Love Horse Racing?
Seven years ago Burt Blumert wrote on these pages about waking up early to see the movie Seabiscuit. Being an expert on fast horses and hard money, Burt pointed out that Seabiscuit was more myth than champion, “a nice, gritty colt and a boon to California racing.”
Seabiscuit (the movie) was nominated for seven Academy Awards but, unlike its subject, came up empty. Will it be the same for this year’s horse racing movie entry — Secretariat? While the undersized Seabiscuit gave Americans hope during the Great Depression, the big red colt Secretariat took the country’s mind off Watergate, the war in Vietnam and stagflation.
There was nothing underdog about Secretariat, a horse whose heart was over twice the size of other horses’. Big Red’s 31-length victory to seal the Triple Crown was likely the greatest performance by any horse ever. His under two minute Kentucky Derby win may be the second best. It had been 25 years since a horse had won the Crown and many thought it would never be done again. We all know how the races turn out. But the story Randall Wallace directs is also a financial one.
Diane Lane is generating Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Denver housewife Penny Chenery Tweety who loses her mother and has to step in to take over the family business because her father is not capable of managing the horse-breeding farm. She quickly fires the surly and crooked trainer who has the farm on the edge of financial ruin and is advised by Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson) to coax Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich) off the golf course and back to the stables.
Lauren says he’s “tired of training half-ton animals that are as stubborn as their owners,” but agrees to work for Ms. Chenery when he learns she lost a coin flip, ending up with the colt whose dam is Somethingroyal, sired by Bold Ruler. The colt which miraculously stands immediately upon birth, turns out to be, after 10 name submissions are rejected by the Jockey Club, Secretariat.
When aggressive jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thurworth) is matched with Big Red the magic begins and Secretariat earns horse of the year honors as a two year old. But Uncle Sam lurks, wanting $6 million in inheritance taxes. Penny’s brother, “even though he teaches economics at Harvard, doesn’t know how to create $6 million out of nowhere” and insists that the horse of the year be sold. Penny’s husband (Dylan Walsh, from TV’s Nip/Tuck) sides with Penny’s brother, and later can’t believe she turns down $8 million for Big Red.
Instead she syndicates the breeding rights, but has to provide a performance guarantee, all the while being constantly reminded that no son of Bold Ruler has ever gone a mile and a half. If Secretariat doesn’t win the Triple Crown, it means financial disaster. And until the final stretch, the Kentucky Derby looked like it belonged to Sham, a horse that had defeated Big Red decisively at the final Derby-prep race, the Wood Memorial.
The only thing disputed about Secretariat’s Preakness win is the time. The track’s electronic timer malfunctioned. But heading into the Belmont Stakes, Big Red was a national celebrity, appearing on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.
Appropriately, the Belmont is the movie’s climax. And while it’s hard to compete with the YouTube of the actual race, Wallace captures the amazement felt by the movie’s primary characters as Secretariat continues to run faster and faster, despite Sham fading after 6 furlongs. With Secretariat so far ahead it looked like a solo morning workout and Lauren yells “Don’t fall off Ronnie!” As CBS Television announcer Chic Anderson unforgettably described, “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!”
Cynical turf writers Bill Nack (Kevin Connelly, HBO’s Entourage) and Andrew Beyer (Eric Lange, from TV’s Lost) are stunned as the big chestnut stallion destroys the field and they celebrate along with everyone else when Secretariat crosses the finish line. Big Red went off at 1-10 that day, paying only $2.20 on a $2.00 bet. Many winning bettors didn’t cash their tickets, instead keeping them as souvenirs. Andrew Beyer would later devise the Beyer Speed Figure, an essential tool for any horse racing handicapper. Beyer has gone back and calculated that Secretariat ran a 139 that day, the highest ever assigned.
In a memorable scene Penny comments to Bill Nack that he writes like a poet and asks why he writes about horse racing. He replies that he used to cover politics, but he wanted to write about both ends of the horse instead. Nack’s Secretariat: The Making of a Champion inspired the movie and was described by Red Smith as “The next best thing to watching Secretariat run.”
Nack recalls Secretariat as a “chivalrous prince of a colt who was playful and mischievous — he once grabbed my notebook out of my hand with his teeth, when I was talking to his groom, Ed Sweat — and stayed the same as a stallion at Claiborne. A kid could have ridden him. The older he got, it seemed, the more of a ham he became, and throughout his life he used to stop and pose whenever he heard the click of a camera.”
Secretariat sired over 600 foals before he died in 1989, and was buried, unlike most horses who are cremated.
Sure, some poetic license was taken with the story. For one thing the movie makes no mention of Riva Ridge, another of Penny Tweedy’s horses that came within one race of winning the Triple Crown the year before Secretariat. And it’s hard to imagine that Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) who trained Sham was as big a loudmouthed jerk as he was portrayed in the movie.
But if a cavalry charge of horses at the top of the stretch makes your heart pound, this movie is a must. I, like my old friend Burt, have spent probably too much time contemplating the immediate futures of thoroughbreds, attempting to make a buck or two. Burt ranked Secretariat as his 3rd greatest horse of all time, behind Man o’ War and Citation. Reasonable men can disagree. For my money Secretariat was the greatest horse of all time. There won’t be another one like him. And there won’t be another Burt Blumert. The only thing that would make Secretariat better is if Burt were here to see it.
Doug French [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply. He received the Murray N. Rothbard Award from the Center for Libertarian Studies. See his tribute to Murray Rothbard.