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Associated Press

Secretariat Movie: Fact & Fiction

October 09, 2010 06:00 AM
by Mark E. Moran
Disney’s “Secretariat” hits theaters this weekend, introducing a new generation to a racehorse many call the best ever. We take a look at the true life story of Secretariat, the winner of horse racing's Triple Crown in 1973.
As with all movies that are “based on” a true story, many viewers will wonder how Disney’s depiction departs from reality. The Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer, one of racing pre-eminent writers, writes that Secretariat’s story “didn’t have a triumph-of-the-underdog theme that is a staple of sports movies. Nor were the people surrounding him especially colorful or lovable.”

He commends Diane Lane’s portrayal of Penny Tweedy, Secretariat’s owner, noting that there are some “sentimental embellishments.” But when it comes to the horse himself, Beyer writes, “Disney didn’t have to embellish Secretariat's achievements. In fact, the film almost understates them.”

For those writers who want to nitpick every historical inaccuracy, Beyer argues that “purists should forgive the inaccuracies and relish the fact that Secretariat's story has finally come to the screen, giving a younger generation the chance to appreciate the horse's feats.”

Steven Crist of The Daily Racing Form is one such “purist” who took a hard look at the film’s accuracy. Though the filmmakers used William Nack's “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” which Crist termed “the definitive biography of the colt,” as their main source, Crist notes that the film’s marketing says the film is “suggested by” the book, rather than “based on” or “adapted from.”

“Unfortunately, the movie took too few suggestions and too many liberties,” Crist writes. His principal objection is the film’s premise that there was a “performance clause” in Secretariat’s syndication agreement that put Tweedy in “constant financial jeopardy if Secretariat loses races.” In fact, the clause never existed and Tweedy had already solved all her financial difficulties. “The idea that Secretariat had to win the Triple Crown to save Meadow Stud is sheer fiction,” Crist concludes.

The Louisville Courier-Journal discussed the role that Leonard Lusky, a long-time friend of Penny Tweedy, played in helping the filmmakers get the story correct, including selecting the five horse who collectively played the role of Secretariat.

Lusky explained to the Disney filmmakers, “Secretariat is not your average horse. This was the Charles Atlas of horses. He was just a beautiful physical specimen; you would be lucky to get a horse half as muscular.”

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