NPR's Julie Rovner Reviews 'Secretariat'

The movie Secretariat retells the story of the horse who was the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years. NPR's heath policy correspondent — and horse lover — Julie Rovner tells us what the movie gets wrong, and what it gets right about the most well-known horse ever to run a track.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

If you're asked a name of a famous racehorse, even if you're uninitiated into the world of thoroughbred racing, almost anybody will say Secretariat. In 1973, Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, setting records that still stand at both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. The story of Secretariat has now galloped onto the movie screen, starring Diane Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy. She inherits guardianship of the horse. And here Ogden Phipps, played by James Cromwell, offers her $7 million in cash for Secretariat, which she refuses, because she knows he'll be worth triple that if he does what she believes he can.

Mr. JAMES CROMWELL (Actor): (as Ogden Phipps) You do know what you're saying. You're guaranteeing that this horse is going to win the Triple Crown - the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont - three races, three states, in just five weeks. It hasn't been done in 25 years.

Ms. DIANE LANE (Actor): (as Penny Chenery Tweedy) That is exactly what I'm saying.

CONAN: Our own Julie Rovner is here to review the movie for us. Luckily, her day job as NPR's health policy correspondent does not prevent her from stepping in from time to time as TALK OF THE NATION'S equestrian correspondent. Congratulations on your new job, Julie. It pays nothing.

JULIE ROVNER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: Still glad to do it.

CONAN: We want to hear from you. If you're a horse lover that's seen the movie, what did you think? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So what do you think of the movie?

ROVNER: I thought it was it was a Disney movie. You know, it looked like a Disney movie. But it was good. You know, I was I'm old enough to remember Secretariat. And as one of my editors pointed out, I was young enough at the time to be sort of in the middle of my, you know, girl loves horses stage. So I remember it pretty vividly. And it was relatively, you know, true to the story.

One of, obviously, the big things that they left out, and a lot of critics have complained about this, and it does make you wonder, as the movie moves on, is, you know - obviously, I'm not ruining anything here she takes over the farm because her father is in ill health and then her father dies, and there are all of these taxes to be paid. And you wonder, well, how come this farm that was losing money, suddenly they have $6 million worth of taxes to pay? The reason is because there's another horse involved that you don't see in the movie, and that was Riva Ridge.

CONAN: Who was the great horse the year before.

ROVNER: Exactly. Who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont the year before. But, of course, Riva Ridge does not appear in the movie.

CONAN: Well, you don't want to have a rival to Secretariat.

ROVNER: Well, I guess not. But it does make you wonder - as the narrative of the movie runs on, it's like how can they owe all of these, you know, these inheritance taxes if this farm is losing money? And of course the answer is the missing horse in the movie.

CONAN: Is Riva Ridge. And this is but literally, she does bet the farm that Secretariat is going to be the big horse.

ROVNER: Yes, she does bet the farm, and that part is true. And he was syndicated for all of that money before he had won a single one of those big races. He was the horse of the year as a two-year-old. And I do, I remember him as a two-year-old and being impressed. And you know, one of the few complaints I have with the movie is that the horses that they got to play Secretariat weren't big enough or pretty enough. And I think that's because there aren't a lot of horses out there that are big enough or pretty enough to be Secretariat. He really was a remarkable looking horse. I mean, I remember that just from seeing him on television. He was just an amazing-looking thoroughbred. There has never been another one like him.

CONAN: There is a wonderful statue of Secretariat in the paddock at Belmont Park in New York. And if you go there, make sure to go back to the paddock and take a look. It's, you know well, it's not the real thing. But it's a wonderful piece of work. And he's buried at Belmont Park. And there are very few horses who are given that honor.

He was well, there's a moment in his most famous race. He wins the Kentucky Derby, setting a new record, which continues to stand. There is a timing error in the Preakness, or he would have set the record for that too. He did, but they made an error in timing it. But then, of course, the famous race: the mile and a half Belmont Stakes that is the measure of a true champion. And he gets out of the gate slowly and then starts picking up pace on the backstretch. And that's the moment well, I think everybody remembers the moment when the announcer says: There is Secretariat, racing like a great machine. And then they turn the corner, that sweeping turn at Belmont, and come into the homestretch.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. CHARLES DAVID ANDERSON (Announcer): Secretariat leads this field by 18 lengths, and now Twice a Prince has taken second and My Gallant has moved back to third. They're in the stretch. Secretariat has opened a 22-length lead. He is going to be the Triple Crown winner. Here comes Secretariat to the wire - an unbelievable, an amazing performance. He hits the finish 25 lengths in front. It's going to be Twice a Prince second, My Gallant third, Private Smiles fourth, and Sham...

CONAN: And who remembers who else was in that race?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: That's right.

CONAN: It's a - it is an amazing call. And they got the distance long, the number lengths wrong, because the track announcer had never seen a horse win by that much.

ROVNER: You know, there's not a lot of things that you remember in your life exactly where you were. I remember exactly where I was at that moment, watching that race. It was really an amazing thing to see if you're interested at all in horses or horse racing. And like many people, I thought, you know, he just went out way too fast. I mean, that, you know, I'd seen enough Belmonts. I'd seen enough horses win the derby in the Preakness and, you know, lose in the Belmont. And it's happened since then...

CONAN: It sure has.

ROVNER: ...that, you know, that they go out too fast and they burn themselves out and they, you know, they hit that homestretch and they just - they - it's like they stop running. And there were so many people who said, you know, he just - he can't do it. He can't do it. It's too fast. And to see him just go faster and faster was just an amazing thing. And one thing I will say about the movie is that even though, obviously, you know what happens, he wins the Triple Crown...

CONAN: Everybody knows that.

ROVNER: Yes. They do a very good job at sort of keeping the suspense going.

CONAN: The suspense, exactly. When he makes the turn into the stretch, there's not a lot of suspense left.

ROVNER: No. You know what's going to happen.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Of course, we're talking about "Secretariat," the movie - and the horse, too. Sue's on the line from Elko in Nevada.

SUE (Caller): Well, hi there. How are you?

CONAN: Vey well. Thank you.

SUE: I - my memories of that Belmont Stakes, I watched it, too, when it happened. My memories of that Belmont Stake were much the same as your reviewer's in that I thought there was absolutely no way he could hang on, and he just kept running and running. It was so exciting to see.

And I enjoyed the movie. But it was a Disney movie. It wasn't as - it wasn't as, in my mind, as entertaining a movie as "Seabiscuit" was. That said, it certainly prompted me to go back and start spending some time online to, you know, go to YouTube and look for their - look for the real race footage, because it was just an absolutely amazing time for anybody who was interested in thoroughbred racing. And, you know, at that point, I was a teenage girl. I just loved horses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yes. I can understand that. Sue, did you ever get to see him run in person?

SUE: I never did. I wish I could have. You know, my dad was able to go to a derby at about that time, although he did not, in fact, see that one. I believe he saw River Ridge run. But I was never able to go. And that was a disappointment, to not be able to see that animal while he was alive.

CONAN: Sue, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SUE: You bet.

CONAN: Bye-bye. She mentioned the "Seabiscuit" movie, which, of course, came out a few years ago, the product of - after a wonderful book by the same name. Could this movie have been possible without the success of "Seabiscuit," do you think?

ROVNER: You know, I wonder, and you have to wonder why there hadn't been a "Secretariat" movie before this. I think the "Seabiscuit," both the book and the movie, were just amazing. It was a magnificent book. One of the, you know - obviously, I think, for a lot of people including me, that was a story that, you know, sort of knew who Seabiscuit was, but the job that Laura Hillenbrand did at just bringing that to life. And, of course, that's not really a story that most people knew.

And she did such a good job - not just if you're interested in horses, but if you're interested in American history and America during the Depression. It was a wonderful book. And they did a magnificent job at bringing that to the movies. That was - that's just a whole different level of movie, I think, than this was. But yes, I think the fact that that did well may be emboldened them to go ahead and bring this one to the screen, also.

CONAN: A few of us will admit to having seen "The Story of Seabiscuit," starring Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald, among others - which, of the three, is clearly the least of the three. I have not seen the new movie, "Secretariat," but I'm willing to bet that the Shirley Temple movie is the least of them. It was her first screen kiss, her first romance and - well, anyway. Holly's on the line, calling from Cornelius in Oregon.

HOLLY (Caller): My husband has two retirement passions, make (technical difficulty) and horses. We have 14 horses and a small vineyard. This was a wonderful, wonderful movie. It was completely realistic. One of our horses had a winning season a couple of years ago here in Portland, Oregon - tiny racetrack. It was like being at the Kentucky Derby. And at the end of the movie, I didn't want to be Penny. I wanted to be the horse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I can understand that. Holly, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HOLLY: Thanks.

CONAN: By the way, I made a mistake earlier. I said Secretariat is buried at Belmont Park - incorrect: buried at Claiborne Farm in - near Paris, Kentucky.

ROVNER: I was going to say, because I was at what was purported to be his grave and took a picture of his gravestone. I was wondering if there was nothing there. I did, when I was in Kentucky a few weeks ago, got to go there to Claiborne Farm, where he stood at stud until his death in 1989, and met one of his progeny, and they lived quite the cushy life there. It was very, very nice, I will say.

CONAN: He was not a great stud.

ROVNER: No - although he was not the dud stud that I think his reputation suggests. He actually did better siring fillies than he did colts. His success has been through his daughters, A.P. Indy, particularly, who was a grandson...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROVNER: ...the son of a daughter of his. So he's actually sired quite a number of stakes winners or - through not direct offspring, but grandchildren and great grandchildren. So he actually has a - now that he's - we're several generations along, he has actually done better. It was just the first few crops didn't actually do that well.

CONAN: There was a horse, the famous racehorse, Chris Evert, named after the tennis player who won the Filly Triple Crown, and bred with Secretariat to produce a horse called Six Crowns, who was a dud on the track.

ROVNER: Yes. Well, yeah. Some...

CONAN: It's an inexact science.

ROVNER: So, yeah - no. But actually, one of the most interesting things they discovered about Secretariat, though, is that after he died and they did an autopsy, they discovered that his heart weighed 22 pounds. Now, there are some race horses that they found, particularly horses who've shown to have a lot of stamina - and obviously, to win the Belmont the way he did, he had a lot of stamina - that have something that they call, you know, an enlarged heart. And it's not so much a defect as it is just a genetic mutation. But horses with large hearts, usually those hearts weigh 14 or 15 pounds.

So the idea - an average thoroughbred's heart weighs about nine pounds. So the idea that his heart weighed 22 pounds, it was the largest heart ever measured. So that was clearly something that he had that no other horse had have previously.

CONAN: Diane is on the line from St. Louis.

DIANE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

DIANE: I just saw the movie, and I noticed when he was coming of the gate - the horse and the jockey, obviously - that he held onto the bridle, and he also put the horse's hair in his hand from his mane. And I wondered why he did that.

CONAN: Julie, do you know?

ROVNER: Yes. These are really young horses. People don't realize how young they are. And they're actually not very well balanced. And one of the reasons that they run that way, they're actually hanging onto the bit. They're leaning on the bit. And, in fact, having owned several thoroughbreds now, one of the things that you learn when you own a thoroughbred is that the more you pull back, the faster they go. Usually, you think you pull back on a horse - whoa, and they will stop. On a thoroughbred, the more you pull back, the more they go because that's how they're trained to run. So that's why he was leaning back. That's how they run. It's their...

DIANE: Okay.

ROVNER: Oh, the jockey is literally holding them together. And yeah, lots of jockeys hang onto the mane. That's one of the ways they're hanging on.

DIANE: I thought it might hurt.

ROVNER: No, no, no, no. There's no pain.

DIANE: Okay.

ROVNER: They don't have a lot of nerve endings in their mane. And yeah, when I ride - gallop across country, you better believe I'm hanging onto mane, too.

DIANE: Okay, great. Thanks for the answer.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. So you would recommend this movie for everybody?

ROVNER: Yeah. I mean, that, you know, for those who have seen and loved "Seabiscuit," it's, you know, I would put it probably number three on my list of top racing movies after "Seabiscuit," and probably even after "The Black Stallion," which was just so...

CONAN: Oh, I love "The Black Stallion."

Ms. ROVNER: ...magnificently photographed. But...

CONAN: "National Velvet" in there somewhere?

Ms. ROVNER: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, all right.

Ms. ROVNER: I might put this ahead of that one.

CONAN: Julie Rovner, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. ROVNER: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Julie Rovner, NPR's health policy correspondent - the job for which she gets paid. From time to time, she moonlights as our equestrian reporter. She joined - you can see some of Julie's pictures from Claiborne Farm of Secretariat's grave at our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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