There's a certain simplicity in racing, a certain elegance and purity.
There are no bases to steal, no field goals to kick, no penalty boxes to sit in. You don't need to be an expert to understand the objective: cross the finish line first.
It's ironic, then, that racing is so often used as a metaphor for life. "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us," the author of Hebrews tells us. We talk of how life is a marathon, not a sprint … how we need to pace ourselves, keep our feet on the path and eyes fixed on the finish. Yet many of us, if we're honest, don't want to finish the race that quickly. Heavenly riches aside, we're in no hurry to break the tape. Metaphorically, the race isn't about who finishes first, but who finishes best.
Penny Tweedy knows something about that metaphor.
Born and raised on Meadow Farm, a thoroughbred-breeding operation in rural Virginia, Penny grew up around powerful animals who lived to run: every muscle honed for movement, every sinew set for flight. Then life took a turn when Penny married, and she left the farm for Denver and new duties as a wife, a mother, a homemaker.
When Penny's mother dies, the track takes another twist. Flying back home, she finds her father—once a savvy horse breeder—growing ever more crippled by dementia and the dwindling fortunes of the family farm. Best thing to do, Penny's brother advises, is to put Dad in a hospital, sell the horses and liquidate everything.
For Penny, though, selling the farm would be akin to quitting the race—an unthinkable sin for her. So she quickly gets to work shoring things up. She fires the farm's current trainer (who's been making some shady deals on the side), dives into the minutia of the business and discovers that her father had an important handshake deal with Ogden Phipps, one of the richest men in the country. The deal goes like this: Phipps would allow his famed racing stallion, Bold Ruler, to breed with two of Meadow Farm's mares. One of the resulting foals would go to Phipps' farm, the other would stay at the Meadows. A coin toss would decide which foal went where.
At a neutral site, Phipps wins the flip and, naturally, chooses the most promising foal. He leaves feeling quite satisfied with the result.
And Penny? She's satisfied, too. Life, after all, isn't a coin toss: It's a race. And she has a feeling her second-rate foal may turn into a first-class racehorse.
Penny's foal, as you've surely surmised, was Secretariat, arguably the greatest thoroughbred of all time. He won the Triple Crown in 1973 and set records in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that, 37 years later, still haven't been broken.
But Secretariat's success wasn't preordained: It took a lot of determination, risk, faith and work from all the people around him (and not just a little from the horse himself) to get into the winner's circle. And Penny showed as much faith, put in as much hard work and risked more than anyone.
For a while it seems that she's risked too much. But Penny talks about the legacy her father left her with, a legacy to do everything you can to win "and live with it if you can't." And for her, "winning" means saving and keeping her father's farm to preserve his legacy. To do so means making some serious sacrifices: She leaves her home and family in Denver for sometimes weeks at a time. And while she tries to be as supportive and motherly as she can, as you watch the movie, you can tell she feels the loss. One night, Penny listens to her daughter perform in a pageant by phone. And as she hears her daughter sing "Silent Night," connected only by a receiver more than 1,000 miles away, she breaks down in tears.
Her husband is not very supportive of Penny's risk-taking at first. "If you stumble and fall, you don't make us fools," he says. "You make us beggars." But as he sees their four children grow ever more excited about their mother's involvement with Secretariat, he comes around. Their eldest daughter, Kate—an anti-war activist during the time the movie unfolds—comes to see her traditional, prim-and-proper mother as something of a hero. "I'm so proud of you," she tells Penny.
"You taught the children what a real woman is," Mr. Tweedy tells his wife. "You taught me something, too."
Secretariat begins with a quotation from Job 39: "Do you give the horse his strength, or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?" The movie then proceeds to cascade through seven verses of the book's powerful poetry, closing the reference with, "In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds."
It's a surprisingly spiritual beginning to a sports film, and themes of faith echo throughout the rest of it. Penny's mother is laid to rest during a Christian funeral, and as her father lies dying, too, Penny talks to him about Secretariat's chance to win the Triple Crown. As his heart monitor flatlines, she gently says, "I hope you can see it." Bull Hancock, a good friend of Penny's father, dies almost at the same time, and the film suggests that there's something spiritually poetic with the two being united in death as they were in life. Eddie Sweat tells Penny, "I don't know the ways of God," but he believes Bull and Penny's pops were brought together in life to support one another, and he hopes Penny can find someone to support her in the same way.
After a particularly hard day trying to raise money to save the farm, Penny joins Eddie in grooming Secretariat to the tune of the gospel song "Oh Happy Day."
Miss Ham, the farm's secretary, and Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's trainer, rub their backsides together in a bit of a suggestive manner during a spontaneous dance.
We hear quite a lot about horse breeding.
There's some fear that the fiercely competitive jockey Ron Turcotte might run Secretariat to death. The tension and danger associated with a group of horses pounding down a racetrack gets a bit of screen time. We hear about how, in an early race, Secretariat and an inexperienced jockey were bounced around on the track "like a pinball."
Crude or Profane Language
Two uses of "h‑‑‑" and two misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mr. Tweedy asks Penny to pick up some wine for their guests.
Other Negative Elements
Secretariat urinates on a journalist. Lucien says a rival trainer couldn't "train a monkey to pick his own butt." There's a reference to bowel movements. Gambling is mentioned a couple of times.
"I gave up a career to have a family," Penny tells her husband, who is frustrated that she's spending so much time away from home. "This horse is part of our family now."
That statement triggers a fleeting but pesky thought. Penny, elegantly embodied by Diane Lane, is a classy, conflicted protagonist—full of grace and guts, much like her famous horse. Though we might detect a tinge of reproach in her statement, we never get the sense that she dislikes her role as a wife, mother and homemaker. She loves her family, and she encourages her daughters to strive to succeed in whatever they do, even if she's uncertain about their quasi-hippie leanings.
"Political beliefs change," she tells them. "Our need to do what we think is right doesn't."
For Penny, the "right" thing is to save the family breeding operation. To do that, she needs Secretariat to be a world-class success. And to make that happen, she must sacrifice something. She must sacrifice time with her family.
In the end, of course, Penny gets the best of both worlds: Secretariat wins the Triple Crown, the farm is saved, her husband gains a new appreciation for her and her children find in her a new hero. After watching her children and co-workers dance together on the eve before the Belmont, Penny sneaks into Secretariat's stable and whispers to him, "I realized something. I've already won."
For some folks, I think, Penny's decisions will be unquestioningly accepted as wholly honorable. For me, they're a bit more ambiguous. It's fantastic to try to save the family farm. But we all know how important it is to spend mass quantities of time with your children, and Penny's laudable goal requires that she relinquish some of that time. That doesn't make her less of a loving mother, but it does make her, at times, an absentee mother. And there's something a little sad about that.
Granted, moviemakers don't typically make films about folks who pushed aside "great things" to concentrate more fiercely on the joys and duties of raising a family—which I'd argue is the most important job in the world. And the sacrifices Penny makes are perhaps not that much different than I've made in my own career. Most of us have jobs that take us away from our family at times. Life, in this regard, is a balancing act for every one of us.
And so in writing this, I've become convinced that it's not fair to end on a sour note. Because Secretariat—a movie heavy on beauty and inspiration, and very light on any sort of problematic content—is the story of a horse that could fly. We can argue about whether Penny did what she was "meant" to do. And I can speculate that in a reasonably healthy way this film allows families to grapple with what she did.
But there's no question that the horse fulfilled his purpose.
"I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast," says Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, another film about racing and life. "And when I run, I feel His pleasure."
When Secretariat comes around the bend in the Belmont, hooves thundering against the packed earth, all fades to silence for a moment. And then a gospel choir takes voice, and the pleasure of God rolls across the screen as we watch the horse, all mane and muscle, bound toward history.