Few biographical sports movies have had such positive reviews than that of the 2010 release, Secretariat. With an IMDB average of well over 7, it goes to show that biographical films that chronicle the life and times of a sporting hero can be just as popular as fictional storylines.

You only have to look at the recent short film released on English soccer legend, Sir Bobby Robson, titled More Than a Manager to see that biographical sports films can generate an incredibly heartfelt reception among those who cherished their sporting heroes.

Secretariat was a different kind of sporting hero in that he wasn’t human – he was a thoroughbred racehorse. But he wasn’t just any old racehorse, he was one of the most impressive champions in the history of American racing. In 1973, Secretariat achieved the Triple Crown, entering a club of only 13 horses ever to have won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same season.

The Triple Crown is undoubtedly the most celebrated accolade for any thoroughbred racehorse in U.S. horse racing, just like the Melbourne Cup and the Cox Plate are some of the most prestigious ‘Down Under’ in Australia. A horse that achieves so much in such a short space of time needs to be super-human – and Secretariat was just that. In fact, reports suggest that after he sadly died aged 19, the autopsy confirmed that Secretariat’s heart was two-and-a-half times the size of a typical horse. It was perhaps that nuance that gave him the power, stamina and desire to go the extra mile.

Delving into Secretariat: The Movie

The film itself has a notable cast, with the likes of John Malkovich and Diane Lane playing Lucien Laurin (Secretariat’s trainer) and Penny Chenery (Secretariat’s owner) respectively.

The biographical side of things tells the story of the Meadow Stables, once owned by Christopher Chenery, who was forced to pass the stables on to his daughter, Penny, due to ill-health. The movie documents Penny’s trials and tribulations, attempting to nurture racehorses despite very little horse racing aptitude, in a male-dominated industry.

The film also notes the distinct element of fate and chance involved with becoming a successful racehorse owner. It retells the story of how Penny “won” the foal, Secretariat, in a coinflip situation, following a deal made by her father and a rival horserace owner. Despite failing to make his mark on his early races as a two-year-old, he begins to show promise as a three-year-old.

A heart-warming tale where faith trumps fear

Penny’s dying father, Christopher suddenly passes away following a stroke, which hits her hard. Christopher has since been inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame. She discovers that although her and her brother will inherit his stables, they must pay $6 million in estate taxes to do so. Despite growing pressure to sell Secretariat to cover their tax bill, Penny instead opts to sell shares in the horse to cover the fee. She even turns down $7 million from rival stable owner, Ogden Phipps as she was so convinced that his value could triple if he won the Triple Crown.

Photo by Craiglduncan, CC BY-SA 3.0. The iconic three-sided Triple Crown trophy was awarded to Penny Chenery

Sure enough, he would win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, leaving him just the Belmont Stakes to win to secure the illustrious Triple Crown that hadn’t been achieved in 25 years of U.S. racing.

Secretariat’s main rival was a horse named Sham, who was deemed by the pundits to have a much better shot at winning. Nevertheless, Secretariat ended up leaving Sham and the rest of the field in his wake, storming home by over 31 lengths, with not a dry eye in the house.

Penny and her brother would celebrate with the Triple Crown trophy, safe in the knowledge that Secretariat had financially secured the family and its stables forever.

The film had such a positive reception from critics, becoming one of those films that truly marked all that viewed it. Largely because it was an eye-opener into the blood, sweat and tears that went into racehorse ownership, through the generations. More importantly, it cemented the fact that racehorses aren’t just animals, they are personalities that humans can adore and relate to more than we realize.