For all the hype and aggressive marketing, Disney’s “Secretariat” underperformed its opening weekend, taking in a mere $12.6 million and finishing third behind the Facebook movie “The Social Network” ($15.5 million) and the romantic comedy-tragedy “Life As We Know It” ($14.6 million).
Do you fault Disney’s marketing plan, focusing on faith-based groups and Middle America? Disney marketing president MT Carney recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “We always knew it was going to play better in the center of the country than elsewhere. We did hugely well in the smaller towns and didn't do so well in New York and L.A. But we knew that would be the case.”
Really? Because there are no horse-racing fans or tracks in the major coastal cities—a natural audience for a film rooted in the sport’s history? Besides, aren’t those socially-conservative small-town folks the ones who usually look down their noses at horse-racing and its environs as of interest only to a bunch of degenerate gamblers and low-life characters?
Or is the film itself flawed by its very story-telling and packaging as an “inspirational drama” lacking any real conflict or depth? As one “Middle America” (St. Louis Suburban Journals) critic noted, its “trials and tribulations are strained through the always-sunny Disney prism, leaving us with a movie content with simply skimming the surface and piling on lots of feel-good moments.”
Whatever its issues—and the movie may very well gather steam and yet make back its $35 million cost (and then some)—how about we admit, as fans of the sport, that if a movie about the great Secretariat—one of the most iconic names in modern sport—can’t capture the public’s interest, there’s no hope for horse racing to grow without a radically new campaign and aggressive reforms by those who run it?
I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but we need to reshape how racing meets are conducted (“less is more” should be the mantra), with careful planning in terms of when the highest-caliber stakes races are run (appropriately spaced in date and so post times don’t overlap), and with less restricted, more open company races. And how about more access to information for fans and handicappers? The list is long—probably too long, to be honest.
Its days like this that give me pause as to why I’m so emotionally invested in the sport, an anachronism in a world that has forever forgotten its agrarian roots and seemingly moved on without me and my fellow horse racing enthusiasts. And if the story of Big Red can't inspire passion for the sport, all is lost, my friends.