Only eleven horses in history have ever done it. The last one cinched it in 1978. Needless to say, winning the U.S. Triple Crown of horse racing is a grueling feat—three races in three states in five weeks. In the movie Secretariat, audiences follow one horse and his owner through the taxing attempt to earn their way into that trio of prestigious winner’s circles.
In 1968, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lang) travels with her family from Denver to Doswell, Virginia to attend her mother’s funeral at her parents’ horse breeding estate. With her father (Scott Glenn) suffering from deteriorating mental health, the farm’s finances have fallen into trouble. So when her husband (Dylan Walsh) and children (Amanda Michalka, Carissa Capobianco, Sean Michael Cunningham and Jacob Rhodes) need to return to Colorado, she decides to stay behind. Though her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) is eager to sell the place and recoup what money they can, Penny determines to get their operation out of the red.
Her first move is to hire a new trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). The cranky French-Canadian wears garish clothes and regularly grumbles about his responsibilities. But he is there the night the Chenery’s mare delivers a colt. Pinning their hopes for the future on the little thoroughbred, Penny and the groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) watch with Lucien as the foal clambers to his feet just moments after he is born.
In the meantime, Penny slacks up on the reins as a housewife. Relying increasingly on her family to keep things running at home, she stays close to the stables as the young stallion is prepared for the track. However after Secretariat falters during his first race with an inexperienced jockey in the saddle, Penny appeals to Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) to put on the farm’s blue and white silks.
Knowing the outcome of Secretariat’s historic run for the roses doesn’t distract from the gripping story surrounding the big, red runner. Compelling performances from a large cast—even those with limited screen time—help create convincing characters who often take on incredible risks to see their dreams through.
While raised voices and some sibling disputes are the result of growing tensions over Secretariat’s future, the script is almost entirely free of profanities. The use of alcohol is most often seen at social gatherings, though Penny eases her sadness over her father’s death with a drink.
Still the story of this thundering equine and his come-from-behind victories will give families plenty to cheer for at the finish line.