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By Elias Savada | October 8, 2010

It’s been seven years since movie audiences bet on a race horse legend named “Seabiscuit” and won (decent grosses and 7 Academy Award nominations). And while “Secretariat” will probably win (rather than place or show) at the box office this weekend, at least among the new films at the multiplex, the equine biopic doesn’t hold up as favorably by the finish when compared with Gary Ross’ 2003 ode to a stallion. Maybe the earlier film about a smallish horse had a bigger heart and better writing than Randall Wallace’s third directorial outing—after “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1998) and “We Were Soldiers” (2002)—but his film does tell a decent story (heck, he did write “Braveheart”) and provides some fascinating insight into the 1969 coin-toss circumstances that would deliver an unborn foal that would grow into a champion. Wallace knows that audiences will cheer the frenzied climax at the 1973 Belmont Stakes, even considering the story of that year’s Triple Crown winner’s extraordinary gallop into the annals of history is fairly well known. The thunderous hooves are in your face and the emotional lumps in your throat as the action rounds the track. Yes, the manipulated crowds will roar.

The ever dependable Diane Lane delivers a steady, determined performance as Penny Tweedy Chenery, a Denver housewife and mother whose life is upended in 1969 with the death of her mother. Returning to the family’s failing horse farm in Virginia, an ailing father, and a brother (Dylan Baker) who wants to sell what remains of the meagre business, an empowered Penny instead tosses an unscrupulous trainer out on his derrière, seeks out the flamboyant and recently retired French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, in an ever colorful SuperFly-style wardrobe), and then hits the books (finance, equine genealogy, and common sense) to gain the horse sense that gets her to that historic coin flip. Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn), Penny’s dad, had a coin toss deal with horse owner/breeder Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) for first pick among two foals born from Phipps’ hall of fame racehorse Bold Ruler, a champion sire. Penny lost the coin battle, but won the lineage war.

[Point of Information: My sister, who has competed in horse shows most of her life, now owns a great-granddaughter of Secretariat.]

As Big Red (the chestnut steed’s real name) grows, Penny’s family back in Colorado shows the strains of a wife and mother’s absence. There’s enough side story throughout the film that more than embellishes the tension as children and especially husband (Dylan Walsh) and brother want Penny to toss her absurd Triple Crown notions aside. To take the money and run. History, of course, tells us that with the help of Penny’s extended horse family, including the tireless Miss Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale), Chenery père‘s confidante and assistant, groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), as well as Laurin, that Penny could ultimately refute her aloof brother (a professor of economics at Harvard) who warns “If you stumble and fall, you don’t just make us fools, you make us beggars.”

Wallace, of course, presents this with a straightforward sense of growing urgency, especially in the film’s last 45 minutes when the big races are being run and Secretariat seems suddenly out of sorts. There’s some light intrigue surrounding the obnoxious taunts from the brash New York owner (Nestor Serrano) of Sham, Secretariat’s chief competitor. Clichéd (yet effective for the preview audience I watched it with) closeups of the horse turning his head or winking a eye towards its circle of friends, plus the appropriate orchestral flourish, suggest the beast is a knowledgeable soul. Well, it is PG and it is Disney, where dreams always come true.

“Secretariat” is basically an amiable crowd pleaser. It’s a good film about a great horse.

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