Preakness has pivotal, albeit not starring, role in 'Secretariat'

Rather than re-create Pimlico, director Randall Wallace uses footage from the 1973 race

  • Diane Lane stars as Denver housewife turned racehorse owner Penny Chenery Tweedy in this fall's "Secretariat."
Diane Lane stars as Denver housewife turned racehorse owner… (John Bramley, Walt Disney…)
September 10, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

One contender for autumn box-office honors might break away from the field. With "Secretariat" (opening nationwide in October), director Randall Wallace has crafted a stirring, fact-inspired fable about the 1973 Triple Crown winner who was the greatest champ in horse-racing history.

But Baltimore racing fans swept up in Secretariat's come-from-behind victory at the Kentucky Derby will get a surprise as Wallace guides the story into the Preakness.

The director makes his most daring and unexpected move when the action shifts to Northwest Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. Rather than lavish the same attention on re-creating Old Hilltop that he did on Churchill Downs, he shows the middle jewel of the Triple Crown entirely on television, as Secretariat owner Penny Chenery Tweedy's husband and four children follow the broadcast in their family room in Denver.

Wallace says he wants to make sure Baltimore readers would know that "in the movie they're seeing the footage of the real Secretariat winning the Preakness. That's the only time in the film where Secretariat plays himself."

And he proceeded to explain why doing the Preakness that way actually brought it closer to the core of the movie.

Wallace set himself three challenges on "Secretariat":

"I wanted the audience to enter the races as participants, not as spectators; I wanted viewers to feel they were inside the races, as if they were the jockeys and the horses, feeling the dirt in your face, the speed under your feet, the horse's heart pounding like your heart. A visceral, primary experience."

"Secretariat" wraps its popular poetry around the story of Penny Tweedy ( Diane Lane), a Denver housewife turned racehorse owner who stakes her identity and character on Secretariat's prowess. Wallace does a terrific job of getting audiences to feel as if they're taking a leap of faith along with Tweedy, even though many know how the story ends up.

"I wanted you to experience not just the statistics of Secretariat but the emotional experience of who Secretariat was, and the qualities of courage, hope and faith that were part of him and the people around him, particularly Penny," Wallace says.

"And finally, I wanted it to be a movie that affirmed those values. This movie says that if you're courageous and follow your heart, you don't always end up slaughtered. Those qualities do prevail. You might have noticed that I wrote the song at the end of the movie. It encapsulates the qualities I wanted in the whole film. It's not about how fast or how far: It's about who you are. It's not about who is less and who is more. You run because you want to see how far and fast you can go, and you only know that if you go out and try to win."

So how does this relate to the way he showed the running of the Preakness?

Wallace thinks it does in every way.

The film sharply depicts how Penny Tweedy's quest to revive her late father's Virginia horse farm strained her bonds with her brother, Hollis Chenery (a brilliant Harvard economics professor, played by Dylan Baker), and her husband, John Tweedy (a Columbia-trained lawyer, played by Dylan Walsh), and stole her focus from her four growing children. Pennyf, a smart, tenacious woman, was a Smith graduate who met Tweedy when she was studying at Columbia Business School.

Wallace says, "When I was working on the script, I kept asking whether we would understand the internal emotional qualities of Penny. … What does it matter if she wins or loses? What is at stake?"

Penny adored her father, Chris ( Scott Glenn), and inherited his love for horses. But that wasn't enough to instantly enroll her in the exclusive men's club of thoroughbred owners and breeders. Wallace says that while she proved herself as a sportswoman, she found that "doing the best she could, and pursuing what she felt was her true identity, separated her from her children in distance and emotion." She literally bet the farm on Secretariat — and tested her faith in herself.

"Playing out Preakness as a televised event let me show the impact on her family," Wallace says. "To me, it's one of the most moving parts of the film: The family participates at a distance."

Pimlico marks the beginning of a rise in the action that's just as important to Wallace as the conquest of the Triple Crown. Penny realizes that because she made honest choices, straight from the heart, she and her kids will be all right. (In real life, she and her husband ultimately were divorced.)

"And it makes a broader point, too," Wallace says. "Tens of thousands of people may go to Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont, but millions more watch these races at home. This is my more personalized way of saying that."

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