Contrary to rumors, one of America’s great race horses did not get his name when an ungrammatical executive looked around the office and said, “Where’s my secretary at?” That is, however, how the title was chosen for the Disney movie about that horse. It was only coincidental that the horse, and hence the movie, were named Secretariat.

Secretariat takes place between 1969 and 1973. Had it been made at that time, it would still have seemed old-fashioned. But formulas are repeated because they work. Take a good story, apply the formula, and with the right skills in every department you can make a good movie. Director Randall Wallace brings most of those skills but is too obvious in his reliance on the formula. Secretariat is the son of Seabiscuit — not the horse, but the film: Well-bred, but not in the same league. Again it’s less about the horse than the people around him.

Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery Tweedy, who inherits guardianship of the horse she calls Big Red, but will race as Secretariat. Penny games Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), “the richest man in America,” into letting her keep Big Red: She’s done her homework and predicts his genealogy will lead to a winning mix of speed and stamina.

No one else has her confidence. Dealing with horse business in Virginia puts a strain on Penny’s family life in Denver. Her husband (Dylan Walsh), often left alone with their four children, makes her feel guilty; her brother (Dylan Baker) tries to strong-arm her into selling the farm.

Her supporters are a ragtag assortment: Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis of True Blood, pictured) is the stable hand who nurtures Big Red. Trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), is colorful and funny, though we never actually see him training a horse; her father’s secretary (Margo Martindale) and jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) do their parts.

The three races of the Triple Crown occupy the second half of the movie. High-definition video race footage, some from a jockey-cam perspective, provides the film’s only modern touch.

It helps build suspense that Secretariat’s style really was as portrayed: Slow out of the gate, then picking up speed while leaving the others in his dust. Perhaps it’s the effort to make him and Penny appear as underdogs — er, underhorses — that makes the screenplay feel strained. Or it could be the Disneyfication of the story that makes everyone seem so nice. Maybe they should have called it That Darn Horse, just to be edgy.

Steve Warren

Two stars

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.