Filming took place on location in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, and around Lafayette, Louisiana and Carencro, Louisiana. The film was released on October 8, 2010. It has since received generally positive reviews.
Denver housewife and mother Penny Chenery (Lane) agrees to take over her ailing father’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse racing knowledge. With the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), Chenery manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and one of the greatest racehorses of all time.
The film begins with Penny learning of her mother's death and returning to her childhood home. She reunites with Mrs. Ham, her father's secretary, and comforts her confused and elderly father. At her mother's funeral, Penny meets Arthur "Bull" Hancock and his son, Seth Hancock, of Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. The Hancocks offer to Penny any help she may need during her efforts to bring Meadow Stables back to profitability. Penny's brother Hollis informs her of a bad and dishonest sale that was about to be made by the trainer until their mother stopped him. Penny fires the trainer and asks Bull Hancock to help her find a new trainer. He recommends Lucien Laurin, an aging French Canadian, who initially turns down Penny's offer.
Penny's father had made a deal with leading owner Ogden Phipps that if he would breed his best stallion (Bold Ruler) with Penny's two best mares (Somethingroyal and Hasty Matilda) that when the mares were close to term they would flip a coin to see who got which foal. Bold Ruler, the stallion was fast but couldn't last over distances. Hasty Matilda was the obvious choice due to her young age, but Somethingroyal's bloodline was made up of many horses with good stamina. Penny hopes to win and choose Somethingroyal's foal due to the interesting mix of speed and stamina. Phipps picks Hasty Matilda and Penny wins Somethingroyal's foal, Secretariat.
When Big Red (Secretariat's nickname) enters his first race at Aqueduct race track in Queens, New York, everyone has high expectations. The jockey, Paul, is very young with little experience which worries Penny but Lucien reassures her and says they will do fine. During the race, Red repeatedly is hit. First when he comes out of the gate, and repeatedly in the pack and on the rail. Red comes in 4th due to running like he was afraid of the other horses due to their hitting. Penny and Lucien fight and Lucien blames Paul for the loss. Penny realizes the only way Red could ever win is if he had an experienced jockey. Penny's flight back home is canceled on the day of the race and she misses her daughter Kate's solo in the play. Her son holds up the pay phone so Penny can hear her sing. The scene closes with Penny covering part of the phone and crying over missing important parts of her children's lives.
Penny gets experienced jockey Ron Turcotte to ride Red who leads him to many victories. Secretariat is named horse of the year after a successful two-year-old year, but all the colts of Bold Ruler can't handle the distances that three-year-olds run. Penny's father suffers a stroke and dies, leaving Penny and her brother Hollis to inherit the estate. Penny needs six million dollars to pay estate taxes, but refuses to sell Secretariat.
Instead she syndicates Red, selling 32 shares worth more than six million dollars, as long as he can win a three year old distance race. She tries to sell a share to Ogden Phipps, who instead offers to buy Red for eight million dollars. Penny refuses to sell him. When Phipps demands to know why, she tells him Red's value will triple when he wins the Triple Crown – a feat no horse has accomplished in twenty-five years. During this time Frank "Pancho" Martin, trainer of rival horse Sham, provokes a match race with Red.
Red is taken to the Wood Memorial three weeks before the first of the Triple Crown races to take on Sham and attempt to earn Penny her syndication money. Ronnie notices that Red's breathing is heavy and he refuses to eat, and is reluctant to allow the bit into his mouth. Red loses the race, after which it's discovered he has an abscess which may have caused the loss.
Red recovers and wins the Derby and Preakness in record time, then wins the Belmont by 31 lengths (over 82 yards (75 m)) to secure the Triple Crown.
Diane Lane as Penny Chenery
John Malkovich as Lucien Laurin
Margo Martindale as Elizabeth Hamm
Amanda Michalka as Kate Tweedy
Graham McTavish as Charles Hatton
Kevin Connolly as Bill Nack
Carissa Capobianco as Sarah Tweedy
Drew Roy as Seth Hancock
Scott Glenn as Christopher Chenery
James Cromwell as Ogden Phipps
Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat
Dylan Walsh as John Tweedy
Fred Dalton Thompson as Bull Hancock
Eric Lange as Andy Beyer
Otto Thorwarth as Ron Turcotte
Dylan Baker as Hollis B. Chenery
Stephen Stanton as Chic Anderson (Triple Crown race announcer)
Nestor Serrano as Pancho Martin
The film is based largely on William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. He was also a consultant for the film. Part of the film was shot on location in both Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky for three weeks then moved to Louisiana to reproduce the Triple Crown infields at Evangeline Downs, located in Carencro, Louisiana.
Several horses were used to depict Secretariat in the film, chief among them Trolley's Boy, whose great-great-grandsire was the real-life Secretariat, and Longshot Max, whose bloodline includes Secretariat's sire, Bold Ruler, as well as his grandsire, Princequillo.