crop.

What made Secretariat run? Sometimes it was the whip, which the movie omits, much as it elides anything really uncomfortable about horse racing. Money played a part, though it generally doesn’t in the movie, an exception being Penny’s shrewd decision to sell shares in Secretariat’s future as a sire. Every so often, mainly when one of the digital cameras is hovering right next to the horse as he tears down the track, his legs churning and breath hammering, you can pretend that Secretariat ran because he could and not because someone put a saddle on him and rode him out of the gate. It’s a pleasurable, seductive fantasy partly because, as we have known from the start of cinema, the sight of a running horse is a beautiful thing.

“Secretariat” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). The only dirty things here are the jockey silks.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Randall Wallace; written by Mike Rich, suggested by the book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion” by William Nack; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by John Wright; music by Nick Glennie-Smith; production design by Tom Sanders; costumes by Michael T. Boyd; produced by Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi; released by Walt Disney Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes.

WITH: Diane Lane (Penny Chenery), John Malkovich (Lucien Laurin), Dylan Walsh (Jack Tweedy), Dylan Baker (Hollis Chenery), Margo Martindale (Miss Ham), Nelsan Ellis (Eddie Sweat), Otto Thorwarth (Ronnie Turcotte), Fred Dalton Thompson (Bull Hancock), James Cromwell (Ogden Phillips) and Scott Glenn (Chris Chenery).

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


I read that the character of Eddie Sweat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Sweat) (what a name for a groom) doesn't get prominence in the film. Too bad, considering that Sweat spent more time with the horse than anyone else.

It also seems that the film devotes little time to the social conditions in the US at that time, an important part of the Secretariat phenomenon. It swept up people with little knowledge of thoroughbred racing, especially in New York State, where most of his races as a 2 year old and his prep races for the Derby, were held. I was back from a depressing war that still raged, and trying to get my life on track. Instead, I got the distraction of Watergate amid the growing decay of the city.

I immersed myself in the Secretariat story in 1972, travelling to beautiful Saratoga Springs for the Hopeful Stakes, a portent of what would come the following year at the Preakness. Secretariat finished 1972 as Horse of the Year, a rarity for a 2 year old, and became a national sports story.

The 1973 prep races were at Aqueduct. The important Wood Memorial in April was a major disappointment. Secretariat finished third, behind his major competitor in the upcoming Triple Crown, Sham. Just another speed-horse without the stamina to get it done? A mirror for all our problems?

Can't expect Disney to convey all of that, but it should be easy to document the races.

For a brief, magical time, we got a respite from Richard Nixon. Can't ask anything more from a horse.