First, a side FYI: "Sham" was the name of one of the three stallions that all thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to, who was also known as the Godolphin Arabian.
Anyway... Several years ago, my brother gave me a copy of a bestseller about one of the great racehorses. The big problem was that the book was completely focused on the people around the horse -- the horse was more like a vague far-in-the-background plot device -- so I found it painfully boring.
So chances are that I won't bother with this movie... Sounds like it's mostly about the people here, too. Meh.
That said, what you described is how virtually all horse stories work -- they're supposed to tell of how the horse went from being a nobody to something great. Somebody (often a kid or cynical adult) gets a horse that's supposedly unsuitable for whatever it was bred for, stick with the long days of training through various small crises or setbacks, and emerge victorious.
That that narrative is precisely why Secretariat, Man O'War, and other top racehorses were so beloved back in their day. While you sneered at it for not focusing on current events, the reality is that Americans saw the horses as symbols of their own ability to potentially succeed, and focused on racing to escape the events around them.
The reality is also that for many people, the turmoil of that time basically didn't reach them. My parents were hippies, and from the many stories they've told, their siblings, parents, and grandparents *were* isolated by their upper-middle-class communities. It was the equivalent to what the Haiti disaster is for most of us.
I'm definitely curious whether the movie mangled the facts about Secretariat or his handlers. I'll have to look into that... For what it's worth, I'd say that for a female protagonist, an industry that refuses to accept women *is* a significant obstacle -- it's unclear whether you dismiss that issue, or if the movie did a poor job of depicting it.
Slate's Dana Stevens agreed with him, but added more interesting information with Bio-pics of Lennon & Secretariat an oddly fitting pairing . I figured I'd toss in my ten cents there as well:
Actually, I like your review a lot better than the one at Salon that you referenced... Among other things, he didn't mention what the woman's obstacle was regarding the farm, just that there was a tax problem, which is different from losing her father's farm. I get the feeling that before commenting on specific things, you'd look up a little about it first. (Like "Sham": anyone that read Margurite Henry's books as a horse-crazy kid can explain that "Sham" was one of the 3 stallions that all thoroughbreds are descended from.)Here's where things swung towards weirdness straight into really funny. Evidently the cluster of readers at Salon & I that disagreed with O'Hehir's weird review weren't quite alone, because Roger Ebert felt the need to post a grand, extremely funny smackdown, called Secretariat Was Not A Christian. (Muahahahaha!) My two favorite quotes:
It sounds like "Secretariat" is designed the way virtually all horse movies are -- the problem is in the current tendency to market them as being for general adult audiences, when horse movies are almost always basically for horse-crazy types, especially kids. That's why the genre focuses on the bond between the horse and a human or two: that's why we watch. Or put another way, when I watched "The Black Stallion", I wanted to be reminded of how amazing animal-human bonds can be; with "Phar Lap", I was curious about the life of a famous race horse in historical Australia and his bond with his caretakers.
Back in the mid-20th century, Americans adored racehorses because the horses were both a symbol of the ability to become one of the greats through talent & effort, and of their own ability to use knowledge & dedication to succeed. In other words, their obsession was a way of escaping the reality of their lives; they didn't want a reminder when watching related movies. Also, according to my SF Bay Area former-hippy parents, an affluent mother back then would hear about some of the events through gossip or the news, but it was like far away problems we're not directly affected by today.
I question if a single American, right-thinking or left-thinking, thought even once of Secretariat as a Nietzschean Überhorse. Nor did many consider the Triple Crown victories as a demonstration of white superiority, because race horses (which seem to enjoy winning for reasons of their own) are happily unaware of race. Does a horse think of a human as belonging to another race? I speculate that a horse considers a human as a differently-abled horse. A cat, now, may belong to another race. ...
I am so totally not kidding if I ask, must a man who does indeed look like Pancho Martin therefore be "villainous, swarthy and vaguely terrorist-flavored?" And as for the hapless Sham, the horse with the evil name, for Christ's sake, O'Hehir, that was the horse's damn name.