In almost any sports movie, die-hard fans are bound to notice a few details the filmmakers flubbed, and "Secretariat" is no exception: Jockeys don't wear silks at the barn, for instance, and they mount their horses in the walking ring, not at the stables.
But for racing aficionados like myself, the Disney movie's biggest misstep may be its near-complete omission of Angle Light, the horse that defeated Secretariat shortly before he went on to capture the Triple Crown in 1973.
In the film, Sham is portrayed as Secretariat's sole antagonist. But in reality, Sham and Secretariat were vexed by Angle Light. Two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, in the Wood Memorial at the Aqueduct track in New York, Angle Light defeated Sham and Secretariat, who ran second and third even though they were considered the early Derby favorites.
The importance of Angle Light cried out to be a juicy addendum to "Secretariat." Even Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, was hoping that Angle Light would get more screen time.
"I think the only mention of his name in the film was the race call of the Wood Memorial," Chenery said. Instead, the movie suggests that Sham won the Wood.
In real life, Secretariat and Angle Light were trained by Lucien Laurin (who was hardly the nightclub comedian persona portrayed in the film by John Malkovich). That left the pint-sized Canadian trainer in the sticky position of running both horses, with different owners, in the same race.
Author William Nack, whose book was the source material for the movie, told the story well. He recounted how Laurin, his view blocked by spectators as the horses hit the wire in the Wood, had to hear from Chenery that Angle Light had beaten her horse. And how, a few days before the Derby, Chenery upbraided Angle Light's owner in a Louisville restaurant while Laurin, caught trying to serve two masters, looked for a trapdoor. The bubble burst on Angle Light when he finished 10th in the Derby.
The makers of "Secretariat" would have been better served had they written Angle Light's owner, Edwin Whittaker, into the story and reduced the plutocrat Ogden Phipps to the marginal figure he was. I could see James Cromwell, who played Phipps, as a convincing Whittaker, going head to head with Penny Chenery in their public Louisville showdown.
Phipps' only involvement in the Secretariat story in real life was furnishing the sire (Bold Ruler) — which Chenery used to breed the colt in a foal-sharing arrangement — and then losing Secretariat to Chenery in what is arguably the most life-changing coin flip of all time. In the film, Phipps is omnipresent, offering Chenery $7 million for the horse that got away. "Never happened," Chenery says. "There were never any offers for Secretariat. There might have been one informal offer, but I never heard how much it was for, or where it was coming from."
Will many moviegoers, not having been around for Secretariat's Triple Crown sweep and also not even being racetrackers, take "Secretariat" at face value and not nitpick their way through the making? I'd say so.
"As representatives of the film keep pointing out, it is not a documentary," wrote Steven Haskin on the website of The Blood-Horse magazine. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I would have felt a whole lot better had Angle Light won the Wood Memorial for a second time.
Bill Christine covered horse racing for The Times for 24 years and writes about the sport for horseraceinsider.com and the Daily Racing Form.