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Neither Thoroughbred, Nor Nag

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

In 1973, a remarkable horse, Secretariat, accomplished the amazing and captured the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years by winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. The story behind the stellar horse that pulled off this astonishing feat is the subject of director Randall Wallace’s latest film simply titled Secretariat.

Secretariat opens with Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) caught in a tough spot. Her mother recently passed and her father is not in great health. Meadow Stables has been in the family for generations, but Penny’s father is in no shape to continue running things. Penny’s nostalgia (more than anything else) compels her to give it a shot despite the fact that she’s “just a housewife.”

In short order, we learn that despite Penny’s lack of experience, she’s sharp, bold, and not one to back down. Diane Lane does a reasonable job playing Penny, but it’s hard to see Lane as more than a housewife given her history of saccharine turns in films like Must Love Dogs and Nights in Rodanthe.

The fates smile on Penny and bless her with a great horse in the form of Secretariat. But, without a solid trainer, Penny is effectively stymied. Fortunately, she connects with recently retired trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich).

Cantankerous and cynical, Lucien finally comes around and agrees to take on Secretariat primarily to exorcise his own demons, largely associated with a dearth of victories. Malkovich nearly steals the show with another great performance as the quirky, brilliant, and volatile Lucien.

What unfolds in Secretriat is a somewhat compelling, but largely predictable story of a woman and her remarkable horse. Penny’s inconvenient decision to tackle the sizable task of keeping Meadow Stables and Secretariat afloat creates marital stress, but it never seems that Penny is in any real danger of losing her husband or family.

Penny encounters some resistance within the racing community given that she’s a woman and a “housewife,” but this seems like a minor annoyance more than anything else. The stakes are high for Penny, but director Randall Wallace doesn’t really do enough to make one question or doubt how things will turn out.

We know what the outcome is, so all Wallace can really do is take liberties with how we get there. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take enough liberties and while complications are introduced, most of them simply fizzle out and disappear rather than escalate dramatically in any substantive way.

Then again, this may have less to do with Wallace and more to do with Mike Rich and William Nack who penned the screenplay and have done a number of inspirational sports stories based on actual events (The Rookie, Radio).

While there’s little question Secretariat was a remarkable horse and still considered by many to be the best thoroughbred race horse ever, the story behind it doesn’t come to life as vividly as one would hope.