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TrackNotes: Disney's Fraud

Third and last in a series.

I'm a lucky guy.

Being single, I've never had to go Kremlin on any kids in order to censor, block, shun or protect them from all things Disney. Which I would do with every fiber of my being. That annual parade on Michigan Avenue gives me the willies.

This loathing has protected me, I think, from the insidious tentacles of Disney's intellectually bankrupt crusades over the years to shape culture for its own social and commercial gain.

Secretariat: The Impossible True Story is a new, prime example of a fine story cranked through the Disney meat grinder, under the direction of Randall Wallace, a movie guy with a big Christian street rep. Screenplay by Mike Rich.

They saw fit to turn the tale of one of the finest Thoroughbreds to ever live into a heavy-handed statement piece about religion, politics, and good versus evil, with evil manufactured to meet their own ends. I really don't think it has very much at all to do with Secretariat or Thoroughbred horse racing.

After the aerial view of the big Disney castle to remind me who brought me this fine entertainment, it was "SECRETARIAT" in that golden font they have, and blaring, aggressive music. The entire score was reality show drama music on steroids.

The movie begins and ends with a bibilical reference about horses from Job.

When it was over, I wondered "Why did they try to hit me over the head with all that biblical crap?" By that time, the Christian parable was full circle. Were they using it to boost sales in the Bible Belt? Or did they do it to stay in the good graces of that demographic? Was Wallace sermonizing? With Disney, it's probably all three.

From the scene of Secretariat being foaled in a manger straight out of Bethlehem to him running out of the heavens and into the races; the use twice of Edward Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day," once blatantly alluding to baptism as they soaped down Secretariat ("when Jesus washed"), Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) clearly fulfilling the Mother Mary role; Secretariat figuratively carrying Penny to salvation under The Staples "I'll Take You There."

Was it a sin for Penny to get all independent and take care of Meadow Stable, diverting a good part of her time and attention to the horses and not to the domestic bliss of a put-upon husband and four kids who don't even know how to load a washing machine? The movie implies as much but, hey, as long as the horse wins, Penny will be saved. Especially after her husband betrays her.

It was an outrageous Louisville Slugger in the shape of a cross, square upside my head.

Why? Because they can? It was cheap and insulting.

And then there was the treatment of politics and feminism.

It's a Disney cartoon as the film voyeuristically attempts to take us back to 1969 as feminism and anti-war sentiment were gaining steam. Disney sure didn't want to have any part of it back then. What's Wallace's explanation?

Penny's daughters drop the bombshell of asking to spend a couple of months in newly socialist Chile, "to protest the war." And Kate (Amanda Michalka) is having a heck of a time getting her anti-war play onto the stage at school. Her smarmy old man, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) counters with something about the kids not giving the school timely and open discovery of the topic of the play. You calling your daughter a sneak and a liar, Jack?

Do the daughters go to Chile? Beats me. But after we see the well-scrubbed suburban kids making protest signs, Penny having to listen to her daughter's play, finally produced, on the phone because she's at a race with Secretariat, Penny assuring Kate that while their politics may differ, they both really do just want to be independent women and then having a good cry, we're rescued, Disney-style, from the prospect of Kate degenerating into a filthy, Communist Hippie.

How? Jack and the kids make their entrance into the Belmont Stakes pre-race ball and Kate is all gussied up in a beautiful gown just like, guess what, a princess. Penny tells her she really, really is beautiful, as if she hasn't always been. Holy Karl Marx, that was a close one.

And the media buzz about Penny taking on the chauvinist pig men at their own game, defying all odds to run the ultimate horse?

Well, Penny does fire a shady trainer (Graham McTavish) who looks like he would love to haul off and punch her. And she crashes an all-male social club to get a meeting with Bull Hancock (Fred Dalton Thompson) to seek his help in finding a new trainer. And she fires it right back at Ron Turcotte (real jockey Otto Thorwarth) during the tough jockey interview.

But we never get any real indication that the horsey people are trying to sabotage her, and I don't think that really happened anyway. Her father, Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn) was a highly respected breeder and horseman and monied people tend to stick together, don't they? She works seamlessly with Seth Hancock (Drew Roy) in planning and executing the stud syndication deal, and even persuades Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) to buy the first share in the horse he lost in a coin toss to get the syndication ball rolling.

But it's in the racing aspects where Wallace and Rich blatantly fabricate events and conflicts and the film irretrievably degenerates into its permanent fraudulence.

The rationale doesn't come until the credits start rolling and we see "Suggested By" the William Nack biography Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. So Nack apparently took the money and let them destroy his well-reported account? But he did get a cameo, so he's got that goin' for him.

* Penny, her son, trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) were not in the foaling shed when Secretariat was born. And they wouldn't have been there. There was a veterinarian, the foaling supervisor and another hand there to assist. Standard procedure.

* "The farm has been (and is) losing money for years!" Not quite. Meadow Stable emerged from difficult times through the winning exploits of Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes in 1972. Not too shabby. Riva won the stable more than $1.1 million over his career. It was Riva Ridge who "saved the farm."

* There was no account I could find of Penny Chenery firing a fraudulent trainer upon her arrival after her mother's death. And she didn't just burst on to the scene at that point. She had at least kept tabs on things for years before that.

* Chenery did not meet and hire Ron Turcotte the day after he took a spill and walked into the diner looking like the wrong end of a Road Runner cartoon. Turcotte already had a strong relationship with fellow French-Canadian Laurin and Meadow Stable. He was already Riva Ridge's regular rider.

* Unconscionably, the screenplay says that the syndication deal to send Secretariat to stud after his three-year-old racing year contained a performance clause, strongly suggesting that if Secretariat were to lose two races in the year, the value of the $190,000 stud shares would diminish and a refund would be in order, or she might lose the horse altogether.

After Big Red loses the Wood Memorial right before the Derby, Ogden Phipps basically calls "Strike One!" right to Penny's face. In fact, Penny's shrewdness in the deal guaranteed that she could run Secretariat anywhere and in any damned race she wanted to, and that she would keep all purse money he earned on the track. She simply had to deliver Secretariat to stud in November 1973, and he would have to pass fertility tests.

Then the movie insults Chenery by depicting a temper tantrum, dressing down Laurin and Turcotte, over the money they might give up with another loss.

* In the movie, Penny proclaims her guarantee that Secretariat is going to win the Triple Crown. Nack's book reports the opposite - that she thought Bold Ruler's lack of distance pedigree would probably prohibit Secretariat from getting the 10-furlong distance in the Belmont. Horse owners and trainers do not go around guaranteeing victories, even if they know they have the best horse.

* Then the movie tells its biggest lie - that it was Sham who won the Wood Memorial when, in fact, it was Angle Light. Sham finished second and Secretariat third. Their purpose was to manufacture conflict between Sham's trainer, Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) and give Sham's jockey, Laffit Pincay (Keith Austin) the opportunity to give Turcotte the evil eye in the paddock and in the gate. Lucien Laurin also trained Angle Light for a different owner.

They use the lie to stage two Tyson-Holyfield type press conferences between the three legs of the Triple Crown, where Martin is portrayed as a perfect jerk, insulting Chenery both professionally and as a woman. Wouldn't happen. Didn't happen.

What, they couldn't depict the tremendous internal, external and media pressures Secretariat's connections were facing as he attempted to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown?

By then, Secretariat was an international sensation, making history in the three most important races in America. Chenery's marriage to Jack Tweedy was on the verge of collapse. And she was genuinely worried that Secretariat could break down, given his all-out running style. Why couldn't they at least try to explain why Secretariat was so fast and how much he loved to run?

The racing scenes fall flat. The Derby is just okay, and we see the Preakness by watching the actors watch the race on a television set in the Tweedy's living room.

Apparently, they couldn't get Belmont for the Belmont Stakes and it shows. It was impossible for the filmmakers to depict the very long back stretch and homestretch of Belmont when they were using Keeneland. The head-on telephoto shot of Secretariat ahead the legendary 31 lengths at the finish also fails.

Diane Lane was excellent, even as her dialogue became more and more ridiculous. John Malkovich plays John Malkovich playing Lucien Laurin. He didn't even try for the French accent and it shows when he tries to summon up some French profanity in tough times. Thorwarth is excellent as Turcotte - even looks a lot like him.

The best part of the movie is afterwards, when they show real photos and some information on what the main characters ended up doing in their lives.

One question I have is why the media and many fans put up with this fraudulent foolishness from Disney. Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey, of all people, takes the "I'm not a movie critic" cop-out. "Think of Secretariat as a combination of truthy and fictionesque, and be at peace." Okay, Jay.

Even Chenery has doubts about the film. "There are some omissions, some contrivances," she told the Daily Racing Form.

Roger Ebert takes pains to tell us his close personal friendship with Nack won't affect his review, and then it does. Roger, I luv ya, but you should have given this one to Roeper.

Gapers Block's Steve Prokopy was fairly typical as many film critics reviewing the movie as just a movie. "I will always be impressed by Penny Chenery's accomplishments and intuition, but I was not much impressed with this disposable and forgettable telling of her story life in horse racing."

There's a lot of "I cried" and "lighten up, it's just a movie" out there on the forums - even those dedicated to horse racing.

But I'm not going to swallow this crap from Disney. Ever.

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Pt. 1: Secretariat's Not Impossible Story.

Pt. 2: Secretariat Knew.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday and welcomes your comments.

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