A Different Sort of Heroine: Secretariat

SEPT / OCT 2012: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY

secretariat

There is no such thing as a non-proselytizing, family-friendly film these days. Or perhaps it’s possible but only at the sacrifice of meaningful storytelling, good acting and a Hollywood budget. Or so you may have speculated before seeing Secretariat.

Set in the 1970’s and based on a true story, this film succeeds where many such intended-for-inspiration studio productions fail. In the story, multi-tasking mother Penny Chenery must choose between letting her father’s horse-raising legacy die with him or taking the reins of the business herself. Despite the risks, Chenery chooses the latter. She starts by making a clean sweep of the Meadow Stables, and hires new management, much to the shock of neighbors and family alike. While her brother and others groan at her determination, ultimately her faith in miracles lends her the support she needs to keep going.

Most of us have seen horse-racing films before, and always the story is one of coming out against the odds. Perhaps in that sense Secretariat is no different from its predecessors. Yet what is attractive about this film is it is not just a story about a horse or about luck, or even a story about success. It is a story about people, and womanly strength. Penny Chenery is a laughingstock. Men seasoned in the horse-racing industry can’t believe the gall she has to first, be a woman and second, to believe she can break into a business that is more dependent on money finding itself in the right hands than about owning a horse with a good pedigree. Not only is the horse’s training important, but Chenery must find a way to fund her racing endeavors as well. Convincing others to take a chance on her is not easy.

This film is not the first of its kind in being based on a true story; films such as Seabiscuit have also garnered attention for this reason. But in this case it is a strong female lead that makes the story especially worthwhile. Penny Chenery shows that one can be a mother, a role model, and a public figure—essentially, she is in as much a contest as the horse she races, to see whether it is possible to exceed others’ expectations. In the end, it is not only Secretariat that becomes accomplished by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years, but Penny Chenery also becomes a woman worth her weight in the public sphere and at home. Like her champion horse, she reflects determination and gains approval from others without having made it her priority.

Chenery realizes her reasoning will not be understood by others at every point and it’s more important to put in hours of work to prove her decisions are the right ones than to fret over what others think. For example, when she must work to raise money to save the stables, she is not dissuaded when the going gets tough. Instead, she directs her passions properly into the hard work necessary to make her and her horse-loving friends’ dreams successful.

Whether because of the encouraging messages or the nerve-wracking racing scenes, Secretariat is well-worth watching. It brings back the idea of “clean” to a modern film without falling flat in plot or energy, and is ultimately a story of womanly determination as much as a tale about the strength of a horse that broke records and saved a stable from bankruptcy. As Penny Chenery sums up the reason for her determination, “My father’s legacy is not his money. My father’s legacy is the will to win.” This will to win, and not luck, is what propels Chenery’s horse into international stardom—it would come to define the legacy of a horse, but  also the woman who helped make him famous.  ■

septoct2012

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