The movie opens on a family breakfast with Penny Tweedy (Diana Lane) and her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and their four children. All demand domestic items from Penny who takes it all in stride and promises to deliver. She receives a phone call that her mother has died so the whole family heads to her childhood home in Virginia. When the family pulls in, we see what was at one time a large, beautiful horse farm. As they drive up the long lane, we see a large white man, chastising a black man to stop daydreaming with the horses and do his job. Upon arriving we are introduced to her brother Hollis and her father’s longtime secretary, Mrs. Ham (Margo Martindale). Penny is quite upset about her mother but immediately turns her attention to her father. As she enters to see him (Scott Glenn), we realize he has Alzheimer’s disease and doesn’t really remember who she is as he says with joy that she has gotten married.
Penny tells him that her mother has died and he hands Penny, her mother’s prized horse pin. Penny states that this is momma’s pin and her father tells her it’s Penny’s now. The next scene is the funeral where we are introduced to Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson) who tells Penny that her father always admired and trusted her judgment regarding the horses. Then Hancock tells her that her father’s state has diminished to the point that he nearly sold 4 prize horses for ½ their value and that her mother had to step in to stop the sale. The next day, Jack is ready to go home, but Penny feels she should stay at the farm and get her father’s affairs in order. The first order of business is asking the trainer (the cruel man from the driveway) why he didn’t step in and stop the sale. He is quite the chauvinist and tells her to mind her own business. Penny fires him and threatens to sue him if he ever comes back. Now she must find a new manager so she goes to as Hancock who he would recommend. He recommends Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich).
Penny finds Malkovich on the golf course playing very poorly and offers him the job. She tries to lure him with the promise of a new foal being born to a very good Sire but Lucien tells her he is retired and has no interest. However, when he stops golfing he goes to his car and looks up a book that shows the horse pedigrees and you can see he is getting very interested.
Meanwhile, Penny learns that her father made a very wise decision years ago and forged a partnership with Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), the world’s richest man to every year toss a coin to get to pick the foal of the winner’s choice from the sire: Bold Ruler. In doing research, Penny believes Phipps will pick the foal of Hasty Matelda but she believes the foal of Somethingroyal will have special traits of speed and longevity. So, if she wins, she will pick that foal. The day of the coin toss arrives and Phipps wins and picks Hasty Matelda’s foal, which makes Penny very happy. After the coin toss, Lucien arrives and tells her to call when her foal arrives as he too sees the potential of this horse.
The foal is born and stands up amazingly fast which makes everyone believe it will be a special horse. They name him Big Red. Meanwhile, Penny is having home troubles, as her husband doesn’t understand why she is spending so much time on the horses. She says she gave up her career for him and their children but this is important and she has a feeling about Big Red.
Two years pass with the horse training and her father slowly getting worse. Finally, they enter Big Red into his first race. They have to pick a proper name and after several are rejected, Mrs. Ham (the secretary) picks the name, Secretariat. His first race is a miserable failure and Penny and Lucien both blame the jockey. So, Penny hires Lucien’s recommendation: Ron Tourcette. He is very aggressive and won’t back off a horse and in fact has caused one horse’s heart to explode. Penny believes Big Red can take the pushing.
His next race, he starts out dead last and stays there for a bit before surging ahead to win. We hear a voiceover of the next several races with Secretariat easily winning each race. Penny gives each winning cup to her father and by the year’s end his room is full of prized cups. On the day that Secretariat is picked horse of the year, Penny’s father dies, leaving a tax burden for Penny and Hollis of six million dollars. Hollis wants to sell Secretariat believing they can get seven million for him. Penny refuses, he threatens to go to court at which point we discover her father changed his will five years earlier and left a provision that while Hollis can sell the land, only Penny can sell the horses.
She refuses to sell and devises a plan to sell 32 shares of breeding rights for $190,000 each making up the six million dollars. However, no one has ever paid that much and all the people they approach refuse. So, she asks Phipps to meet her and he offers her eight million dollars to buy Secretariat outright. She refuses to sell and tells him he gave up Secretariat and picked the wrong horse but now he can pick the right one. So, he agrees to purchase the first share and of course others follow. But there is a performance clause of the contracts that says Secretariat must win the Triple Crown or she gets no money.
They go to the first three-year-old race (not one of the Triple Crown races) and we can see that Secretariat is not feeling well. He isn’t eating and he is breathing funny. He comes in 3rd and they all freak out. They bring in a vet who discovers a large abscess in his mouth, which finally goes away just days before the Kentucky Derby (the first race of the Crown). He begins eating again.
When the race starts he again falls to dead last. Finally, he makes a huge surge and wins, beating Sham by 2 1/2 lengths.
The Preakness comes around and it is the same result. Starts out dead last and makes a surge and beats Sham again by 2 1/2 lengths.
Lucien knows the Belmont is the killer race. Many horses have won the first two only to lose on the Belmont. He tells Penny that all people believe you should rest the horse between the Preakness and the Belmont but his instinct with Big Red is to train him hard. The Belmont is the longest track at 1.5 miles and he believes Big Red can take it. But there are risks. You can hurt the horse. Penny says Big Red will tell them if he needs to break so they train him hard.
The day of the Belmont arrives and in this race Secretariat races out of the gate. He is in the lead from the beginning but his main competition, Sham is right beside him. No one thinks they can keep up the pace and indeed Sham falls away but Secretariat actually accelerates through the whole race, winning by a staggering 31 lengths.
The end is all celebration with words at the end stating that no other horse has come close to beating Secretariat’s time or lead in the Belmont and that he is considered the greatest racehorse of all time.
You learn that Lucien retired and never golfed again. Penny returned to her family but continued running her father’s farm. Ron Tourcette was injured in a fall from a horse and was paralyzed.
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