Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to slaughter a legacy

So you think you can make a crap movie about the greatest race horse of all-time and get away with it? I don't think so.

Originally posted on smilepolitely.com. Posted in ARTS to Film by Jamie Newell on Friday, October 8, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I've been holding a grudge against Seabiscuit for several years. After all, he got a movie deal before the great Secretariat, and if any race horse deserved a movie made about him, it's Secretariat. "Big Red" was the greatest race horse of all time; surely anybody with half a brain could see the potential in a great biopic, right? I should've been careful what I wished for. Now I'm holding a grudge against Seabiscuit because he got the better film treatment.

Being a person who lives and breathes both horse racing and movies, I went into this film with a unique perspective. Fully aware that Hollywood usually screws up a perfectly good story, I was willing to forgive a reasonable amount of factual errors or glossing-over of facts so long as they captured the magic of the true story. With Secretariat being my favorite race horse of all-time (and widely worshipped as a god by the general populous in the sport), I knew I would have to go into the film particularly restrained if I was going to hope to enjoy it.

The big red horse that captivated a nation.
 If you are unfamiliar with Secretariat, he was the big red race horse wearing white and blue silks that came onto the scene when America was broken from the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal; it was this miracle horse, who became the first horse to win the Triple Crown after a 25-year drought, that brought the public together. The year was 1973 when Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and his mark has been felt each time those races have been run since—no horse has surpassed his track record times in those three races, and no horse has ever displayed the versatility and sheer dominance of him in the history of the sport of kings.

Directed by Randall Wallace, Disney's Secretariat follows the story of his owner, Penny Tweedy, who broke the walls down in a man's world and ended up saving the farm thanks to her steadfast belief in the superhorse. Diane Lane stars as Ms. Tweedy, and is only mildly convincing in this role as the strong woman who carried the burdens of her parents' failing breeding farm. Lane plays the role with a breeziness, despite Tweedy's hardships, but her strength is too Disney-fied to feel like this woman could put men in their places, as the real Penny did. Disney's Secretariat feels more like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie than a feature film. Even the mighty John Malkovich, who portrays a flamboyant version of Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin, can't mix things up enough for it to feel very exciting, and that's saying a lot, given both the material they had to work with and the always-entertaining Malkovich. Otto Thorwarth plays Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey, but he doesn't have enough lines or screen time for the audience to really get much out of his character, which is just as well, because the lines that come out of Diane Lane tend to border on plain cheesy. The best performance is delivered by Nelsan Ellis, who pulls off a quietly engaging performance as Red's groom, Eddie Sweat, and actually has some chemistry with the horse actors.

The film is worth watching if you want an introduction to the sport of horse racing and the legendary Secretariat, but for those industry insiders and fans of Big Red, the movie fails miserably as a tribute to our greatest king. If you fall within the first bracket, and are curious about the real Secretariat after watching the movie, pick up Bill Nack's book: Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. It's telling that the film was supposed to be based on Nack's book, but this acknowledgment was downgraded in the credits as merely "suggested by the story by Bill Nack;" the movie certainly feels like a major downgrade from the real thing. If you're a fan of horse racing, watching Disney's Secretariat is like hearing your favorite song through a monotone speaker; it sounds familiar, but all of the song's power and punch have been reduced to a distant echo.

Diane Lane and John Malkovich in Disney's Secretariat
There are moments that are just plain ridiculous. I tried very, very had to overlook some of the blatant atrocities, like filming the Belmont at quaint Keeneland Racecourse, a beautiful boutique racetrack that could fit inside the real Belmont's massive infield. But I cannot forgive the laughable scene of Sweat, Tweedy, and friends dancing around Secretariat as they wash him at the farm to some gospel song on the radio while no one holds on to the horse's lead shank. If you just syndicated a Thoroughbred race horse to stud for $6.08 million dollars, you would want to hold on to that horse with an iron grip. The film doesn't even try to understand the racing industry or what it means for a 2-year-old to win Horse of the Year, or even accurately depict the aura surrounding the Kentucky Derby. You can't tell me that they couldn't have dubbed in three more layers of cheering fans to simulate the raucous, drunken festival that is the first Saturday in May? Clearly, the moviemakers must've scouted the tracks when there were about 5,000 people present, and not on a full-blown gambling-happy, drunken adrenaline rush that is the spirit of the most prestigious race in America. In comparison, the Kentucky Derby as depicted by Disney is a stroll along the promenade, full of appreciative fans golf-clapping the favorite in the post parade. And all of this came before I was truly disappointed in the film.
Secretariat's world record-breaking victory in the Belmont.
The one part of the movie I knew I could not forgive was if the filmmakers screwed up Secretariat's Belmont Stakes victory, which is widely considered one of the all-time greatest performances in all of sports. Not just in horse racing. In all of sports. How is it possible to screw up one of the most impressive, exciting, and emotional events of all-time? Disney must teach a class on it, because they bombed this moment spectacularly. Not only do they butcher Chic Anderson's famous race call, which, for some reason, remained in-tact for the less-memorable Derby and Preakness calls, they made the Belmont Stakes, the climax of the film, a cinematic train wreck. With choppy editing, shaky close-up camera shots, and a fake, un-inspired race call, Disney's version of the Belmont is just another horse race at the movies. There is no emotion. There is no breath-taking scope. There is no drama. It all comes off false, and then the corny evangelical music comes in, and then the filmmakers succeed in making your jaw drop, because you can't believe they just topped their own atrocity. It's like if someone took the Mona Lisa and cut it to pieces and slapped it on the side of a bus so it would be easily accessible to everyone. They took something perfect, beautiful, and legendary, and not only ruined it, but defaced it.

The best portrayal of the three big races in Disney's Secretariat is the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. This is because they let you watch the actual, real-life 1973 Preakness footage originally broadcast on CBS without any horrible interjections. We are treated with seeing the real Big Red on the silver screen, and nothing is more precious than that. For anyone who knows horses, it also becomes quite clear that all the other horse actors they previously used to depict Secretariat in the film would've been Big Red's waterboys in real life. You just can't duplicate perfection, not even in the movies. He was that big, and that beautiful—something no Hollywood movie could ever replicate. I only wish it had been the Belmont footage, and not the Preakness, that had been used in the film, because then I may have walked away with some shred of joy after watching Disney's adaptation of the "impossible true story." Instead, I rushed home and pulled up the historic races on YouTube to exorcise the past two hours from my memory.

In other words, I'm ready for the remake.

For the love of God, click here to watch all of Secretariat's actual races

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A farewell to Rachel Alexandra the Great

The following was the hardest racing-related article I've ever had to write. Thank you, Rachel, for the ride of a lifetime...

The first time I ever saw Rachel Alexandra was on April 30, 2009 at Churchill Downs. It was Thursday morning, the day before the Kentucky Oaks. It took less than 30 seconds for her to convince me I was looking at a creature unlike anything I'd ever seen with my own two eyes.

I'd been waiting with my husband and Steve, a new friend we met at the morning works, on the landing at the winner's circle. I was giddy with anticipation in the hopes of getting my first glimpse of Zenyatta, and Steve, a Churchill regular and great racing fan, kept telling us, "I can't wait until you see Rachel." And that morning, the big track screen in the infield announced her arrival for one last jog before the Oaks, and we drew in our breath as she came circling around that hallowed bend toward us. Words fail me when I try to accurately describe that moment, so I can only throw out similes and metaphors in the hopes of relating what it was really like to be there on that morning and see her.

Please click here to read the rest of my article.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Three derbies. Two weeks. Part II: Maiden home state derby

Though I’m an Illinois-bred and raised, I had never been to the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Racecourse until this year. Truth be told, I had visited Illinois’s Thoroughbred tracks only a handful of times, as major stakes races just don’t come too often to my home state. The closest track from where I live is also a 5-hour roundtrip drive, so when I go, it has to be a worthwhile day. As my job as a wedding photographer usually falls on weekends, I also get some major stakes days cut from my calendar pretty easily. But this year, the date of April 3rd was open, and gave me the opportunity to have my first Illinois Derby experience.

Having a little less than a week to settle back at home from our trip in New Orleans, my husband decided he didn’t want to participate in my derby marathon and sat out the trip to Hawthorne. Never turning down the chance to see major stakes action when I can help it, I tossed my step ladder and camera equipment into the trunk of Perri, my Toyota Solara, and made the 2 ½-hour trek up to Hawthorne. This also marked my first solo trip to a race track.

And so, with the aftertaste of spicy gumbo still in my throat, I bundled up for a windy day at the Chicago track and made it sometime in the middle of the card without getting lost. Yes, I count it a small victory every time I can navigate my way to Chicago without getting lost, even though I lived there for two years.

It was quickly brought to my attention that I was going to be assigned the inside spot for the derby, much to my glee. That time of day, the light on the outside is downright atrocious due to backlighting, so I lucked out. I set up my step ladder behind the finish line and adjusted it a couple races prior to the big one so that I could test the best shooting position.

I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than what I had in the Illinois Derby. There couldn’t have been a more beautiful horse with a better running style for this race, truly. It was as if American Lion was showboating for me.

The track photographer and I were the only people shooting from behind the rail on the turf course, and I was the only one boosted with a ladder. When the horses broke for the derby, American Lion shot straight to the lead and didn’t let go. He was perfect for us photographers because if for some reason we messed up the finish, we had the opportunity to get the photo of him in front and crossing the finish line from the start of the race. But I didn’t mess up the finish, and the picture ended up being one of my favorites of the year. The lighting was phenomenal, with just enough hitting the eye that you can see a warm, round iris looking home; the framing was just perfect, as well, and I was close enough I didn’t have to crop it at all. A dream run for American Lion and me.

After the race, I hung outside the winner’s circle to photograph the horses coming back to be unsaddled. Trainer Eoin Harty was pretty excited about the win, as was jockey David Flores. The jockey practically jumped on Harty after the pictures and embraced him. American Lion certainly looked like the real deal, with a convincing win on the dirt after an all-synthetics campaign prior to that; he was now elevated in my Kentucky Derby standings. I gave Harty a thumbs-up after the winner’s circle pictures were taken (complete with Flores mugging with the garland of flowers and trophy), and he smiled at me. That was the split-second before Backtalk nearly ran me over. Stupid photographer, not watching where she was going!

Overall, a short, but memorable Illinois Derby. Finally, I felt like a real Illinois railbird. All I had to do was check the Arlington Million off my list, and I would be certified. But first, onward to the weekend I was looking forward to more than the Kentucky Derby itself: Arkansas Derby weekend. For the first time, I would witness the living legend run past me and feel the knot-in-the-throat exhilaration of her presence on a race day. Finally, after all this time, I was to witness the spectacle of Zenyatta.

Monday, October 4, 2010

In summation...

Note from Jamie:

I've neglected this blog something awful this year, which is a shame, because so many good things have happened, and I've witnessed so many amazing races. I apologize for being away for so long and want to thank my readers (if, indeed you're still there) for checking back on me. I will try to fill in some blanks and keep a more current blog running, even if that means cutting back on how much I write. While I embark on this process to update what needs to be filled in, here is an overview of my favorite moments from my year so far...

Portraits of a year

Originally posted in SPORTS to The Call To The Post by Jamie Newell on Friday, September 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm

With the racing year winding down as we near Breeders' Cup, there isn't a lot going on at the moment, and so I thought it would be a good time to take a little handicapping break. Instead of talking about the Woodbine Mile this Saturday (which you should watch), I wanted to bring my readers something unique—a reward, if you will—for hanging with me for the past two and a half years The Call to the Post has been running. I have been very fortunate to travel to eight different race tracks across America this year and be able to get up close and personal with the game's biggest superstars. From Santa Anita to Saratoga, Zenyatta to Rachel, my camera lens has been there to capture both some of the quietest moments and most thrilling at the track. A lot goes on at the races or on the backstretch that I am not able to mention in my regular articles, so I'm taking the opportunity now to share them with you, my faithful readers. Ordered from the beginning of the year to the present, here are my top ten favorites photographs from this year... so far.

1. Perfection

I know, technically, Zenyatta's retirement parade at Santa Anita took place in December, but it felt like a whole new year. Anyway, it marked my first time seeing Zenyatta in person since the 10 seconds she passed in front of me while jogging at Churchill Downs in 2009; I thought this would be the last time I ever got to see her on a race track. The fact she was promptly brought out of retirement and raced for another season proves to me that the racing gods do exist.

Please click here to read the rest of this article.