One of my all-time favorite racing movies was on TV last week, and it got me thinking about some of the great flicks about The Sport of Kings, and some of the big disappointments. Racing movies actually are making a comeback after being so popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, and even into the ‘50s. In a relatively short period of time, we’ve had major motion pictures about Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and Ruffian, an old-fashioned type of movie such as Dreamer, and documentaries on John Henry and the epic “First Saturday in May.” Expected over the next couple of years are movies about Mine That Bird and Canonero II. We even had a horse racing episode of “The Sopranos.”
So, with that in mind, for your holiday enjoyment here are my Top 10 favorite horse racing movies.
1—PHAR LAP – If there is anything remotely close to a flawless horse racing movie, this is it. Wonderful storytelling, historically accurate, beautifully filmed, excellent acting, and they even got a horse that looks just like Phar Lap. The relationship between Tommy Woodcock and Phar Lap is told with great passion. This is just a wonderful film about one of the great heroes in Australia, who eventually came to the United States and raced in Tijuana, turning in one of the most impressive races ever witnessed. The film portrays his then mysterious death – poisoned by the bookies? Accidentally poisoned by pesticides sprayed from an airplane while he was out grazing? Experts have since confirmed that it was a massive ingestion of arsenic that caused his death.
2—CHAMPIONS – If you can handle the overdone and painful hospital scenes and Champion’s recovery from cancer, you will absolutely love this film, which stars the real Aldaniti, winner of the Grand National with Champion in the saddle. The race was magnificently filmed, with more drama and spectacle than you’ll find in most movies. It hits hard on an emotional level and will leave you either in tears or at the least with heavy duty goose bumps.
3—LET IT RIDE – If you have ever spent a day at the track betting and hoping this will be the day you can do nothing wrong, you will be able to relate to this racetrack fantasy, complete with an excellent cast of characters headed by Richard Dreyfuss. This is every horse bettor’s dream. There are so many memorable scenes there isn’t enough space to name them. People seem to either love or hate this movie. But if you look at it as a fantasy, you will understand the film’s intention. Just have fun with it. Great shots of Hialeah.
4—KENTUCKY – Made in 1938, this is the granddaddy of all racing films, the formula that most have followed since. The story of Penny Tweedy and Secretariat and Meadow Stable is basically life imitating art. This was the blueprint for that story. Who can forget the classic scene with Walter Brennan and the groom dancing down the shedrow together to “Postman worked in fohty eight, goin’ to da races, goin’ to da races.” The movie actually starts during the Civil War with a scene so emotionally gut wrenching it’s difficult to watch. But that is followed by amazing color film footage of Man ‘o War, Gallant Fox, and other greats at stud, which makes you feel as if they are alive today, the color and quality is so vibrant. The plot is Hollywood, but good Hollywood, and Brennan actually won an Academy Award. It is hard to believe the crotchety old Brennan was 34 when he made this film. And on top of all that, you get to see clips of Eddie Arcaro winning his first Kentucky Derby aboard Lawrin for Ben Jones.
5—CASEY’S SHADOW – Other than the stereotypical Hollywood “bad guy,” who winds up doing something really nasty in the film, this is an immensely enjoyable movie, with a sensational performance by Walter Matthau. His sons in the film are based on the Romero (Randy and Gerald) brothers back in their youthful Quarter Horse days. This movie is made so meticulously and with such great care, you feel as if you’re there in that world. The filming of Casey’s Shadow’s growth from foal to 2-year-old in a matter of seconds is brilliant and a tremendous piece of movie making.
6—BOOTS MALONE (1952) – This is about as realistic a look at racetrack life as you’ll ever see, and William Holden is superb as a down and out jockey’s agent whose star jockey is killed in an accident. Unable to find another rider to allow him his grandiose lifestyle, he falls on hard times, living in a tack room in a stable. The racing footage is very well filmed and the plot and sharp dialogue move the film along to its satisfying conclusion.
7—IT AIN’T HAY (1943) – As a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, I absolutely loved this movie that is based on a Damon Runyon story and is loaded with classic Abbott and Costello routines, including the hysterical “They’re off, the race is over, you lose!” race call at a bookie parlor, and other great bits (His mudda was a mudder). If you want to get a brief glimpse of old Saratoga, there is footage taken in front of the sprawling Grand Union Hotel. Oh, and the central equine figure in the movie is named Teabiscuit. This movie is not all crazy antics, which come later in the film. It has tragic scene, a classic scene in an automat, Damon Runyon characters, an even Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman. Great fun from start to finish.
8—THE KILLING – Stanley Kubrick’s first film is as gritty as it gets, with its plot focusing on a racetrack heist and the murder of a racehorse during a race as a diversion. The simplicity of the racetrack set makes you feel as if you are watching it on stage. Made in black and white and for next to nothing, the narrative and time framing, jumping back and forth in time, was extremely bold movie making in those days, and still would be today. The final scene was so violent, it was cut dramatically when shown on television.
9—RIDING HIGH – I wish I could remember more about this film, which was a remake of “Broadway Bill,” and stars Bing Crosby in one of his great performances. There is music, well-written dialogue, and a final scene that will tear your heart out. I have to warn viewers to get the tissues ready for the climactic scene.
10--SEABISCUIT – Yes, it had its flaws, but considering how lame most racing movies are these days, this at least was extremely well made, with spectacular photography and excellent performances. Racing aficionados can pick apart a good deal of it, from the totally false presentations of War Admiral (18 hands? Seriously?) and his owner Sam Riddle to the racing inaccuracies and omissions. But it is still an enjoyable film, geared mainly to non-racing people. There was also "The Story of Seabiscuit," starring Shirley Temple that made absolutely no attempt at the truth. Entertaining but totally fictitious.
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS --
11—THE BLACK STALLION -- Spectacular photography, including great racing photography. And a terrific performance by Mickey Rooney
12—THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER – This British film about a young boy who can predict winners at the racetrack by driving himself into a frenzy riding his rocking horse is very well done and engrossing.
13—NATIONAL VELVET -- Highly entertaining, and a classic. This is the movie that made racing fans out of millions of little girls.
14--THE HOMESTRETCH – An enjoyable film starring Maureen O’Hara and Cornell Wilde with great shots of Ascot, Pakermo, and a number of tracks in the U.S.
15—(TIE) WALL OF NOISE – One of the best made-for-TV racing movies, with an excellent cast
15-- (TIE) GLORY – Good acting and dialogue, despite the incredibly lame plot. The real reason to see this film is the terrific footage of Swaps beating Nashua in the Kentucky Derby.
16—SECRETARIAT – Just in case anyone asks why Secretariat is not mentioned, I’m mentioning it.
** There certainly are other horse racing films of note, but these are all the ones that I’ve seen. And, yes, I did see Ruffian and Dreamer.
MOST LOOSELY BASED STORY IN RACING MOVIE HISTORY
PRIDE OF THE BLUEGRASS – OK, first off, there once was a horse named Elmer Gantry back in the ‘20s who went blind with cataracts and was taught to jump by a young girl who had been working as a wrangler and jockey at the fairs. She taught him based on a cadence technique, actually telling him when to jump and to know when he neared a jump. Heartwarming story, but here is what it evolved into when made into a movie.
Young man trains and rides Gantry the Great, and runs him in the Kentucky Derby and he goes off as the favorite. Gantry runs up the track and the stewards suspend the young man, his reputation now ruined. But it soon is discovered by a veterinarian why Gantry ran so poorly. During the Derby he had gone blind. The young man is ordered by the owner to shoot the horse. But, seeking redemption, the young man fakes shooting him and instead teaches him to be a jumper. Now, what do you do with a blind jumper? Simple, you take him to England and run him in the Grand National. Gantry, who actually plays himself, falls at one of the jumps, but gets back up and wins the Grand National, as the previous owner listens to the race from Kentucky on radio. Hey, if you’re going to alter history you might as well go all the way.
As wild as the plot is, you’ll get a kick out of it, even if you want to make fun of it.