There is no harsher critic of racing films than yours truly, and I sadly have had to carve apart recent flicks with the dexterity of a surgeon with a scalpel. I can’t stand revisionist history for the sake of making it “Hollywood” and can’t stand a movie turning racing into a farce, as “Secretariat” did, insulting one’s intelligence on so many fronts. And I can’t stand when racing scenes are recreated in an amateurish manner. Yes I am critical, but in a protective way. I want movies to capture the essence of racing and the main characters and provide at least an overall sense of realism.
First off, let me say that 50-1 was not without its revisionist history, character flaws, and a couple of feeble attempts at humor to emphasize its mock the bumbling cowboys premise.
The most noteworthy piece of revisionist history was having an attractive female exercise rider named Alex accompany Chip Woolley on his and Mine That Bird’s Steinbeck-like travels instead of Charlie Figueroa, whose character was reduced to a minor role seen briefly. But you know what? For reasons which I can understand, it worked, and made the journey more interesting, watching this relationship, which started off shaky at best, develop, but not in a romantic way, which would have gone way too far. And the big switch didn’t alter the plot or spirit of this remarkable trip from New Mexico to Louisville.
As for the character flaws, for some reason there always has to be a villain (remember poor Pancho Martin in Secretariat?), and the character of Bob Baffert came across as the instrument of mockery that the producer and director felt was needed to put down the cowboys. Bruce Wayne Eckelman actually played the part very well, capturing Baffert in many ways. But the bottom line is Baffert came across as totally obnoxious to the point where no one in their right mind would ever root for him. In reality, that was as far from the truth as can be, as Baffert has always been supportive of new unknown faces in the Derby and was a cowboy himself, growing up on a ranch in Nogales, Arizona. In his younger days, cowboy hats and jeans were his main apparel. The truth is, no one really paid much attention to the cowboys or their horse.
The casting of co-owner Mark Allen was off, no fault of Christian Kane, who was quite good and whose only fault was being too good looking for the role. But, again, understandable. Kane had tons of personality and charm, while Allen was pretty aloof and never had much to say. William Devane, however, excellently portrayed co-owner Dr. Leonard Blach. Both these real-life characters have been surrounded by controversial events, Allen before the Derby and Blach after the Derby. No use getting into them here. Skeets Ulrich was excellent as Chip Woolley and played the crutches to perfection. Even though Alex (Madelyn Deutch) played no role in the real-life story and the journey to Kentucky, she did enhance the movie without being intrusive to it, which most fictionalized characters are. I don’t know if there was a girl named Alex or a female exercise rider somewhere behind the scenes, but I think it’s safe to call her fictionalized.
The real Woolley, pardon the pun, had a chip on his shoulder at Churchill Downs and did not embrace the media and partook in an unfortunate interview with NBC following the race, in which he did not come across as very amicable, going against the traditional post-Derby interview. However, he and the media were on much better terms at the Preakness and Belmont, as Woolley finally accepted his role and eventually became a terrific interview with great insight.
Despite the minor issues I did have, the vast majority of the movie was very well done in that it was well written, well produced and directed, historically accurate for the most part, and the use of Calvin Borel was inspired. But most of all, the interweaving of actual footage from the Derby with scenes shot on location at Churchill Downs was nothing short of brilliant, making for as effective and emotional a final race scene as any racing movie I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of the British-made “Champions.”
For that, writer-director Jim Wilson should be commended. He and Faith Conroy wrote an entertaining and intelligent script that captured the story well and racing in general without dumbing it down, as so many films have done.
There were two scenes the movie could have done without. I kind of liked the slapstick approach whenever Calvin Borel lost a Derby mount. It was humorous and well played by Borel, who was excellent throughout. But the scene of Allen and Blach trying to climb into a second story window of the racing office in order to get their owners’ license in time was forced and a bit silly. And it was a bad idea to have some moron banging on the glass window of race caller Tom Durkin’s office during the running of the Derby screaming to him, “Mine That Bird! Mine That Bird is closing along the rail,” to emphasize the fact that Durkin in reality missed the horse’s move. It was minor, but just came across as stupid.
Other parts that enhanced the movie included the actual footage of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the call from Churchill’s Ben Huffman informing Allen that Mine That Bird had enough points to qualify for the Derby and Blach’s realistic reaction – “We don’t belong there. We couldn’t even win in New Mexico.” Speaking of New Mexico, both the Borderland Derby and Sunland Derby were well staged, showing just how he ran and where he finished.
And finally, kudos to the casting of Mine That Bird, who looked very much like the original and had a playful and mischievous side to him. If anyone thought some of the scenes depicting the horse’s personality were stretching the truth, I have included a photo (see below) I took of Mine That Bird at Saratoga snatching a carrot out of the back pocket of his groom.
Even minor details enhanced the realism of the movie, such as the weary travelers finally arriving at Churchill Downs, entering through the Longfield Avenue gate and the backstretch scenes filmed at the two main Derby barns. I particularly like the added touch of Mark Allen just before post time, saying, “Please God, don’t let him be last,” acknowledging the fact that they weren’t going into the race wearing rose-colored glasses convinced they were going to win, and were there to enjoy the experience and have fun, while hoping the horse would run better than his 50-1 odds.
One of my favorite lines was at the “Derby ball,” when the emcee said, “Tomorrow a new stallion will be stamped King of Kentucky.” Well, that was correct, as Baffert’s runner-up Pioneerof the Nile would go on to sire American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, skyrocketing his stud fee from $20,000 in 2013 to $60,000 in 2014 to $125,000 in 2015.
So, all in all, this was a fun, entertaining movie that was written by people who know racing and the story and did not insult the viewer’s intelligence. And as mentioned before, the actual running of the Derby was a masterful piece of film editing. Adding footage of the real-life characters after the race enhanced the ending even further.
Sony is distributing the movie worldwide and it is available on Redbox, Netflix, and i-Tunes. It can also be purchased at Amazon, Target, and Barnes & Noble, and it will have a much larger presence on TV in the coming months. Watch for the listings on Starz. For more information check out their pages on Twitter and Facebook and their website www.50to1themovie.com/. If you’re a racing fan, try to find this movie. You’ll have a ball.
For the real behind the scenes story of Mine That Bird and the 2009 Triple Crown, see my column.
Haskin: The Real Story Behind the '50-1' Shot
Mine That Bird snatching a carrot out of the back pocket of his groom
Photo by Steve Haskin