The story of racehorse Secretariat has been told many times, many ways. In 2010 Disney released their own star-studded telling of the horse’s rise to glory with the help of his determined owner, Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane). Everyone knows this film as a story about a horse’s Triple Crown win. But really, it’s as much a story about Chenery’s struggle with challenging gender norms both personally and professionally. The horse Secretariat was her means to achieving success in a sexist industry.
This seems interesting to revisit as conversations of women and work abound in all the hubub around “having it all” and Lean In. Just as important though are the stories that aren’t being told in the film about the horse racing industry, both its dark history and troubling present reality.
At the beginning of the film, Penny Chenery is painted as the stereotypical housewife cooking breakfast for her family, when she receives a phone call that her mother has died. Chenery travel’s to her family farm and quickly sets to work firing the farm’s shady trainer and acquiring Secretariat in a coin toss with another ranch owner.
Throughout Secretariat, Chenery is challenged by men. First, her husband and brother pout about her aspirations to raise and race Sectrariat. Then, men in the horse racing industry dismiss her as a novice. With the support of her father’s secretary and family friend, Miss Ham (played by Margo Martindale), Chenery emerges victorious in more than just race standings. She is clever and savvy when faced with opposition, takes the incredibly gendered smack talk at the races in stride, and manages to straddle the line between ambitious career woman and mother.
Part of this is attributed to her identification with the horse, a relationship that is firmly anthropomorphized throughout the film. She stands with confidence because she knows he will win. Her male competitors are surprised to see a woman acting so boldly and perceive her strength as arrogance. Many women entering positions of power, particularly in male-dominated fields, have experienced this backlash played out on screen. And many can identify with the tense scenes in which Chenery struggles balancing motherhood with following her dream.
The race scenes detailing Secretariat’s rise to success as the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years, establishing records that still stand today, lead an audience to believe that he truly wants to race. They are breath-taking and easy to get caught up in, with the intense close ups of flared nostrils, legs pumping furiously, and muscles shifting beneath gleaming coats. But when the big final race ends, the excitement subsides, and the Hollywood luster is shaken off, what are we left with?
Secretariat was a truly exceptional horse—not just for his speed and power, but in his experience on and off the track. The film portrays racehorses as prime athletes who are maintained with great detail and care. For some like Secretariat this is true. But it is not the reality for most horses in the US, and it certainly wasn’t at the time of the film’s release. The current reality of the racing industry is that horses are often drugged to mask pain, run too hard too early, and dying of injuries at alarming rates with very little regulation or protection. They are disposable and many end up in slaughterhouses or euthanized due to injury at the end of their careers.
After a long-history of selective breeding (it was even looked to as an example by supporters of the eugenics movement), Thoroughbreds have emerged at once shockingly fragile and strong. They are extraordinary in their athleticism and yet treated as discards in an industry with a dark history in slavery and exploiting both horse and jockey for profit.
Penny Chenery had the resources to not only balance a taxing career and home life, but gain access to a horse of Secretariat’s caliber. The horse provided Chenery access to the big-money races and career opportunities; she was one of the first women admitted to the Jockey Club and held powerful positions in various racing associations. And Secretariat continued to bring in a great deal of money for Chenery and shareholders. From winnings to stud fees paid by those wanting offspring from the legend, Secretariat was astonishingly profitable to keep around. This is not so for the average racehorse lacking the pedigree and race standings to ensure a career in breeding after they’re retired.
Horses are expensive to keep and care for, so in an industry that values them soley for profit, owners see no economic reason to keep them after their time on the track. Some efforts have been made to protect retired race horses—Chenery herself helped found an organization aimed at after-care—but it’s not enough to keep up with an influx in what industry people call, the “foal crop.”
So then, does achieving glory in this male-dominated industry truly signal success for women when it is rooted so deeply in racism and the exploitation of animals? Can we appreciate Penny Chenery’s incredible success while being critical of horse racing as a practice?