JC / Railbird

The Meadow

Notes on “Secretariat”

In a morning matinee at a downtown Boston multiplex, I watched “Secretariat” on Saturday, and as Vic Zast wrote last month in his informal review of the film, “I couldn’t wait for it to end.” I knew, going in, to expect schmaltz and historical inaccuracies. I didn’t expect to be bored.

Plenty has been written elsewhere, so I’ll only make a couple observations:

Several reviewers have noted as inaccurate an early scene in which horses are saddled in the barn area, horse laundry and manure pits in the background. I don’t believe that was an error — for a movie about the well-to-do and the well-bred, in which the final, stirring scene ostensibly takes place at one of America’s grandest tracks (and was actually filmed at one of the prettiest), “Secretariat” goes to great lengths to show Penny Chenery and the rest of the characters in rundown or rough settings when they’re on track. Paddocks are of brick and concrete, backstretches lined with tractors and sheds, tunnels dank. The racetrack visuals in “Secretariat,” minus those of the Churchill Downs clubhouse and Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, overwhelmingly create an impression of the track as primarily a working class milieu, bolstering the film’s portrayal of Chenery as a scrappy everywoman.

I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly wasn’t quite right about the racing scenes — other than the gimmicky angles and strange lack of energy — and think it has something to do with the sense of smallness that pervaded the movie. Everything about the story — the low stakes, the settings, even Secretariat — came off as minor and incidental. Nothing was ever truly at risk.

I did appreciate one touch of authenticity. When Lucien Laurin returns to his car after meeting Chenery for the first time, he pulls from his trunk a book and flips to an ad for The Meadow. He’s looking at the “Blood-Horse Gold Anniversary Edition,” published in 1967; the ad appears on page 488.

Ad for the Meadow from 1966

10/12/10 Addendum: Bill Doolittle nails one thing the movie did well: “The movie isn’t just true to the tale, it’s true to the turf, getting just right the special dynamic that exists between the people of horse racing — the trainers and owners and jockeys and fans — and the horses.”

10/15/10 Addendum: But Steve Davidowitz expresses more of my feeling re: the movie, days after viewing: “At the bottom line, those of us who love racing for the uniqueness of its champion horses and for its beautiful venues and for the sheer pleasure of playing the best game man has ever invented, will have to swallow down hard to go with the flow of this distorted, over hyped waste of a great cinematic opportunity.”