Financial Lessons from the Movies – Secretariat

Through the ages, a lot of wisdom has been passed down generation to generation by story telling. Humans have gone from sitting around the campfire listening to the tribal elder relay fables to watching movies. We learn lessons every day from watching movies.

horseraceThe movie Secretariat by Disney came out in 2010. I enjoy the movie, not only because it provides lessons of inspiration and hope, but also because I like to see narrations of women conquering obstacles. It doesn’t hurt that I am also partial to horses.

In the movie, Penny Chenery, daughter of a Virginia horse breeder and racer, takes over management of her father’s farm as his health declines. She wins a coin toss with another breeder that results in her getting a colt – the son of Bold Ruler (stallion) and Something Royal (mare). The mare was owned by her father, the stallion by the other breeder. When the two men agreed to breed that mare to that stallion, they agreed that a coin toss would determine who got to pick the offspring.

The colt Penny received eventually went on to win the Triple Crown of horse racing – winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. Along the way to raising her horse to do that, Penny – in the movie – teaches us some financial lessons.

In real life, Penny Chenery Tweedy is alive and well and probably a multi-millionaire.

What are the financial lessons we can learn from Secretariat?

Do your homework and then be decisive.

In the movie, when she first started managing her father’s horses, she learned that the farm’s trainer had let her father (who had dementia) sell three mares at half their worth. She researched their worth, researched the trainer and found that he had interests in the buyer of the horses.

She fired him when he refused to explain his actions.

Lesson: Do your research prior to making a financial decision. Learn what your credit cards terms are, find the best mortgage rate for the house you are considering buying, review the basics of that stock you want to purchase. Then DO something with your research. Use what you learned to further your financial goals.

Put your estate plans in place now.
In the movie, her mother died, leaving her father (who had dementia) to run the horse breeding farm. The farm was thousands of acres, horses, barns and a house – and some breeding debts. When the father died, there was no cash to use to pay the estate taxes. The heirs squabbled about how to raise the money and took some pretty big risks in order to do so. The father hadn’t done tax planning, but at least he had written up a document saying that – on his death – Penny had control of the horses and Holis (her brother) had control of the farm.

Lesson: Know what assets and liabilities you have. Work with your accountant to do tax reduction planning. Work with your lawyer to prepare your will, trust, powers of attorney and etc. Make your wishes known to your heirs – don’t let it be a surprise to them.

Be involved in your financial interests – don’t leave them up to others.
In the movie, after Secretariat lost his first race, he told her that this was none of her business. She went on in the conversation to figure out the issues (they need a certain new jockey). Then she sternly told him “You know a lot more about horse racing than I do, but don’t you ever say this is none of my business. Every bit of this is my business.” She wouldn’t relinquish power over the situation to her ‘experts’.

Lesson: Don’t hand your financial future over to anyone, not even a family member, without keeping an eye on it, understanding what is being done and providing direction. Remember Bernie Madoff?

Don’t let the expectations and attitudes of others rule your actions.
In the movie, Penny’s spouse whined about all of the trips she was making back and forth between Colorado (where they lived) and Virginia (where the farm was). In the 1970’s the woman was still generally expected to stay home and mind the store. Penny reminded him that she gave up her college dreams to have their family. She reasserted her right to act on her dreams now that the colt was part of their family.

In a later spot in the movie, after her father had died and her brother and husband wanted her to sell Secretariat to pay the estate taxes on the farm, she successfully sold breeding rights for more than enough money to pay them. She took a large risk. She had to guarantee that the horse would win the Triple Crown and that hadn’t been done for years. Her husband called to let her know that she could risk her money all she wanted, but not his. She replied that she didn’t know how to earn a reward without taking a risk. She didn’t cave and give the money back to the shareholders because her spouse disapproved of her action.

I especially liked the press conference prior to Kentucky derby in May 1973. In response to the main contender’s owner saying that horse racing is unforgiving to trainers, horses….and housewives”. She answered the question “How much pressure are you under from investors” with “It’s like any other all or nothing, multi-million dollar deal we housewives make every day”.

She also demonstrated perseverance in the face of her own emotions towards her kids (crying when she couldn’t be at her oldest daughters long awaited performance) and in the face of intimidation from the press and horse racing industry who all thought Secretariat would not be able to race long distances.

Lesson: Take charge of your own financial destiny. Don’t let society steer you away from your goal because ‘women don’t do that’ or ‘that’s not a man’s job’. Overcome your own conditioning, if you can, to move towards your financial goals. Perhaps you need to let your spouse stay home with the baby instead of you doing that – so that you can pursue your rewarding career.

Have you seen Disney’s Secretariat? What other lessons did you see in the movie?

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