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Movie Review: "Secretariat" provides thrills even for non-sports fans

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Directed by: Randall Wallace
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn
Rated: PG

It's been a long time since I've seen a film that when the final credits began to roll, the crowd burst into applause. Randall Wallace's film “Secretariat” - about the legendary racehorse of the same name - elicited that response.

It's not - by a long shot - the best movie of the year and it follows the tried and true formula that a certain type of Disney live-action films have purveyed since “Old Yeller” in 1957, “Big Red” in 1962 , through “Snow Dogs” in 2002.

Having a noble main character who overcomes the odds and never loses any degree of dignity is always a good approach. When that character is an animal, the formula works all the better.

Secretariat is such a character. Widely cited as the finest racehorse to ever run, Secretariat's story is legendary and a matter of historical record. The fact that the audience already knows the outcome of each race - and the end of the overall story - doesn't diminish the film's power or excitement.

While Diane Lane and John Malkovich are fine actors, it is the five horses that play Secretariat that capture the viewer's attention and heart. They needed five horses to do justice to all of the aspects of the original steed. By all accounts, Secretariat himself was not only a great runner but also liked to pose for the camera. He seemed to be self-aware of his celebrity. And it was for certain he loved to run.

I'm a long time vegetarian and somewhat of a tree-hugger/animal lover and am not really sure how I feel about horse racing in general. But I've read enough about it (much of that was done as research for this review) to believe that some horses were born to run and love the thrill of the race, the cheer of the crowd and the flash of the cameras. And Secretariat remains the champion of champions in the realm of equine related sport.

There's also a human story that runs throughout the film as a major sub-plot.

Ms. Lane plays Penny Chenery, the daughter of  Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn) who is in ill health after the death of his wife. The family owns a large farm and stables and have been breeding horses for years. With Chris in ailing health, the estate is in peril. Penny realizes she must commute between her home and family in Denver to the farm in Virginia in order to save the place and her  heritage.

Two horses are about to foal and the Chenerys have had a long-standing deal with the stud provider. They flip a coin, with the winner getting the pick of the newborns. Penny loses the toss but ends up with the horse she wanted in the first place, a colt they have named Big Red. Trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) are amazed when they witness the birth of Big Red. Neither have ever seen a foal get his legs as quickly as this horse managed. He stood up almost immediately after being born.

Penny falls in love with the horse, and, as training begins, it's apparent the this boy has the heart and soul of a racehorse.

They run him - under the official name of Secretariat - when he's a 2-year-old and he is named “Horse of the Year” by the folks who rank those sort of things.

With the farm being in arrears to the tune of $6 million, everyone around Penny urges her to sell Secretariat (the offers are plentiful) but she is emotionally attached and knows in her heart that this horse is bound for greatness.

Instead of selling him, she syndicates the steed - and the rights of his siring services - for an unprecedented sum. At first she has no takers because of the price and the fact Secretariat hasn't yet proven himself as a 3-year-old (the prime age for big-money race horses.) But soon all shares are sold, she saves the farm and only has to worry about the performance clause the shareholders maintain. Secretariat has to prove himself in his third year or the shareholders get their money back.

The third act of the film follows that legendary year (1973) when Secretariat won The Triple Crown. He was the first horse to have done that in 25 years.

Belmont is the longest track of  The Triple Crown races. The one thing critics of Secretariat pointed out was that, while he was fast, he wasn't a distance runner.

And he was up against his longtime rival, a horse named Sham.

Secretariat won the race by an unprecedented 31 lengths, a record that most horse racing aficionados feel will never be broken.

Even though you know what the outcome of the race will be, you'll still find your heart racing as fast as Secretariat is running.

“Secretariat” is a great sports movie. Even if you don't care, don't know anything about horse racing, or aren't a sports fan, you will get a thrill here if you love movies with a hero you can honestly root for.

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