Thirty-one lengths. About 248 feet. That's the astonishing distance by which Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont Stakes, a victory so monumental some observers call it the greatest athletic achievement of all time, human or otherwise.
But that’s not all Secretariat, whose story is told in a movie of the same name opening today, accomplished. He was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, setting records at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that still stand. He appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week. And he was the only nonhuman chosen by ESPN as one of the “50 Greatest Athletes of the Century,” coming in at No. 35, ahead of legends like Mickey Mantle, Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen. Not even close,” says William Nack, author of “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” the book on which the film is based. “It would be difficult to top his Triple Crown. Each he broke the track record, and two of them still stand today, 37 years later. It’s the signature five weeks in the sport.”
Adds “Secretariat” director Randall Wallace: “I thought this was a story of transcendent courage, the horse had done what no one believed could be done. (The film) seemed a way to experience that kind of courage and physical drama.”
But the movie is not just the story of a superior thoroughbred. It tells how a woman named Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane) took over her father’s financially troubled stable, won the rights to an unborn foal in a coin toss, then hired an eccentric Canadian named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train him.
(Five horses were used to play Secretariat, most of whom had run races, but with limited success. One, Trolley Boy, a thoroughbred, had even won the annual Secretariat lookalike contest, held at the Secretariat Festival in Paris, Ky.)
Most important, though, Wallace had to figure out a way to ignore the pitfalls that have bedeviled numerous horse racing movies in the past. And according to those who know, those failures are manifold.
“By and large, there are more bad racing movies than good ones,” says Bill Christine, a veteran turf writer for the Los Angeles Times and Daily Racing Form. “Hollywood has good racing stories, but they have to jazz it up, and in doing so they look silly to frequent racegoers. The big problem shooting horse movies is shooting a race. It’s expensive and complicated. It’s not like you have eight horses and follow them around the track and then you go home. Horses aren’t like actors, where they operate on cue. Many racing movies fall down because the races look phony.”
Will audiences respond to this tale of the turf? Except for the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup, live attendance at the track is generally in the toilet. But when it comes to film, the racing picture is more upbeat: the last big thoroughbred movie, 2003’s “Seabiscuit,” based on a best-selling book, grossed more than $120 million domestically. As far as Christine is concerned, there’s no reason why contemporary filmgoers won’t respond to this greatest of all horses.
“He did something almost no horse has ever done, which is winning the Triple Crown” Christine says. (Since Secretariat, the last Triple Crown winner was 1978’s Affirmed.) “And I think the casual guy might remember that. This horse captured the general public, and I think people who don’t know horse racing they’d know this is something special.”