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Books-Into-Movies: “Secretariat” (based on the book SECRETARIAT) December 10, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book synopsis, books, books compared to movies, books into movies, Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Lucien Lauren, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Penny Tweedy, Secretariat, William Nack.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

(This is a post from a blog I discontinued last year, “Books Into Movies.” This was first posted at that blog on October 15, 2010.)

“Secretariat” (Movie Release Date: October 8, 2010)

Based on the book Secretariat, written by William Nack, first published in 1975 under the title Big Red of the Meadow Stable, recent edition offered in 2010 with a new preface and an article at the end about Secretariat’s death.

The Movie: “Secretariat” the movie is a wonderfully crafted visual representation of William Nack’s book. There are deviations from the book, to heighten drama and for time efficiency. But the movie is generally faithful to the book, and the races themselves are spot-on with the book, offered with stunning, riveting thunder and motion.

The story starts in Denver with Helen “Penny” Chenery Tweedy learning about the death of her mother. This is the perfect place to begin the story, as it begins Penny Tweedy’s direct involvement with horse racing and the Chenery stable, known as “the Meadow.” The other background information at the outset of Nack’s book comes in with less detail, leaking in clips as the story moves forward.

The family scenes, with the daughter involved with the protests-politics of the 1960s/early 70s are not in the book. Penny Tweedy’s family gets a great deal more prominence in the movie than in the book. Little dramas like the daughters wanting to go to Chile, and Penny Tweedy missing her daughter’s play, are not in the book.

The secretary of the Meadow, Elizabeth Hamm, does name the horse (and much earlier in Secretariat’s life than in the movie), but her role as confidante and moral support for Penny Tweedy is not featured in the book, though there are references to her sitting with Penny Tweedy at races. Bull Hancock and his son Seth are very much represented as they were in the book. Bull Hancock also serves to symbolize the help Penny Tweedy apparently got from a number of seasoned race horse professionals as she took on more responsibility at the Chenery’s stable.

The movie portrays more conflict over whether or not to sell the Meadow, and instead of a sister and a brother, in the movie, Penny Tweedy has only a brother. As I mentioned in my summary of the book, the conflict over selling off the Meadow seemed mild to me as described in the book.

Lucien Laurin’s joining of the Chenery stable is simplified and dramatically sharpened for the movie. Nothing is mentioned in the movie about his son’s tenure at the Chenery stable before Lucien Laurin’s arrival. In fact, the horse Riva Ridge is never mentioned, a horse than won two legs of the Triple Crown the year before Secretariat’s run, and no mention is made that Laurin was training other horses, including Angle Light, the horse who beats Secretariat at the Wood Memorial, just before the Kentucky Derby. Penny Tweedy’s dismissal of a dishonest trainer is not in the book, though the episode serves to show her taking charge at the farm. Lucien Laurin is an interim hire at first—he is not sought and hired in the dramatic fashion depicted in the movie.

The coin toss, and how Penny Tweedy “lost” the toss to end up with Secretariat, is a wonderfully ironic story, and pretty much consistent with the book, with some dramatic flourishes added for the screen, with a ceremony and dramatic motion of the coin.

The book points out that Penny Tweedy is not immediately keen on Secretariat, though he is a striking horse from birth. She believes he detracts from the achievements of Riva Ridge. The movie portrays an instant connection between them.

Secretariat’s first race, with his fourth place finish, is true to the book. (All the race details are consistent with what is documented in the book.)

Ron Turcotte is brought in as jockey a little less dramatically than in the movie. Jockeys ride more than one horse, which is not clear in the movie. Secretariat is just a two year old with possibilities at the time of his first race, and Ron Turcotte is a big name jockey.

Secretariat’s tendency to run from the back, and his apparent posing and seeming to understand when it was race day are directly from the book. And he wins Horse of the Year, as announced in the movie by Ronnie Turcotte as he comes into a restaurant with the headline on his newspaper.

There are a few scenes before the Triple Crown year that are fun but not portrayed in the book:

  • The groom, secretary, trainer and Penny Tweedy dancing as they clean/groom the horse.
  • The horse peeing on a reporter as a he asks a question that is critical of the horse.

C.T. Chenery’s death, and the tax problems of the Meadow as a result are straight from the book. The drama of the situation is heightened and the film portrays more conflict among family members than I remember from the book. There is nothing like Penny Tweedy’s husband and brother teaming up against her. At this point, Bull Hancock has passed away (though in the book, his death is not linked with C.T. Chenery’s), leaving his son Seth to attempt the syndication of the breeding rights to Secretariat. The movie implies this is unusual. What was unusual was not the concept of the syndication of breeding rights, but the huge amount of money requested for each share. Seth Hancock handles this by himself, not with Penny Tweedy and secretary Elizabeth Hamm in a team effort. And though there are a few hesitations and refusals at the beginning, Seth Hancock is on his way to completing the syndication of the breeding rights successfully by the end of the first day. There is an offer to buy the horse’s breeding rights by an Irish firm. But the book does not indicate an offer by Ogden Phipps to buy Secretariat for eight million dollars. In the book, it is Seth Hancock who convinces Ogden Phipps to buy a share of Secretariat’s breeding rights.

Though some of the brashness and bravado appears to be sharpened for the movie, the arrival of Sham as a rival to Secretariat, and the confidence of his trainer, are also in the book.

At the Wood Memorial, Penny Tweedy seems troubled about Secretariat before he runs (instead of the jockey, as in the book). The movie goes into the abscess with a slight variation on who knows what at what point. Frankly, the movie’s sequence of events almost makes more sense. Sometimes fiction exists to make sense out of reality. This may be one of those times. As I read the book, I wondered why the groom and the vet, who knew about the abscess before the race, didn’t say anything to the trainer/jockey/owner! The idea that “Red” only allowed Penny Tweedy near his mouth does not appear in the book.

In the book, the abscess clears well before the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat’s workouts improve, and jockey Turcotte is confident about the race. The movie has uncertainty about the abscess right up to the Kentucky Derby, with Lucien Laurin actually considering pulling Secretariat.

The racing sequences are a stunning achievement of the movie, and are absolutely consistent with the book. The film-makers resist the temptation to have “photo-finishes,” close finishes, to ramp up excitement. And the way the races are filmed, the excitement is there without “photo-finishes.” The finishes are shown the way they are portrayed in the book. The Kentucky Derby—we are there with the turf pounding, and the hooves churning up the track. This is a movie that is best seen in a theater with big-screen sounds and visuals for the full effect. At the Preakness, we cut to the family in Colorado and see the race from their point-of-view. But the race results are still consistent with the book.

Secretariat’s incredible domination of the Belmont is completely faithful to the book, from the head-to-head race with Sham at the beginning, to Secretariat’s phenomenal finish. In the book, we learn that Ron Turcotte ran Secretariat as fast as he did because the horse was running so easily. He did not know he was shattering records until the very end, or that people in the stands were concerned that he was running Secretariat too hard. He lets the horse run his pace, a pace that just happens to be an exceptional, world-beating pace. Sham is the one who falls back—to last, another fun detail not as clear in the movie.

The end information, telling us where everyone ends up, follows the book with one major exception. Penny Tweedy’s marriage breaks up in 1974. The only comment in the movie is that she goes back to Colorado and lives happily ever after. I think the filmmakers want us to feel that Penny Tweedy’s husband accepted his wife’s accomplishments. And maybe he did. But they had grown apart, and sadly, their marriage was a casualty of the events of this inspirational story about an exceptional racehorse.


As I have stated in the “about” section of this blog, it is not my intention to do movie or book reviews here—just comparisons. But I have to say that this film was a joy to watch, with excellent choices to maintain the basic shape of the story in the book while heightening the drama for entertainment value. The pure spectacle of the racing scenes adds to the experience. I would not be surprised to see Oscar nominations for this movie next year, for some of the technical work on the film, as well as acting nominations for Diane Lane and John Malkovich.


The Book: Secretariat is a comprehensive chronicle of the story of the celebrated Triple Crown winning racehorse, Secretariat. The book goes into some ups and downs of the story, but given that at birth, the horse already seemed exceptional, we wonder what sort of drama and conflict is available. As is my custom, I will do a brief synopsis of this 455 page (paperback edition) of this book. But before I do, I will mention some possible stress points that appeared, but seemed to evaporate:

  • Helen “Penny” Chenery Tweedy takes over “the Meadow” when her father becomes incapacitated at the end of his life. She is inexperienced in the horse racing business. But she makes friends and gets help from other established horse-racing professionals.
  • At first, it appears the other Tweedy siblings (a sister and a brother) may want to sell the Meadow. But this never becomes a serious issue, especially with the success of the horse Riva Ridge and of course, the following year, Secretariat.
  • Penny Tweedy’s marriage is strained by her transformation from subordinate housewife to racing stable operator. But the tensions in the marriage also seem to remain in the background. At the end, we find out the marriage breaks up in 1974, but these tensions offer little intrusion into the story.
  • Penny Tweedy’s young trainer leaves for another job, and needs to be replaced. The young trainer suggests his father, a man Penny Tweedy has doubts she can work with. He is hired on an interim basis, but quickly works out well—Lucien Laurin is set to complete the training tasks of his career at the Tweedy stable.
  • When C.T. Chenery dies, a huge estate tax looms. But the problem is solved by syndicating the breeding rights to Secretariat.

So we will see how the filmmakers generate the conflict and drama expected to sustain interest in a major motion picture. I will say, that the way Secretariat ran from the rear to win many of his races, the drama of the races and the meaning of success for the likable handlers of Secretariat, may be enough.


Nack goes back to the Civil War to discuss the history of the stables involved with Secretariat. He goes back a number of generations to discuss the pedigree of Secretariat. Various racing personalities, peripheral to the main story, are also profiled with background information.

Penny Tweedy loses a coin toss that ironically gives the Chenery stable the product of the mating of Bold Ruler with the Chenery stable mare Somethingroyal; that horse would be Secretariat, born in late 1970.

As Secretariat grows during his early months, Riva Ridge from the Chenery stable is having a great season, and absorbs the focus of attention from Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin.

In early 1972, Secretariat is already growing into “an aesthetic marvel of anatomical slopes and bulges, curves and planes…” Jockey Ron Turcotte recalls him as a “big likable fellow,” and Secretariat becomes the most popular of the “baby two year olds” with the “exercise boys and jockeys.” But there isn’t a lot of excitement about Secretariat immediately as he is outraced during workouts.

April 1, 1972, Turcotte senses a “change in Secretariat.” The big red horse completes a particularly fast workout. He is “learning how to run.”

Jimmy Gaffney, “an exercise boy” for the Meadow/Chenery stable is one of the first to laud the potential of Secretariat. As Secretariat begins to experience more serious workouts in May, Riva Ridge fails to win the Preakness after previously winning the Kentucky Derby. Riva Ridge does win the Belmont Stakes in June, taking two thirds of the Triple Crown.

On July 4, 1972, Secretariat enters his first race. He finishes fourth, getting boxed in, and though demonstrating more speed than the other horses in the race, he is unable to breakout of the pack and take the lead. Secretariat wins his next race, and some begin to see his potential. Trainer Lucien Laurin wants jockey Ron Turcotte to start riding Secretariat as soon as possible because he “might be a stakes horse.”

Penny Tweedy resents Secretariat at first because he detracts from the attention she thinks should be given to Riva Ridge. But as 1972 moves forward, and Secretariat’s potential; becomes more evident, and as Riva Ridge peaks and begins to decline, Secretariat’s stock at the Chenery stable rises. Secretariat wins races later in the year, establishing a pattern of running from behind and overtaking his opponents at the end. His victories gain him more and more recognition. Secretariat ends up voted as 1972 Horse of the Year, a nearly unheard of honor for a two-year-old, identifying him as a strong Triple Crown contender for 1973.

C.T. Chenery dies in January of 1973. Huge estate taxes threaten the existence of the Chenery stable. The family considers a number of options, including selling some of their horses. They decide to syndicate shares in Secretariat’s breeding rights—32 shares with 4 retained by the Chenery stable. Nack goes into great detail about the syndication process. The process is a success; the money is raised. Secretariat will race during 1973, and try to win the Triple Crown. After that, he will become an expensive stud horse. There is also a brief flirtation with selling Secretariat to a firm in Ireland, but this never seems serious.

Nack details the races leading up to the Triple Crown races later in 1973. Secretariat wins the first race, the Bay Shore on March 17th, again by coming from behind. Secretariat seems to be racing at the same level as he was in late 1972.

Secretariat’s build-up grows as the Kentucky Derby approaches. He is a larger than the legendary race horse, Man o’ War. Secretariat’s admirers include the legendary Eddie Arcaro.

At the next race, Lucien Laurin wants to try getting Secretariat to run from the front, in case he needs that strategy to win a future Triple Crown race. Secretariat wins the race, tying the track record.

Secretariat appears to be unbeatable. At this point, Nack gives details about Sham, a horse from out west, a possible rival for Secretariat. Pancho Martin is the trainer; Laffit Pincay Jr. is the jockey. The two horses will meet head to head at the Wood Memorial.

But Secretariat develops an abscess inside the upper lip of his mouth, a condition the groom and the veterinarian are aware of, but for some unspecified reason, no one tells the trainer or the jockey. Secretariat does not seem himself as the race approaches. During the race, he will not take the bit, and a horse named Angle Light finishes first, with Sham finishing second, ahead of Secretariat in third. Recriminations and doubts crop up after the race. Ron Turcotte tries to explain that the horse just wasn’t himself. When Turcotte finally hears about the abscess, he understands exactly what went wrong, and makes sure the abscess is treated. The condition is alleviated a few days after the race. Other tensions surface as Angle Light was also trained by Lucien Laurin.

The Wood Memorial result creates some drama for the Kentucky Derby. Sham’s handlers think Sham can win. Some wonder if Secretariat has been over-hyped. Jimmy the Greek, the famous sports gambler, broadcasts speculation that Secretariat is getting ice packs applied to his knees.

Lucien Laurin gives his instructions to Ronnie Turcotte—keep the horse clear so his incredible finishing speed does not get bottled up. Turcotte senses Secretariat is himself again. He is taking the bit, the way he did before the abscess. Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby by two and a half lengths, setting a new record. Sham finishes second, also with a time better than the old record, but second that day.

Secretariat seems ready for the Preakness. Sham’s handlers still believe he can beat Secretariat and will win the Preakness. Expectations are again high for Secretariat, that he will be the Triple Crown winner and set new records in the process. Secretariat now not only seems to be a superior racer, but moves with a “kind of flourish,” with a charisma. Secretariat wins again, dramatically, coming from behind. Sham is again second. A slow track prevents another record run.

The Belmont Stakes is the longest of the Triple Crown races. Expectations continue to increase for Secretariat. The Belmont seems to be more of a “coronation” than a race. Secretariat gets representation from the William Morris Agency for uses of his image and the rights to his story. Secretariat’s training for the Belmont is going particularly well. Lucien Laurin decides that in this race, Secretariat should not run from the back. There have been questions as to whether Secretariat will have the stamina to win the race, based on his bloodline. The Bold Ruler bloodline has lacked stamina in the past. Sham’s handlers are also determined to set the pace, take the lead, and finally defeat Secretariat.

Secretariat breaks to the front, and he and Sham battle for the lead. The pace is scary fast, creating some anxious moments. Ronnie Turcotte doesn’t know about the absurdly low times the horses are putting up for the early splits. He just knows the horse is running easily, and he senses Sham is working very hard to keep pace. Secretariat and Sham pull away from the field. Sham wears out, and ends up finishing last. Secretariat pulls away from all the horses in the race, finishing thirty-one lengths ahead of the second place horse—an astonishing achievement in horse racing history. He shatters the course record.

In the Epilogue, Nack summarizes the final races of Secretariat’s racing career. He loses two of them. But his legend is established, and his new role as stud begins in 1974. He sires successful racehorses and brood mares, though none approach his successes on the track. Secretariat finishes with winnings of $1,316,808, fourth all time, though he only races for two years.

The book finishes with a 1989 article about Secretariat’s death. Secretariat contracts laminitis, a painful hoof disease that can be fatal. Secretariat is unable to recover from the disease, and to end his suffering, the horse is given a fatal does of barbiturates.