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A safe bet 

Assuming that, like me, you know nearly nothing about the Grand and Hallowed American Pastime of Horse Racing, it’s still a reasonably fair shot you’ve heard, at some point, of Secretariat. Am I right? It’s roughly congruent to baseball and Babe Ruth: you may not have stats or specifics, but if you’ve heard a name, that’s probably the one.

I know it primarily because I had a subscription as a teenager to Sports Illustrated, during which period Secretariat was trotted out and named racing’s undisputed paragon — the best and most perfectly admirable specimen in the annals of humans-appropriating-large-animals-and-obliging-them-to-run-very-quickly-for-wagering purposes. Engaged as I was (at least semiactively) in aquiring retrievable facts for eventual use in the subtle masculine art of sports talk, I logged it away: “Secretariat, best racehorse ever.” Done.

Of course, had anyone ever followed up, asked me why, what he did to deserve his position, I’d have had to admit I didn’t know.

Perhaps the most enduring success of Randall Wallace’s Secretariat, for me, is that now, having seen it, I feel like I do know. Moreover — and here’s the key — I feel like I watched it happen.

Somewhat predictably, the horse’s story, as told by humans, has much to do with the human lives that intersected with his. Principal among them is Diane Lane’s Penny Chenery, a wife and mother whose life is transformed when a family tragedy and the declining health of her horse-breeder father (Scott Glenn) leave the future of the family farm and its pedigreed stable of horses more or less up for grabs. Against the advice of her Harvard-professor brother (Dylan Baker), who urges the sale of the now-flailing business, and her lawyer husband (Dylan Walsh), who wants her to come back home, Chenery takes up her family’s legacy, placing the bulk of her faith in a passed-over colt of a legendary thoroughbred stallion.

The film, particularly toward the beginning, is less subtle than it could be. In points, sweeping music lets you know how to feel before you need to worry about it, and there are early spots in which Lane’s performance, while solid as a whole (and tasked, essentially, with carrying the narrative start-to-finish), is a bit overwrought. She makes up for it, though, with sustained elegance and tenacity: apart from stunning, her heroic Ms. Penny is graceful, cool-eyed, and steely. Lane aside, Secretariat’s true treasure is its supporting cast. From John Malkovich’s outsized and giddily entertaining horse trainer to the cat-eyed and wonderfully warm Nelsan Ellis (put him in more films immedately), to the heartbreakingly likable Margo Martindale, the picture is landscaped almost entirely with an array of familiar and colorful faces. Dylan Walsh and Baker also turn in fine work, as does Fred Dalton Thompson. Nestor Serrano makes Chenery’s rival, Pancho Martin, a villain audiences love to hate.

On the whole, the other great horse film of this decade, 2003’s Seabiscuit, seemed a bit more visually stylish. Secretariat, like its namesake, starts a bit unimpressively, but down the home stretch, when it really counts, it roars to a thundering, soaring finish. •

Dir. Randall Wallace; writ. Mike Rich (screenplay), William Nack (book); feat. Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale (PG)

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