The legendary racehorse Secretariat (who in 1973 became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in twenty-five years, setting new race records that still stand today) gets the inevitable big-screen treatment in this Hollywood period-drama biopic.

Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, a strong-willed and fiercely independent mother of four who takes over her parent’s stables and horse breeding business after her mother passes away, and her ailing father (Scott Glen) is unable to cope. Initially Penny fears that she may have taken on more than she can handle with balancing both the demands of family life with the struggles and resistance she faces in the (then) predominantly male world of horse racing.

A carefully planned purchase of a racehorse she names Secretariat begins to turn her fortunes around when the steed proves to be a thoroughbred winner, bolstered by the help of flamboyant French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). As Secretariat begins to bring fame and prestige to Chenery and Co., can she continue to keep juggling her responsibilities in the home with that of the racetrack?

The film’s director Randall Wallace is known for playing fast and loose with historical events in the past (he wrote Pearl Harbour, Braveheart and We Were Soldiers) and there’s that same sense of Hollywood putting a happy spin on proceedings here. We get that familiar rose-tinted nostalgic view of 60’s culture and lifestyles, where everything looks so warm and inviting (Lane’s eldest daughter plays the kind of gentle, clean-living hippy which you only see in this type of film).

Such well-worn themes of triumphing in the face of adversity and never giving up on your ambitions are also present and correct, and the film is peppered with the kinds of inspiration speeches and corny nuggets of self-motivation wisdom that would make Rocky wince.

Despite all of this, the action on the racing field and the drama in Chenery’s life is nicely underplayed and the races themselves are well-executed and thrilling as Wallace (shooting on digital) is able to get up close and personal with Secretariat as he thunders through one winning race to the next. Lane is also well cast here and brings a dignity and a sense of resilience to the character she plays (although her Dr. Doolittle-like psychic connection to the horse she appears to hold, did raise a couple of unintentional chuckles between myself and the audience I was sitting with). Even co-star Malkovich is more restrained than usual, even if he runs the risk at times of being outshone (literally) by his gaudy-looking wardrobe.

As with any real-life event, the film occasionally suffers from the makers’ insistence of trying to inject drama into situations where it’s obvious that was very little in the first place. Secretariat doesn’t have much in the way of real competition from his fellow competitors and the introduction of a boo-hiss villain in the form of rival owner and trainer feels very (horse)shoe-horned in and artificial.

For the most part though, this is 90-plus minutes of relatively entertaining and undemanding mainstream Hollywood fodder, which only falls at the hurdle when it attempts to strive for Oscar-baiting displays of grandiosity.